The function becomes the fashion

The zipper has played a significant role in the evolution of 20th century clothing, not the least of which as the discreet and efficient guardian of male modesty. This fall, however, it has been taken to a higher fashion level.

Zippers are everywhere; the key detail that says new and now. Karl Lagerfeld outlines the zipper of a Chanel jacket with a row of rhinestones. Ralph Lauren stitches it neatly front and center in a medley of jersey dresses and jackets. Donna Karan pours good bodies into stretch mechanic jumpsuits and zips them into shape. That's just the tip of the trend pyramid. Zippers are holding miniskirts, hipster pants, boots, handbags and even evening gowns together.


It's not a new idea. The last time fashion went zipper happy was in the '60s, when forward designers like Rudi Gernreich and Pierre Cardin proposed eliminating frills and reducing clothes to their functioning parts. Modern mutated to Mod, however, and the '60s became the repository of fashion disasters such as bell-bottoms with industrial-strength metal flies and miniskirts that could self-destruct in three zips.

Today's zipper is millions of snags removed from the prototype that was patented in 1893 by Chicago inventor Whitcomb L. Judson. His was a crude device of large, interlocking hooks and eyes. It was a failure as a business venture, but not as an idea. In 1914, Judson's old friend and backer, Lewis Walker, formed the Hookless Fastener Company, and the rest is history.


In 1922, B.F. Goodrich coined the word "zipper" for its pull-on galoshes, and the word and the product now have universal generic application. Zippers have been refined to party dressing, they have served in world wars and they have suited moon missions.

"Zippers give a very modern, clean look, especially when you are using space-age fabrics," says Linda Allard, designer of the Ellen Tracy label, which is a staple in the wardrobes of many professional women. Space age in the Ellen Tracy family translates as a jacket and skirt made of high-tech neoprene cut sleek like a scuba suit and pulled together with a zipper.

High performance

Fashion's embrace of new synthetic fabrics with high-performance qualities accounts for the rekindled love affair with zippers that allow bend and stretch. The industry is now pressed to come up with closures with more zip than the familiar standard.

"There's a huge increase in outerwear zipper production and a new interest in decorative zipper accessories -- larger and fancier pulls such as rings and teardrops," says Bob Bingham, manager at Trencoil, a New York zipper supplier. "There is a run on zippers with large, 7-millimeter teeth, which used to be ordered primarily for industrial use but now people are using that for fashion wear."

The businessman is pragmatic about the trend factor of his product. "I hate to make a pun," he says, "but the metal zipper business goes up and down. This year has been good for the zipper business, bad for button manufacturers. Right now we are looking at nickel-plated and solid nickel looks and zippers with blackened and antique metal finishes." It's the application that turns zippers into fashion.

Something different

At American Notions in Manhattan's garment district, Jeff Eisner is the man who connects designers and zippers. "Clothing manufacturers show us what they have in mind and we shop the sources to get them what they need. They're doing the '60s and '70s again for people who haven't seen the looks before," he says, "but everybody is looking for something different in a zipper. We have to remind them that zipper design is still controlled by the fact that it needs to go up and down."


The new, then, may merely be a question of numbers, and some garments now may count as many as eight zippers -- center front, pockets and sleeves, skirt or pants.

Joanne Oliva, trim buyer for Anne Klein Sport, sniffs at zipper madness. "Zippers are absolutely back, but the most we would do is a center closure and two slash pockets," she says. "However, less expensive and knockoff lines would take zippers a little farther."

At a.b.s, a label famous for being first in store with a trend, merchandising director Brian Cahill says the line is behind the zipper. "We have it in suits and sportswear in boucles and triacetates, but it is strongest in jackets with exposed zippers."

Beene steps back

While the fashion industry pushes headlong into modernity and the millennium, Geoffrey Beene, the master of modernism in American fashion, steps back and reflects. In the past he has said that all a modern woman needs is a dress she can zip into and go.

"I did say that about 10 years ago, but then I was using heavier fabrics. I still like the idea of a woman zipping into a dress, but my fabrics are getting lighter and lighter so that even buttons weigh them down, and zippers buckle," he says. "I have moved on as things change. Weightlessness in an action-paced society is important." On a recent trip to Paris, he was looking for a new closure that would be as soft as the fabrics he chooses. "Wrapping and tying clothes seems to be the logical answer."


Fashion may eventually come around to the wrap-and-go idea. In the meantime, zipping up seems a good temporary solution.