Vinyl miniskirts. Rubber handbags. Plastic trim in a Chanel collection. And horror of horrors -- Calvin Klein, the king of natural fibers, using polyester. What is fashion coming to?
In short, a revolution of sorts is under way: Fake fabrics are no longer considered outcasts. Fancy clothing boutiques that once prided themselves on offering only 100 percent natural fibers have been letting in greater numbers of synthetics -- and with increasingly positive responses from customers who like the looks and easy maintenance of the newest polyesters.
"Five years ago I personally would never have dreamed of wearing polyester," says Linda Scherr, who, with her husband Ron owns the Pikesville store, Rococo. When the store opened in 1986, it was stocked with all-natural fabrics only.
"There were times at the beginning when I'd place an order for 100 percent cotton and if it came in with even 10 percent polyester, I'd send it right back," she says. Today, a variety of synthetics -- from Lycra to polyester -- can be found among the cottons and linens.
The cyclical nature of fashion is responsible for some of the most obvious uses today of fake fabrics. Nostalgia for the '60s, and more recently the '70s, has been inspiring designers for the last several years. They've been experimenting with shiny synthetic fabrics in sleek space-age silhouettes and adorning their models with false eyelashes and wigs of synthetic hair.
But the renewed popularity of frankly fake items like vinyl and plastic is not nearly as significant as the more subtle, but increasingly widespread use of Lycra and the new microfiber polyesters, says Marilyn Harding, vice-president of the Tobe Report, a fashion forecasting service.
"I expect history books will probably tell us one day that Lycra revolutionized the way women dressed," she says. "Just one ounce of Lycra in a skirt can do so much. It helps you contain your figure like a girdle, but it's the most comfortable thing ever."
She credits European designer Azzedine Alaia with first introducing the notion of combining natural fibers with Lycra during the mid-eighties.
"I don't think natural fabrics will lose their status," she says, adding that "synthetics bring more alternatives to the designers' table."
The development of this new superfine polyester called microfiber -- which can mimic the feel and look of any natural fiber from silk to suede yet sheds wrinkles and can even be machine-washed -- is going to cause the greatest changes in fashion, she predicts.
"By the mid- to late '90s all the technological improvements in fabrics will have caused a great creative surge in designers," she says.
While vinyl and plastic are fashion fabrics of the moment, "microfiber will be considered a core fabric, like denim and fleece," she says.
Ms. Scherr at Rococo is an enthusiastic fan of the new microfiber polyester which she began carrying in the spring.
"The reasons we had for selling only natural fibers when we first opened no longer exist," she says. "There have been tremendous improvements in polyester -- it's finer, it has a better hand, a better appearance, and better drape."
"I could spot the old synthetics from a mile away before I even touched them. I still know a synthetic when I touch it, but it's not as easy to tell the difference."
Ms. Scherr says she doesn't choose polyester because it's less expensive than natural fibers. "I have microfiber jackets that are some of my highest prices, but I buy microfiber because it looks great, feels great, takes color well and the good contemporary designers are using it."
The durability and easy maintenance of microfiber also appeals to those who stock the Units clothing chain. "Many of our customers are busy people who want clothing that's practical -- they're teachers and moms," explains Jackie Cruzado, manager of Units in Marley Station. "With microfiber we're giving them clothes that look and feel like silk, but can pack, wash and travel well."
Nevertheless, customers must overcome polyester prejudice still lingering from the '70s.
"At first, they say, 'What, polyester! Oh, no,' " says Ms. Cruzado. "Then they feel it and they see it's just like silk, but it's washable and then they go crazy for it."
Microfiber: the great imitator
It can cost as much, if not more, than the real thing, so why are all the top designers suddenly endorsing a microfiber polyester made from petroleum that imitates natural fibers? Why not just buy 100 percent silk or all cotton?
Because the best microfibers duplicate the feel and look of natural fibers with the durability and easy maintenance of synthetic fibers. They retain creases, shed wrinkles and some need noironing at all. Some of the denser microfibers are even waterproof, yet at the same time allow body moisture through to evaporate.
According to fabric authorities at the International Fabricare Institute in Silver Spring, Md., microfibers are the finest, thinnest man-made fiber, mostly made of polyester or nylon and used in garments alone or blended with other fibers. They're even thinner than any natural fiber, including silk.
When you're out shopping, you won't always know that a garment is made with microfiber because the care and fabric content label at the neck of the garment will probably just read "polyester." So keep your eye out for separate hangtags that the savvier manufacturers are adding to tout their use of microfiber, under such brand names as Micromattique, MicroSpun, and Trevira Finesse.