Leather is in the air," says Karl Lagerfeld airily, using that age-old, enigmatic "in the air" reason for explaining the birth of a fashion trend. But Mr. Lagerfeld is one designer who can get away with saying anything he likes, airily or otherwise. He's initiated so many trends -- from tights to motorcycle jackets to piled-on jewelry -- that everybody sits up and takes notice when he utters a little gem like "Leather is in the air."
So be it from the lofty designer level.
Retailers -- who have invested heavily in all manner of leather apparel for fall selling -- certainly don't deny the "in the air" thing, agreeing that the timing is right for the return of leather. But, they also do have a number of other reasons for backing up their belief that pants and skirts, jackets and vests in smooth and supple skins are one of fall's hottest items.
"Along with long skirts, leathers are the newest things around," says Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction for all Bloomingdale's stores.
"Women perceive leather as value," explains Amy Steiner, buyer/manager of a Chanel boutique. "The more you wear it, the better it looks." It has longevity, it can be worn 10 months of the year."
"There are so many interpretations this season, nobody is locked into one look," claims Sarah Davies, corporate fashion director .. for Nordstrom stores, pointing to variety as a reason behind leather's expected popularity. Last year, she says, leather was important only in motorcycle jackets. This time around, "each designer seems to have a unique message."
But, the experts do have pet items that they consider winners.
Mr. Ruttenstein calls leather jeans "the tights of '92." The combination of leather jeans and a vest will not only be a best-seller, he says, but will be "the greatest new look." Daring, adventuresome souls will wear their vests and jeans alone -- with shoes and jewels, of course -- suggests Mr. Ruttenstein. Others, he says, will wear vests and/or jeans with crisp white shirts. That's nice.
Ms. Davies also gives a vote to leather pants, which she deems "very important," but then adds vests, long skirts and jackets to her top sellers list.
Though reports from Chanel's U.S. headquarters in New York indicate that jeans and vests probably will be Chanel's top-selling leathers nationwide, Ms. Steiner believes the most popular items will be long skirts, pants and jackets. "We've got a long, slim skirt that buttons up the back that should be great," she predicts, adding sotto voce, "We can always shorten a long skirt, but you can't change a short skirt."
Among jackets, she expects a simple blazer to be a favorite of the investment-minded, while a style called "Perfecto" should be a winner with fashion fans. " 'Perfecto' has everything going for it -- it's part tweed, has leather sleeves and is short and fitted, with a slight flare, making it ideal to wear with a skirt or pants." For some, however, "Perfecto" has a drawback: A hefty price of $4,045 -- before taxes.
But, nothing in a quality leather comes cheap. It's a given that good leather is expected to be expensive, just as silver and gold are inevitably more expensive than imitations.
Mr. Ruttenstein says there are some great leather pants around $300, "and some even greater ones go on up to $1,000." LaVelle Olexa, senior vice president of fashion merchandising for all Lord & Taylor stores, says that "real value can be found in some of the leathers in the bridge-priced lines, such as Donna Karan's DKNY and Perry Ellis."
Pants and long skirts, which she believes are the strongest "updating items," will range from around $300 to $500. If it's the one item a woman chooses to give a lift to her fall wardrobe, the implication is that it may very well be worth the investment.
In fact, each pro interviewed stressed the investment dressing. "It ages so beautifully," said one. "It lasts forever," claimed another.
Some words of warning they might also consider adding for the truly investment-conscious:
* Buy a leather piece only if you love it so much, you really do want to wear it forever. But, remember that forever is a long time.
* Forget the fashion details and stick with things on the classic side; classic can equate with clean-lined and understated -- it doesn't necessarily mean boring.
* If it's the one thing you're going to get to update your fall wardrobe, get it in black, dark brown or red, the best possible neutrals; make sure it fits beautifully; don't gain an ounce for the next 10 years.