Fleeing the fussy details and restrictive tailoring of recent years, several designers this season are opting instead for a quieter, easier route and tending to their knitting.
The newest knitwear has shed its strictly casual home-spun exterior for a polished head-to-toe sophistication. Stitched up every which way, from crunchy cables to featherweight gauzes, the new breed of knits exemplifies ease, comfort and versatility to take you from casual to formal; work to play. Women with a penchant for no-nonsense stylish solutions, are reassessing daily dress routines to conform to their busy lifestyles. Knit dressing provides them the answer to getting dressed in minutes for a fast no-iron, throw-on chic.
The latest shapes are undeniably seductive, yet retain a sense of refinement that is purely modern. "Today's knitwear silhouettes are sleeker with more movement such as an A-line tunic sweater over fluid pants," says Heather Femia, regional fashion director for Nordstrom.
Ruth Shaw of her namesake specialty store, believes in the full-legged knit pant preferably pared down to a rib, as the most directional. "When balanced with an elongated tunic sweater or a small-shouldered top/cardigan combination, it gives a subtle definition to the body," she says.
The foundation piece for a woman getting dressed this fall will be a black turtleneck, says Ms. Femia. National consultant for Express stores, Veronique Vienne, author of the just-released book, "French Style, How To Think, Shop and Dress Like a French Woman," agrees, touting the significance of a black turtleneck as an integral part of a woman's wardrobe. "Look for a sleek style that fits close to the neck such as a ribbed silk knit. Once you've acquired a black one, pick up other rich colors like bordeaux or bottle green, to layer underneath a tweed jacket," says Nordstrom's Femia.
The modern cropped, or "shrunken sweater has also arrived with the new breed of shapes, and is at its youthful best when 'D balanced with an ankle-grazing dress or long white shirt. Sleeves are mainly fitted or flaring bell shapes, but the wrist is always a no-show.
In her book, Ms. Vienne applauds the once-daring Coco Chanel, for first designing day dresses out of tricot, the machine-knit so popular today thatwas originally used only in loungewear. "Wearing a knit dress in public back in 1914, was like going out in your underwear," says Ms. Vienne. When they finally did come out from behind closed doors, knits where reserved mainly for traveling or weekend leisure.
"No longer are knits considered just a bulky sweater to throw on over leggings -- now we are taking them more seriously and wearing them to the office as well," says Fran Hess, manager of The Store Ltd., which carries a vast selection of new knits.
Three-piece monochromatic knit dressing has become an appropriate suit option for most relaxed office environments, since the illusion of all one color, dresses up even the most casual knits. Your best bet is an elongated cardigan sweater, knit duster or vest, over a tunic and long slim knit skirt. "But beware of looking too sporty. Save the sweater legs and heavy boots for the weekend," advises Ms. Femia. "A tonal opaque leg and a sleek mid-heel platform pump is a more professional way to ground knitwear for the workplace," she says.
The sweater dress is another versatile alternative. The importance of the big sweater has stretched into a long, lean dress which acts as a fundamental layering tool," says Mary Louise Hawkins, fashion director of Cotton Inc., a New York-based, trend forecasting service. Build off a long, knit, open-neck dress and watch how the details expand your options: Wear it like a jumper for the office, layered over a tailored pinstripe blouse and a long duster or cardigan, and a ghillie shoe. Then move it into the weekend by layering a light-weight turtleneck underneath, throw on a cozy ruana, sweater tights and a sporty lug-soled boot.
On the sexy side of spare, for a little p.m. magic, wear that dress next to the skin with only a few strands of long beads and a strappy heel. Special evenings call for such no-frills glamour where the luxurious textures and rich colors of knits speak for themselves. Warning: if you don't have the physique to slip into it, watch for dangerous curves when shedding all layers from a slinky tube dress. A long, matching duster accompaniment makes for a more flattering silhouette.
Not since their heyday 20 years ago, has knitwear packed such a persuasive punch. "Back in the '70s, knits were much bulkier, now they've become lighter weight so that they layer as easy-to-wear separate pieces," says Ms Hawkins.
"Technology has induced bulk without weight," says Julia Arstrop, marketing director of the National Wool Bureau. "These 'cool-wool' knits are being made with softer and lighter weight yarns, thereby making them transeasonal. Designers have stitched them up in luxurious fabrics that conform to the body, ranging from silk, mohair, angora and cashmere, to chenilles and open-works."
"Chenille, considered the knitwear version of velvet because of the way its rich surface feels and catches the light, is more popular than ever, due to the craze for velvet this season," says Ms. Vienne.
But the newest class of knits are gossamer sheer and barely skim the body. Designers Donna Karan and Calvin Klein worked gauze in wool stretch and wool crepe into their winter sheers. Knit blends, often with the addition of Lycra to ensure a finer drape, provide a soft hand, such as silk and wool with a hint of cashmere thrown in. Team knits with delicate fabrics like chiffon and lace, or with dressy cloths like silk charmeuse or velvet for a cutting-edge mix. Nothing is more elegant for evening than a simple little sweater set worn with a ball gown skirt and a beaded bib choker.
Whereas knit dressing in general, has become more adaptable and branched out beyond a casual mentality, knitwear's rich sister, cashmere, has gone in the opposite direction and taken on more of a casual bent. That attitude has increased cashmere's popularity with more activewear styling, such as oversized sweaters, leggings, sweats and two-piece pajama looks. It has also strayed from traditional colors toward brights and naturals.
You can indulge yourself in the luxury of cashmere without spending a fortune. Benetton offers an affordable selection of cashmere sweaters starting at $135 for a long sleeve crew neck. Catalogs are another source to find quality cashmere at a price. J.Crew offers up decent classic renderings for around $150. And in Victoria's Secret catalog ribbed two-ply cashmere sweaters are irresistible at $98.
According to the National Wool Bureau, soon you won't have to hit the dry cleaners every time you need your knits freshened. Washable wool knits dipped in a treatment called Super-wash, allow you to toss that trusty old sweater in the washing machine. "It's an important trend in Europe right now and making its way here," says Ms. Arstrop. It looks as though we're not far behind -- Eddie Bauer has already jumped on this bandwagon with a washable lambs wool basic crew neck sweater new for fall.
ON THE COVER
Hair and makeup by Dianna Burgess, Three West Casting. Modeled by Jessica Wallace, New Faces Models: Jai Bevenue, Three West Casting, Photographed at Studio 700.