Leather look has moved from tough to seductive

April 29, 1992|By Bernadine Morris | Bernadine Morris,New York Times News Service

Yves Saint Laurent showed a short, skinny smooth leather skirt in Paris a decade ago, and it became a mainstay of women's wardrobes throughout the world all during the 1980s.

Last year Karl Lagerfeld jazzed up his Chanel collection with zippered leather jackets based on the ones motorcyclists wear. He showed them with day and evening clothes, and many women picked up his cue.

That was just the beginning. Now designers on both sides of the Atlantic are heavily into leather. In Paris, Milan and New York, the fall and winter fashion collections were filled with leather styles -- and not just motorcycle jackets either.

There are leather jackets tailored as carefully as if they were made of pin-striped woolens. Strapless bodices show bare shoulders for the evening and make suits look new when they are worn under jackets.

Leather pants are paired with colorful wool blazers as well as leather topcoats. There are surprises like a brief leather bolero that bares a sliver of skin at the midriff above a long jersey skirt, part of the trendy collection Marc Jacobs developed for Perry Ellis.

Most new leathers are shiny and black, but they rarely look tough. Sexy and seductive are better words.

Designers' explanations generally fall into two categories. They first endorse the practical qualities of the material. Leather is durable; it can be wiped clean after many spills; it doesn't crush and it is available in light, flexible skins.

Then they move into its aesthetic qualities: it can be cut into interesting patterns, easily embellished with decorative stitching, or shaped in seductive ways.

Leather is paired with luxury materials such as cashmere for a sybaritic look or with silk for the drama of the unexpected. It has come a long way from the traditional rugged motorcyclist's garb.

For some Europeans, leather carries the romantic glow of the American Wild West, one of the recurrent ethnic themes that has such appeal for so many. American designers are less concerned with cowboys and all that. Louis Dell'Olio of Anne Klein said the fringe that decorates his skirts was inspired by flappers of the 1920s rather than Davy Crockett. In addition to his fringed skirts, Mr. Dell'Olio likes to slip a leather vest under a wool blazer to enliven a classic outfit.

The bottom line is that leather has been readily accepted by retailers in stores all over the country.

lTC "We're selling it by the truckload," said designer Michael Kors. "Literally. Store buyers have been reacting to leather as if it were the new gabardine. In 11 years in business, I've never seen anything like it."

When he was working on his new collection he decided to treat leather, both the smooth variety and suede, like fabric and he is delighted that his customers got the point.

Skinny suede pants will turn into the new leggings for fall, he predicts. A leather vest or blouse can make an old outfit look new, he added.

Why the sudden success?

"First, there is the inherent sense of luxury that leather imparts," he said. "Second, it is the kind of material that can be worn almost all year."

But most important is the fact that each leather piece is generally assertive enough to stand on its own, he said.

"It is readily apparent that a single leather piece can update the look of a lot of clothes women have in their closets," Mr. Kors said. "Store buyers are zeroing in on the idea that women will probably not be shopping for entire new wardrobes. A single piece or two that will enliven everything else is what they will be searching for. And leather fills the bill -- suede for the times they are in a softer mood, smooth leather when they feel more aggressive."

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