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Drop Dead Gorgeous

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The rich and fabulous have gone Goth. And Goth has gone chic.

You may be used to seeing fashionistas dolled up in diamonds and cashmere and frilly, feminine frocks.

But the latest craze to hit the world of the fashion-forwards is decidedly darker. From jewelry to satin scarves, from swimsuits to baby clothes, skull-and-crossbones imagery - of pirate ship popularity - has been popping up everywhere.

Once the domain of rockers, bikers, swashbucklers and moody teenagers, the menacing symbol has lately made its way to Seventh Avenue. It's on Sienna Miller's neck, Jamie Foxx's fingers. Hilary Duff is practicing sewing the symbol. Lindsay Lohan's got skull-decorated scarves by two different designers.

Nicole Richie. Kate Moss. Spike Lee. Mischa Barton. Mary-Kate Olsen. Shiloh Jolie-Pitt.

All have been spotted out and about making morbid look frighteningly fabulous.

"That whole Victoriana, the look of the moors, that 19th-century flavor is huge on the runway," says Andrea Kaplan, contemporary buyer at Octavia in Pikesville, which last month started selling a skull-emblazoned mesh tank top by La Rok for $145. "And skulls and crossbones are very Victorian Goth. It has an L.A., rock 'n' roll, movie-star vibe. It's like Pirates of the Caribbean meets suburban housewife."

"I think it's something that's hip, and why not?" says Dawn Goldberg, 46, who recently tried on the Octavia tank. "I don't want you to think that I have a lot of that in my closet, but it's a cool look. I would wear it with jeans or white capris. It's a naughty but nice look."

The dark look had long been popular in juniors clothing, says Elizabeth Borenstein, a fashion stylist and freelance market editor in New York, where celebrities have been seen in the Goth gear.

"But just in the last three or four seasons, it's become more popular with the higher-end set," she says.

Designer Alexander McQueen's skull-dotted head scarf was all the rage at fashion shows in New York last season. French designer Lucien Pallet-Finet's cashmere sweaters - emblazoned with studded skulls - sell for $1,645 to more than $2,400. Palm Beach jewelry designer Tracy Dara Kamenstein has designed a gold skull ring for $8,400. For $152, you can buy a bikini from Betsey Johnson's new swimwear line adorned with skulls and roses. And Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt's new baby daughter, Shiloh, made her first magazine cover appearance in a $42 skull and crossbones T-shirt.

The juxtaposition of "edgy" and "luxury" is welcomed by celebs and socialites who want to toughen up their pampered images, says Dannielle Romano, editor-at-large of DailyCandy.com, an online guide to fashion and trends.

"It's a safe way to be a little bit of a bad girl for people who might otherwise be afraid to. It's the cool factor of a tattoo without the fear of having to wake up as an 80-year-old with a tattoo," Romano says. "Also, design-wise, it's just a cool contrast. To have these otherwise snooty materials with the skull and crossbones on them. It's a cool paradox."

After celebrities such as style-setter Sienna Miller started wearing McQueen's sexy scarves, other celebrities caught on, and the trend worked its way down to socialites, fashionistas and, finally, the masses.

"Who doesn't want to dress like a rock star?" says Sasha Charnin Morrison, fashion director at Us Weekly, which has featured skull-sporting celebrities on its pages. "Who doesn't want to be a rock star?"

And apparently many people want that look - even if it's just in a piece here or a piece there.

In the past three months, sales of skull-and-crossbones jewelry on eBay increased by 217.6 percent, according to eBay's Marketplace Research Pro, which tracks the purchasing behavior of 193 million users.

Just last week on eBay's "Want It Now" list - where customers search for hard-to-find items - someone was frantically looking for the ultimate in pirate paradox - a Chanel necklace with the double-C logo and an adjoining skull and crossbones.

"I think that we're all affected by celebrity style," says Sandy Graham, jewelry style director at eBay. "Mischa Barton has a 2-carat skull-and-crossbones necklace that she's been spotted wearing from London to New York. It's just very rock 'n' roll."

Aside from Pallet-Finet's boldly emblazoned cashmere sweaters, the imagery is most popular in subtle accents and in accessories, such as jewelry, watches, scarves and belt buckles.

"They're not wearing an entire head-to-toe skull. It's a piece of it mixed with something current," says Charnin Morrison. "It's the scarf that gets tied on to a bag or it gets tied around the neck. Or it's a beautiful, dark piece of jewelry."

Jewelry designer Barry Kieselstein-Cord has attracted the attention of director Spike Lee and actor/singer Foxx, among other celebrities, for his "Vero" collection inspired by the Mexican Day of the Dead. In turn, their sign-off has been a real boon for Kieselstein-Cord's pricey macabre jewelry designs.

"We haven't been able to keep up with sales," he says.

Kieselstein-Cord says he is keenly interested in the history and meaning behind the dark symbols.

"It's always had a bad-boy image, probably started by the pirates. But I think it's become in vogue. It's slowly crept into fashion and become much more universal in its appeal," he says.

Consumers - especially those who are fashion-forward - may have begun to understand that skulls and crossbones don't necessarily have to mean "evil," Kiesel- stein-Cord says.

"When you look at a skull and crossbones you are looking at mortality," he says. "You are looking at the potential for your impermanence. So it reminds us that we are all human."

So human, in fact, that the imagery is even safe for babies, it seems.

In addition to the Brangelina love-child's fashion statement on the cover of People magazine last month, other manufacturers also are doing well selling skull-decorated duds for newborns. Glamajama, an online pajama company, can't keep stocked items that say "Mommy" or "Princess" - or, oddly, ones that have skulls on them.

One item, Skull Baby, is a silver-studded skull-and-bones design available in both a short- and long-sleeved tee, as well as a onesie.

"It's funny. It's definitely one of our most popular items," says Heather Nolte, the owner and designer of the three-year-old company. "We even have customers ordering them in pink."

Experts say stylish people like the unexpected contrast: Pink combined with the poison symbol. Death with diamonds.

"Cashmere with skulls on it? We love that," says Patricia Handschiegel, publisher of StyleDiary.net, a weekly online style resource. "It's kind of the mix of something ugly with something pretty. It always makes us respond."

tanika.white@baltsun.com

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