Wild, wild West looks are not just for the mavericks. At the Council of Fashion Designers of America ceremonies last week, top honors went to the top guns who have put their own brand on western fashion this season.
Ralph Lauren, who does western the way pioneers would have done it if they had good taste, was honored for lifetime achievement. The young-designer award went to Todd Oldham, a spunky 30-year-old Texan who cuts sunny clothes trimed with scrolled cowboy shirt embroideries.
Isaac Mizrahi, who won the designer of the year award, crafts a leather bustier tooled like a fancy saddle, pairs it with holster-like bracelet cuffs and shows it with a prairie skirt over ruffled bloomers and high-top silver granny boots. A sort of Miss Kitty's girls at the designer salon look.
"Mizrahi is single-handedly responsible for starting the stampede," says Basha Cohen, vice president with the Associated Merchandising Corp., a New York-based buying office that advises stores around the country. "He showed his totem pole dress in last year's fall collection and the Europeans were enchanted with it and did their own interpretations. American designers picked up the signals for spring."
Marc Jacobs for Perry Ellis is on the same trail with luxurious wrap skirts, dude ranch shirts, and fringed leather. For evening, he swirls bouffant skirts with a hand-painted cactus and desert scenes. And fancy boots with everything -- short, long and gala wear.
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"The western look has been around for years and become a classic. The showy looks are interesting, but today's consumers are looking for longevity. They want more than a season's wear out of a wardrobe investment," says Nancy Sachs, fashion director at Saks in Owings Mills.
"Western here will be softer, in neutral, weathered colors. Jeans are still a stylish staple and can work casually with a cotton cowboy shirt and be dressy with an expensive silk version. We see the influence working in accessories -- pointed boot toes in footwear, a Southwestern silver and turquoise feel in jewelry, bandannas in both silk and cotton."
Designer Marc Jacobs worked the traditional red bandanna in a silk wrap skirt that is seen all over the fashion magazines. The Emanuel bridge line by Emanuel Ungaro has a similar mini in a blue print. Chances are the bandanna will inspire many more knock-offs.
"Western will be very strong in the fall lines," predicts Ms. Cohen, "and it will be good for American business, especially the denim and chambray lines which play it safe."
But the Europeans play it wild. Rifat Ozbek's gray blazers have contrasting cream sleeves trimmed in fringe. Mr. Ozbek also offers pony print jeans and chamois-colored leggings with long fringe down the sides. Hermes snips fringe down the side of luxurious suede pants. Fendi takes inspiration from the Indians and beads a loincloth.
The East Coast may not be ready for a loincloth, but Indian motifs are strong. "The way to go west is in Indian designs in airy sandals worn with long skirts such as those the DKNY line," Ms. Sachs says. "Cowboy boots may be fun but impossible to live with in a Baltimore summer. In Karan's long skirts cowgirls can be sophisticated and ride side-saddle."
Ms. Karan's DKNY line reinforces the western work ethic with denim worked down to the comfort stage. She offers torn and faded jeans and work shirts which look less cattle baron and more ranch hand.
The western revival may be part of a need to recapture the pioneer spirit when true grit and could move men and mountains. With hard economic times and threats to the American dream, clothes that can ride out the tough times have a new appeal.
Perhaps western wear is the closest thing America has to an ethnic costume. The designs were born out of a necessity for clothes that could endure years of rough wear and this country's climate.
The cowboy had to travel light and spend months in the saddle away from towns and trading places. He had little chance to restock. Jeans cut to his needs in denim which wore like iron became the trousers of the west.
The traditional cowboy shirt is a classic of functional design. The double-layered V-shaped yoke at back and shoulders offered extra protection against constant sun exposure. The bib-front closure kept out the trail dust as center buttoned shirts can't. The close-fitting torso resisted snags and tears in the brush.
And cowboy trappings have been in and out of fashion ever since.
Early movies duded up and exaggerated cowboy wear. The spaghetti westerns of the 1960s and '70s brought the cowboy back to the dirty work of winning the West. This spring it's back to whimsical western.
Rococo owner Linda Scher plays it loose and easy. "I've got a black sequined cowboy had and some fun cowgirl T-shirts. I don't take it too seriously."