Who's afraid of Casual Friday?; Not designer Dana Buchman, whose elegant clothes let working women look pulled-together every day of the week.; FOCUS ON FASHION


NEW YORK -- Fashion designer Dana Buchman looks as if she were born put together.

In a shimmery lavender twin set and gray slacks, Buchman, 47, defines cool, in-control career gal.

Buchman is a "bridge" designer. You won't see her sophisticated styles on the catwalk or pay red haute prices for them. But you will find them in tonier department stores.

Her signature line launched in 1987. Since then, it has ballooned into seven labels, offering everything from sportswear to near-couture to the elegant career clothing for which she's best known.

Buchman recently sat down to chat with us about Casual Friday, the death of the shoulder pad and her hippie past.

How has women's workplace fashion evolved?

It has changed, and it changes almost daily. In the late '70s and early '80s, women would wear a man's suit with a soft tie. Very traditional. In the '80s, as women became more confident and spread out in the workplace, they were willing to be more daring. There was the skirt-length issue, then women started wearing pants to work in a big way. Then a few years ago, there was this big push toward total casual. I'm feeling there's a little bit of a sense of, "I don't want to be casual, I like to get dressed-up." Even on Fridays, within a casual workplace, it's important to dress appropriately and beautifully and chic and modern and fashionably.

Can you give an example of Casual Friday gone awry?

My friend in New York works in a bank, and she was completely perturbed because casual Friday came along. She has a very corporate job in a very conservative industry. She is a big executive; she worked a long time to get there. She either has suits or she has jeans, and here was this gray area. If your workplace says casual, you can't not listen. She was wearing jeans and a man's Oxford shirt and a navy blazer, and she said, "Can I wear this?" You can, but why would you? It wasn't feminine, it wasn't chic. It was like, "I give up."

OK, then. What should she wear?

Twin sets are huge throughout the country. This has become the new uniform, even for executives. You still look put together. It still makes an outfit on a boiling Friday in New York.

Have twin sets become the jackets of the '90s?

I wouldn't say twin sets have replaced the jacket. For a lot of women, the jacket still lives on. The new jacket is unconstructed. The shoulder pads are much smaller; the whole inner construction has been taken out. I still wear jackets a lot of the time to work. I love to wear a jacket. It makes you feel put together and finished, and I think it gives a woman great presence.

What were you wearing to work 10 years ago?

I was wearing a suit with big shoulder pads. They looked good then. Now they'd look ridiculous.

What happened to shoulder pads, anyway?

Pads shrank. Some garments still look good with pads -- they're just smaller and softer. A lot of times, we have pads that snap out. In the '80s everyone had big pads. Pads will come back. They do give a different line, and it's actually a very flattering look.

Do you all just get together and decide something is out of style?

It's not a conspiracy. It's just fashion.

How can you dress appropriately at work and still be an individual?

You have to base your judgment on the culture of the company you're working in. I've always believed in individual expression. I used to go to school barefoot and paint my legs and all that stuff. Part of being a professional woman is fitting in somewhat with your environment. You're not there to shock or scandalize. You can personalize things with jewelry, your hair, ... makeup. And of course, the shoes are very important.

So you were a hippie?

No, not really. I was more interested in the style of hippies.

What do you normally wear to work?

Almost exclusively my own stuff, because I like to see how it feels. I use my own wardrobe as a laboratory for my designs. I end up wearing my things because I like them.

Do you think women lose something from not dressing up at work?

I know I behave differently when I'm dressed up. It's not the big power suit, but when I've planned my outfit and I have on beautiful shoes and the hair and jewelry together, I function differently at work than if I pull on pants and a T-shirt, which I don't usually do.

Do you think Ally McBeal dresses appropriately for her job?

No. If you're a litigator, your skirt can be too short, and you can alienate the jury and lose your audience. But it's a TV show. I don't think it matters.

Dana Buchman's favorites for fall

1. Unconstructed jackets. Blousy, soft jackets are staging a takeover of the classic blazer.

2. Knitwear. Think sweaters.

3. Leather. You don't need a lot. A great pair of leather pants or a jacket goes a long way.

4. Color. Don't go top-to-toe. Try a shot of color with a bright-red jacket or pale-blue cashmere sweater.

5. Twin sets. These sweater combos haven't replaced the jacket ... yet.

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