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Fall brings change to runways -- and backstage

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Runway shows in five cities around the globe this spring sent outer-space tourists and fur flying, while French fillies in '50s skirts galloped with "garcons." But what did it all mean?

Long gone are the days of one New Look, when the style powers handed down a trend each season and women followed, raising or lowering their hemlines accordingly. The looks on the runways for Fall 2004 were all over the place, though one of the more salient themes continues to be a throwback to postwar, pre-lib "ladies," seen in a dainty, beaded bolero sweater worn over a silver satin gown at Perry Ellis, crocodile pencil skirts and mink capes at Celine, and black crystal-edged satin coats with three-quarter sleeves at Prada.

Tom Ford -- the standard-bearer of sultry -- is leaving fashion, but it may be too soon to declare that sex no longer sells, considering how quickly female contestants on The Apprentice were willing to break out their miniskirts. (Sadly, when women think they need to, they still flaunt it -- though the competitors on the NBC reality show might have gotten further with Donald Trump in one of the gender-blending suits from Valentino.)

In the 13 years that Ford designed for the Gucci label, three of those also at Yves Saint Laurent, his hot '70s look -- the tousled bedroom hair, the chubby furs, the aviator glasses and the slinky white jersey gowns -- was synonymous with glamour. A master marketer, Ford also invented a black-lacquered, streamlined aesthetic for Gucci stores that helped define design in the 1990s, influencing everything from hotels to car interiors. Outside of the fashion bubble of boucle and broadtail, however, many people -- even close followers of pop culture -- don't know his name, much less about his replacement by a team of unknown designers.

"The majority of fashion consumers, even fanatic ones, are not as brand loyal to the behind-the-scenes designer," says Marshal Cohen, a fashion and retail analyst for the market research firm NPD Group. "The high-end designer market represents at best 5 percent of total U.S. apparel sales. Now take those consumers, and only 25 percent of them are even conscious of who the designer is. The majority is buying for the aspiration factor, not because of their relationship to the designer."

For most consumers buying GG (Gucci Group) logo bags and sunglasses, Ford's exit and replacement will be seamless, Cohen says. "Think of it as if you were going to a restaurant and the chef changed -- you probably wouldn't notice. We in the industry know, but most everyone else doesn't."

Still, the fall 2004 season is likely to be a tipping point for the fashion industry. Ford and former Gucci CEO and President Domenico De Sole transformed Gucci from a struggling $200 million label into a $3 billion luxury

conglomerate that became a business model for others, such as Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton and John Galliano at Christian Dior. But Ford, with his celebrity looks and jet-set lifestyle, was also a media and retail sales

vortex. It was a great ride for stores, but made the market difficult for new names to penetrate. Ford's departure could be an opportunity for lesser-known designers to get some ink and some space on the racks.

Not that designers such as Derek Lam, who worked with Michael Kors for 12 years before launching his own label last fall, dream of being the next Tom Ford -- or even the next Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan or Calvin Klein. Lam knows that creating a global brand from the ground up is not likely to happen ever again. Rather, he says, his best chance at surviving in today's market is to find a narrow niche, so his heroes are Geoffrey Beene, Bill Blass and James Galanos, American designers known for their personal, at times social, relationships with their clients, and for their smaller businesses.

For fall, Lam's richly detailed "seraglio tile" print coat with hand-beading around the cuffs and waist and a dress with a peacock design worked into its metal mesh bring Old World workmanship to the modern woman, without the $25,000 price tags of haute couture. British Vogue refers to the look as "demi-couture," and on the runways for fall there were enough crystals and beads to fill a teen-age girl's Bedazzler fantasy.

Unique sells best

There's a reason why the clothes were so embellished, not to mention dripping with elaborate furs. Now that the high-end market survives largely by selling accessories and eveningwear, designers know that to have a prayer of selling other pieces, they must be unique. So they're designing clothes with the must-have appeal of accessories and the pop of eye candy -- as in a silk skirt in a swirling, galactic print at Prada, a fringed lavender mink poncho at Michael Kors and an embossed caramel leather jacket with the detail of a woodblock print at Alexander McQueen.

Lam is not the only one re-evaluating the 1990s star system. Ford's bosses at Pinault-Printemps-Redoute offered McQueen the high-profile job at YSL, but he turned it down to focus on his own label, also owned by the French luxury conglomerate. The story of Ford's departure has been cast as a triumph of suits over creatives, brand over man (the newly hired Gucci Group chief executive and president is from Unilever, where he was most recently in charge of the ice cream and frozen foods division), but perhaps PPR saw it as a chance to dim the spotlight on the designer.

With so much media coverage of fashion shows, often the accessory or piece of the

season becomes overexposed before it even hits stores. Or perhaps in response to a rumbling backlash against logo overload and global luxury brand sameness -- which is leading celebrities to seek out unique clothing and accessories at stores such as the new Satine in Los Angeles -- PPR chose a quieter strategy. Whether it works is a different story; Gucci is a brand that has always been associated with lots of flash and splash.

Fashionable, affordable

As Gucci de-emphasizes its designers, Gap for the first time has chosen to put a face with its name, staging a meet-and-greet during New York's Fashion Week to introduce its new vice president of design and product development, Pina Ferlisi, who worked for Marc Jacobs for three years before deciding to leave the world of high fashion. Along with the new accessories designer, Emma Hill, another Marc Jacobs recruit -- who began her new job by designing the corduroy hobo bags in the winter collection and is responsible for the spring line's trench totes in stores now -- Ferlisi is charged with making the Gap brand more fashion relevant, while dressing stay-at-home moms, high school jocks and pretty much the rest of the world.

"What defines American dressing is Gap," Ferlisi says. "I left a more fashion-oriented company, which was the kind of place designers go to school to work for, but I realized I couldn't have the reach there that I could have here. ... Look inside everyone's closet and they have something from Gap, and that's empowering in a way."

Realizing that women are now shopping at Gap, Banana Republic, Club Monaco and Target for fashionable interpretations of seasonal trends to wear to work, designers such as Calvin Klein, Oscar de la Renta, Tommy Hilfiger and Michael Kors are entering the mid-level market traditionally occupied by lines such as Jones New York and Anne Klein. They are seeing an opportunity in the retreat from '90s casualization, because most women (those on The Apprentice aside) are dressing up and covering up for the office, and they don't want to spend $2,000 on a suit. These new department store lines of career-minded sportswear are priced competitively, with knits around $60 and jackets around $450.

Says Cohen, the retail analyst:

"As crowded as it got upstairs, it's going to get even more crowded downstairs."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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