Loosely defined, style can be comfortable Fashion: For baggy ladies, there are alternatives to that snug wardrobe.

November 21, 1996|By A.M. Chaplin | A.M. Chaplin,SUN STAFF

Some mornings I wake up and I think to myself that my clothes had better treat me nicely because it s a sure bet nothing else will.

On these mornings I don't reach for the fashiony stuff, but for the kinder, gentler duds. We're talking loose fit here, pull-on pants and unstructured jackets, clothes my husband refers to as "your Ho Chi Minh pajamas" for the functional-chic look they share with certain revolutionary uniforms.

I like that look, baggy bottoms and all, and I love its comfort -- and at the same time I wish it were more fashionable. But there it is: The First Law of Wardrobe Dynamics states that comfort and fashion only rarely coincide.

Certainly the fashionable clothes of the moment, snug-as-skin separates, are not hugely comfortable even when they're moderated by spandex, though they are an improvement on the Power Slut look of the '80s, with its tiny hobbling skirts and mega-shouldered jackets.

(As for the old dressed-for-success uniform of suits and heels, almost anything's a comfort improvement on that. And if you'd just as soon wear suits as sweats -- well, you're a better woman than I am, and I bet you look forward to having your legs waxed, too. Go kiss the nearest mirror; this is not for you.)

Of course plenty of women manage to dress not only in comfort but also in style, which is a more elusive and personal thing than fashion. I admire these women, I envy them -- but I am a weaker vessel, without the confident sense of self that style requires and therefore subject to the occasional overwhelming desire to trend out. Thus my wardrobe is a divided nation -- comfort occupies the left bank, fashion holds down the right, and the border is forever being negotiated.

When I am paying allegiance to the comfort side, I do have a goal besides elastic waists: It is to have a look, even if it's not the look. Thus in the past I have done preppie, ethnic and sporty in the interests of comfort-with-a-look; but now I just do Flax, or Flax wannabes.

Flax is the brand name for a line of separates and dresses made with a cut that, in general, keeps a certain respectful and pajama-like distance from the body. Fabrics are mostly wash-and-wear, such as laundered linen or corduroy, and feel good on the skin. Styles work on a wide range of figures, including those with some meat on their bones.

The colors are quiet and play well with others. The prices are about what you'd pay for a high-end moisturizer: from about $40 for a washed-linen vest to about $90 for a corduroy dress. Almost all the pieces work with all the other pieces, so Flax is easy to pull together on those mornings when you have four minutes and 14 seconds to get dressed and get the kids out the door.

Even the style-impaired can not only get dressed, but even look as though they were good at it. This is why Flax is to Baltimore's comfort groupies what Prada and Gucci are to Manhattan's fashion groupies.

Of course Flax doesn't offer the only comfort look around, and it's not the only line to do well with pull-on pants and laundered linen. In the same price range, Bryn Walker and Alywear, for just two examples, have done fairly similar looks.

But it's my guess that these haven't made quite the dent in the Baltimore market that Flax has. Maybe it's because the pieces of these other lines don't mix and match as well, or maybe it's because they don't have quite as strong a manufacturer-retailer-customer connection as Flax does. Not just one but two Baltimore stores -- the Bead in the Rotunda and Something Else in Mount Washington -- carry enough of the stuff to put together not only the occasional outfit, but also an entire wardrobe.

The Bead, in fact, is "one of our best customers nationwide," says Matthew Engelhart; "It's huge." Engelhart is the husband of Flax designer Jeanne Engelhart and the vice president of their company, Angelheart Design.

He adds that their company has grown more than 2,000 percent in the last four years, and that Flax sales represent 90 percent of that growth. Those figures suggest that quite a few women are buying into the idea of easy-to-wear and cheap-to-keep clothes.

Engelhart also says, in a manner suggesting he thinks this has something to do with that 2,000 percent, that his wife doesn't read fashion magazines. His voice adds to a chorus that has been criticizing the fashion industry and its magazines lately for presenting clothes that are irrelevant to the lives of most women -- clothes that make the wearer uncomfortable either because of how they feel (like four-inch heels) or because of how they look (like see-through fabrics) or because of what they cost (like $3,000 suits).

So, for many women, keeping up with the latest fashion has come to mean discomfort: They have to keep thin, to keep in touch with the new, to keep spending, to keep trying. It can get to be a strain.

Some women enjoy fashion so much they feel no pain, and some women need it so much they can't give it up. But many other women would rather put their effort into something else.

They want their clothes to work for them, not the other way around.

The two best-stocked sources for Flax in Baltimore are the Bead in the Rotunda and Something Else in Mount Washington. Bryn Walker is available at the Bead. Earth Tones in the Gallery carries a lot of Alywear, and Wyndhurst Separates in Roland Park carries some.

Pub Date: 11/21/96

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