Velvet explosion Softy: Home furnishings and high fashion find new uses and colors for the fabric with the gentle touch.

February 09, 1997|By Karen Klages | Karen Klages,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Velvet has lost its reputation as being only for special occasions.

Count the world of fashion in on the make-over.

Last fall, Donna Karan featured classic column dresses in a not-so-classic velvet. "Burnout velvet" is how Karan's people refer to the process. It looked like acid had been thrown on the dresses, eating away big chunks of the velvet pile in some key spots. What remained was a jolting, sexy combination of sheer-and-velvet.

The fun is not stopping with the coming of spring.

The venerable house of Gucci is showing tie-dye velvet dresses with whip snake boots. Giorgio Armani is doing the sheer-and-velvet thing, with more sheer spots in his velvet dresses than Karan showed for fall. And, if you love your black velvet holiday shoes, you now will be able to wear the look in summer. Yes, there will be strappy sandals in black velvet just in time for pool season.

The home furnishings industry is on the same wavelength with its beloved velvet.

Once staunchly traditional and seriously jewel-toned, the classic fabric has new horizons to cover.

Velvet on contemporary furniture? Velvet as the fabric for a slouchy slipcover? Velvet in bright yellow or a black leopard print? You bet.

Modern sectionals are being upholstered in it. So are the seats of rustic dining chairs. Quirky ottomans wear the plush pile like a hip fur.

There are velvet duvets meant for spring and summer beds, dust ruffles to match, slipcovers in the very "in" shade of moss green, drapery panels and even picture frames and lampshades covered in it.

The big news is that all of this unlikely velvet now is available in stores or catalogs (and not just custom order) year-round.

Why the velvet revolution?

Softness is a human desire. It's as simple as that, explains Carole Malfatti, vice president/buyer of Z Gallerie, a Los Angeles-based home furnishings chain. Z sells velvet bed linens, pillows and ready-made drapery panels in warm climates and cold, in winter and summer. Colors are changed according to the season -- ivory and celadon are planned for spring and summer.

New colors

Color has a lot to do with velvet's new face. While the muted jewel tones always will be available and always will sell in velvet, other options -- lighter colors, stronger primaries -- are now available.

This is not to mention the fabric's own chameleonic skills. Velvet has a pile to it, as opposed to being a flat-woven fabric. That nap catches the light and plays with it, turning one color into a whole spectrum. An orange velvet, for instance, can look peach or deep orange, depending on where you stand. That depth is appealing to people who love tones and texture.

And then there's the patina factor.

"Velvet ages well," says furniture designer Monique Savarese, who, along with husband and partner Sergio Savarese, is a leader in the velvet revolution. Their New York-based company, Dialogica, has been turning out fresh, contemporary furniture and swathing it in more than 200 fashionable colors of velvet for eight years now.

As velvet ages, continues Savarese, it develops a lush patina, whereas flat-woven fabrics just look worn.

No one is sure of the fabric's exact birth. Some trace the manufacture of velvet to ancient China or the Near East. Others believe India is where velvet got its start.

What is not debated is velvet's first heyday: Renaissance Europe. It was the fabric of kings and emperors, castles and opera houses.

Today, with mass production and the availability of many different grades, velvet can be the fabric of cineplexes and middle-class homes.

Some ways to add a soft touch to your home: velvet toss pillows, velvet pillow shams for the bedroom, a velvet-covered ottoman, a velvet slipcover made for the ottoman you already own, velvet side panels over silk sheers, a velvet screen, a dramatic chaise longue.

'Velvet' refers to how fabric is woven

The term "velvet" does not refer to a type of fiber. It has to do with how the fabric is woven.

Although there are several ways to do it, one of the most common methods for weaving velvet uses a sandwich technique, according to Susan Freedman, vice president of Clarence House, a New York fabric house. Essentially, two cloths are woven face-to-face. The pile ends interchange between the two cloths. The cloths are then cut apart on the loom with a blade, producing two separate pieces of velvet. The cut ends give velvet its pile, or soft surface.

Velvet can be woven from mohair fibers, silk, cotton, linen, synthetic fibers and blends of all of the above. Krista Stack, senior designer at Jack Lenor Larsen Textiles in New York, explains some of the differences:

* Mohair velvet is the most durable. "A quality of wool is that it repels dirt," Stack says. This is the velvet of 1920s and '30s theater seats. It costs $75 to $200 a yard (prices are estimates of fine upholstery-grade fabrics).

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