Move over, leather. Fall promises to provide a plethora of pleather, a shorthand name for plastic leather that's sexy, supple and synthetic. Pleather can be made to be a dead-ringer for real leather, or to look as fake as singer Gwen Stefani's hair -- and just as pink.
"It's become the wild kingdom of synthetic fabrics. It can look like snakeskin, can be dyed any color, and the fabric itself is just getting better and better," said Ty Bowers, head designer for the California-based menswear company BC Ethic.
A new, improved pleather beckons to budget-conscious trendoids who want to save money and animal lives. It's even starred in "Sex and the City" when a party host asks the character Carrie, "Is that pleather?" She answers, "Yes, and thanks so much for noticing."
Pleather isn't a trademarked fabric or brand name, according to Fred Schecter, vice president of Sommers Plastics, a New Jersey maker of elaborate synthetic fabrics. "It just really means a man-made leather, but it's not any specific type."
Bowers and other designers sometimes prefer pleather to leather because of its versatility. Pleather is easy to manipulate: It can stretch, requires no lining and is easier for handling detail work such as buttonholes, pocket flaps and side tabs.
"It's easy when you want to combine it with other fabrics, like denim," said Los Angeles designer Estevan Ramos, who for five years has given pleather a high-fashion spin, lately with embroidery.
Fashion forecasters say pleather will be an important trend in the fall and through next spring.
"Pleather is having huge, huge success at the moment because it is so close to real leather," said retail trend analyst David Wolfe. "Leather is back because of all the obsession with luxury goods. And real leather obviously costs more than real pleather. So if you haven't made a million on the stock market, but you want to look like you have, you have to opt for fake leather, fake fur and rhinestones."
A quality pair of leather pants, one of fall's biggest looks, can cost $500 and up, while a pair of Macy's private-label pleather pants goes for $89. The appeal of pleather is so pervasive that major department stores plan to offer it in many categories.
The material is much improved over early versions of synthetic leathers, such as DuPont's Corfam, that dried out and had a peculiar high-fashion hazard for wearers. "When you sat on a piano bench or a lacquered piece of furniture, [synthetic leathers] pulled the finish off," said Schecter, who promised that his products are far kinder to furniture.
Now the new generation of imitation leathers can be embroidered with flowers, crocodile-embossed, printed like python or even coated with holograms in 3-D or action scenes.
"There have been a lot of advances in pleather," Schecter said, "but the disadvantage with plastic clothing is that it gets hot."
Movie publicist Laurel House, 22, owns two pairs of pleather pants. While searching for leather pants, she found vintage pleather for $20.
"I thought the pleather looked better and were very light and thin," she said. But for dancing "my legs got extremely sweaty."
Fortunately, today's supple pleather is thinner, softer and cooler. Some pleathers are bonded to more porous materials or micro-perforated to aid in ventilation. Pleather has improved so much, Wolfe said, that "even fashion professionals have to smell the material to decide if it's real leather or not."
Still, not all imitation leather is the same. The best pleathers are made of polyurethane, which Schecter said is washable, can be dry-cleaned and allows some air to flow through the garment. Another version of pleather is made of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, which doesn't breathe and is difficult to clean.
"PVC under no circumstances can be dry-cleaned," Schecter said, because the cleaning solvents can make the fabric unwearably stiff. A consumer's best bet? Read the label and be sure of what you're buying.
Nearly 10 years ago, high fashion shunned synthetics. But Todd Oldham gave the fabric the cachet of cool in his signature collections. Today, with Oldham's jeans line, the synthetic is popular among young shoppers unable to pay designer prices.
Agreeing is youth-market analyst DeeDee Gordon, co-founder of Los Angeles-based Look-Look. Teens, she said, are keenly interested in animal rights issues, which they research on the Internet.
"They can check out what's happening with companies they are buying from, how they manufacture stuff, produce stuff and dig deeper and sniff out stuff in terms of the ethical issues involved," she said.
Matt Jones, 16, a senior at Laces High School in Los Angeles, said, "I don't see why you would wear leather. If we can take away from killing or skinning the animals, then we should."
On Oldham's Web site, Tony Longoria, the company's vice president, scans discussion groups where he found "the teen market is really compassionate about not wearing real leather. They think it's cooler to wear the imitation versions."
And that's the irony. Real leather, in its electric hues of hot pink, turquoise and red, often looks more fake than pleather, which strives to look real.
Stores are betting heavily that leather, and leather look-alikes, will be the key fashion statement for fall.
"It's the fabric story of the season," said Macy's women's fashion director Durand Guion. "It hasn't been this important since the '70s," when leather pants, blazers and trench coats were must-haves.