Out of the closet, into the living room Home: People like Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein have designs on your house, in the form of their own sheets, furniture, home accessories and even wall paint.

August 11, 1996|By Sharon Overton | Sharon Overton,UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE

Once we were content to wear the occasional designer label on our T-shirts or jeans.

Then we discovered the joy of sleeping on designer sheets.

Now everything from soap dishes and cereal bowls to wall paint and mattress covers comes with a designer label. In the '90s, nesting has replaced social climbing, and haute couture has led to home couture. No longer are fashion designers content simply to fill our closets. They're out to fulfill our domestic fantasies as well.

Do you long for a home with the patina of old money? To his extensive line of home furnishings -- all designed to make you look as if you belong on the social register -- Ralph Lauren has recently added wall paints. With names such as Spinnaker Blue and Dressage Red, these Sherwin-Williams hues promise that your walls will bespeak gentility even if you weren't born with a silver spoon in your mouth.

Prefer a sort of stripped-down minimalism that conjures up images of a monastery or Zen rock garden? Check out Calvin Klein's new home collection: austere wooden bowls, sublimely simple china, Italian linen sheets and woven cashmere throws so exquisitely serene -- and expensive -- you'll have to take a vow of poverty to own them.

Other fashion designers are expanding into the home as well. Alexander Julian's moderately priced Home Colours collection for Universal Furniture Industries features traditionally styled furniture with subtle fashion details, such as argyle-patterned wood veneers and wingtip-style flourishes.

Gianni Versace, whose over-the-top clothing is favored by rock idols and movie stars, does baroque-style home furnishings that might appeal to the Mick Jagger in all of us.

Even Donna Karan has announced that she'll offer a home collection sometime in 1997. (Picture little form-fitting matte jersey slipcovers and cozy chairs that cradle you like a cashmere wrap coat.)

In the meantime, everyone from Joseph Abboud to Liz Claiborne, it seems, has come out with a line of bed sheets and bath towels.

While fashion designers have long lent their names to other types of products, often with mixed results, never before have so many crossed over so completely, extending their aesthetic vision to nearly every corner of our domestic lives, says Richard Martin, director of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

"It's a particularly 1990s kind of phenomenon," says Martin, who has written about Versace's Miami Beach mansion. As the couture business has slumped, designers have had to look elsewhere for markets to feed the enormous empires they built during the '80s. "People do spend more money on shelter now than on clothing," Martin says. "It's very logical to move into that area."

Also, fashion designers have attained an unprecedented celebrity status that gives them greater power to influence the way we think and live.

"I suspect that Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren are names that are as familiar as Bill Clinton," Martin says. "Every street kid now knows the name Giorgio Armani [one of the few designers, it seems, who doesn't have a home collection]. We've come to the point where fashion designers are looked upon with an enormous sense of faith in a society that doesn't give faith to its political figures or even its spiritual figures."

Naturally, anything that exalted is bound to be ridiculed as well. Newsweek has poked fun at the idea of pricey designer wall paint as a new "lifestyle fetish." Starting at $21 a gallon for basic white, Ralph Lauren Paints come in 400 colors grouped in categories such as Thoroughbred, Country, Safari and Sante Fe, which complement his furniture designs. Custom finishing kits also are available that will instantly age your freshly painted walls with a patina of "sun-fade, tea-stained, smoke and tobacco effects," according to a Lauren press release.

Even the New Yorker has explored the home-fashion connection. A recent cartoon spoofed Calvin Klein's "less is more" philosophy, showing a one-tined fork for $350 ("a utensil pared down to its essential being") and a $25,000 table that consisted of a board lying on the floor ("sure to win design awards by the bucketful").

Perhaps it's not surprising in this age of mind-boggling choices that we look to designers for validation of how we dress and how we live. Even the Gap, which created a national uniform out of khaki pants and denim work shirts, is said to be considering an expansion into home furnishings. Just imagine: sofas that are as familiar as a pair of faded jeans, and rugs, dishes and lamps all bearing that comforting, generic navy-blue label.

The fact that the "Gap Home" rumors persist without confirmation from the company itself shows how eager many shoppers are for the validation of a brand name.

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