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IN THE TRENCHES

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The belted khaki coat's enduring popularity and stylish variations make it both a classic and cutting-edge fashion statement.In the world of fashion, classic can be a dirty word. Not so with the trench coat.

"There are certain pieces we have in our imagination that we ought to own," says Sally Singer, fashion news director of Vogue magazine, explaining why a belted khaki coat born in the trenches nearly a century ago has attained almost mythic status. "It's the most simple and elegant way to protect yourself from the rain. There is value attached to owning something like a good trench. It suggests one has spent one's money wisely."

The trench's enduring popularity puts it in a select group of clothes that are timeless, iconic pieces: the little black dress, five-pocket denim jeans, the twin set. But in the past couple of years, the trench has also become a sophisticated and cutting-edge fashion statement.

For those who watch the runways, variations on the trench-coat theme have been an important part of the collections of innovative designers worldwide. Want a trench for evening wear? Buy it in satin and lace. Looking for a little bling? Matthew Williamson's jeweled pashmina trench dazzled at this month's New York Fashion Week.

The metallic look, glamour and glitz will be hotthis fall. Consider Bill Blass's elegant three-quarter silver trench.

The Proenza Schouler boys featured a crocodile trench coat that Singer says got a great response. It will retail for $50,000.

Sexy rapper Lil' Kim arrived at the Marc Jacobs runway show wearing one of his trench coats. Girl-next-door Katie Holmes of Dawson's Creek fame was seen at Calvin Klein in an all-white trench, spring's most popular color.

One style fits all.

For the fashion savvy but money conscious, Gap introduced a hot pink trench for well under $100 a couple of springs ago that sold out almost immediately. It was the company's most successful coat that season. Shoppers loved the classic style combined with a surprising pop of color.

"It's a feminine and flattering silhouette," says Gap spokeswoman Katie Hall, trying to explain the coat's unexpected success. (This spring's offering is an equally appealing but more versatile khaki with white piping.)

For spring, Oscar de la Renta reworked the trench into psychedelic art. Roland Mouret and Kenneth Cole turned the classic into a day dress, yet it still looks like a trench coat, not a shirtwaist.

In recent years fashion designers have shortened the trench, lengthened it, changed the collar, made it out of plaids and prints, given it edgy styling, dropped the epaulets and added embroidery. Somehow its platonic form shines through.

"It continues to get tweaked a little," says Tom Julian, trend analyst for the New York ad agency Fallon Worldwide. "There is a degree of performance here, but this spring it's the fashion details and vibrant hues - greens, pinks, whites - that take it from a basic wardrobe item."

Still, men and women are fascinated by the classic form of the trench. A couple of years ago Vogue ran an article on Burberry's custom, made-to-measure trench coats.

"We had an incredible response to the story," says Singer. "We've never had so much interest."

She credits the current resurrection of the trench to the resurrection of Burberry, the most famous of the British companies that made the coat for World War I soldiers. The almost legendary firm had lost its cachet until Rose Marie Bravo took it over eight years ago, turning Burberry into a billion-dollar success story with global branding. Bravo hired supermodel Kate Moss as its new face and the talented Christopher Bailey as its new designer, and a fashion basic became young and hip again.

Yes, again. Remember Audrey Hepburn in the 1950s? She wore the classic trench coat belted tight to emphasize her tiny waist. The coat's voluminous fabric worked well with the full skirts she favored. The coat became as much a part of Audrey Style as the flat ballet slippers, turtlenecks and three-quarter-length sleeves.

She wasn't the first movie star to favor the trench. Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, the ultimate loner hero, comes to mind immediately; but in the '30s and '40s women like Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Greta Garbo all wore the trench and imbued it with an aura of star power and mystery.

In detective novels and film, the trench coat was the ultimate noir uniform of the private eye who walked the dark city streets alone. Almost any crime movie with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake featured a great trench.

"It's like the young guys wearing 'hoodies' these days because they're urban warriors, hanging out in the street," says Valerie Steele, director of the museum at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. Only sexier.

The coat was named a trench coat, of course, because it was designed for use in the trenches. Burberry and another British firm, Aquascutum, both take credit for manufacturing the original trench, the standard-issue rain gear for British army officers in World War I.

Steele isn't buying the story that one firm designed it.

"They all claim to," she says, "but it's a vernacular garment. It had achieved fame internationally by the 1920s. It was fashionable - iconic - worldwide."

The figure of the British officer had charisma, and the trench coat became important because of the men who wore it. Two decades later in World War II, England was again America's ally; the image of the heroic British military man gave the trench another boost. Winston Churchill wore one. So did the royals of several European countries. The trench coat offered prestige as well as glamour. Companies like Burberry and London Fog built their reputations around the well-made, classic trench.

By the '60s some of the glamour had faded. Who can forget Peter Sellers as the bumbling, trench-coat-swathed Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies? Worse, the trench moved from the sublime to the pornographic as the preferred garment for flashers.

Still, the classic khaki-colored rain coat survived it all.

"I've seen it through many phases," says George Simonton, a Seventh Avenue designer and professor of fashion design at FIT, whose specialty is coats. "In the past 20 years, it was principally a rain coat, but now it's evolved into a fashion story."

That's partly because fashion, like the country, has grown more conservative and more investment driven; and partly because menswear has had a strong effect on women's clothing in recent years.

Vogue's Singer warns that the classic trench isn't for everyone. It can fit oddly on a woman if she's too curvy. Don't order it from a catalog or off the Internet, she advises.

"Any shape borrowed from menswear should be tried on first," she says, using herself as an example. "I'm too big on top. I can look like a sausage in a trench."

The classic trench

khaki-colored

made of gabardine

water resistant

a fair amount of fabric involved

removable lining for warmth

knee length or longer

double breasted

set-in sleeves

belted

a storm flap in back

epaulets on the shoulders

buckled cuffs so the sleeves can be tightened against rain

loops around the waist from which equipment can be hung

other military-looking detailing

These days any of these elements is dispensable, except perhaps the belt; and it can be worn in back if a cinched waist isn't flattering.

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