Shaggy Chic

Unraveling the mystery behind psychedelic spy Austin Powers' curiously cool threads.

June 26, 1999|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

We can't explain the shag-appeal of happily unhip British spy Austin Powers. But we're guessing it has something to do with the threads.

Austin's clothes, an Oscar-Wilde-meets-George-Harrison spectrum of opulent velvets, natty Nehru jackets and neon-checked suits, truly make the international man of mystery.

"Usually, you try to design so the clothes take a back seat. My job was to show off, to create costumes that are characters in themselves," says Deena Appel, costume designer for "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me."

"When the comedy and the characters are as large as Austin, you couldn't overdo anything."

Appel transforms London in 1969 into a flower-power theme park, with every Carnaby Street denizen and nightclub swinger swathed in ultra-retro gear.

For "Shagged," Appel abandoned the mod, pop-art and leather-catsuit look of the original movie -- "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery."

The sequel's fashions are more psychedelic, romantic and ethnically inspired, with a focus on color, texture and pattern. Lush brocade jackets, ornately embroidered vests and go-go glam boots and minidresses, place Appel's creations somewhere between Warhol and Woodstock.

So far, Appel's Swinging London-period costumes are getting smashing reviews from local fashion aficionados.

"The clothes [in the film] were all about color. No black," says Stephen Tancibok, who works at Ruth Shaw, a Cross Keys boutique. "That definitely jumped out."

The world of Mike Myers' Austin Powers isn't the only place where shocking shades rule. Color is returning to the rack in a big way, Tancibok says.

Gucci's Austin-esque summer collection, blooming with floral mini dresses, tunics and beaded slacks in soaring reds, purples and blues, is just one example.

Donna Jenkins, owner of The Zone, a downtown vintage clothing store, was impressed with Appel's handle on the romantic 19th Century flourishes popular during Austin's heyday. His dandyish trademark suit -- royal blue or cranberry crushed velvet, ruffled lace cuffs and collar (called a jabot) -- embodies it perfectly. It's a flashback to a more liberating fashion era when "men could be the peacock" -- and still be macho, Jenkins says.

"It was so cool in the '60s. It's sad now."

Appel consulted many Sixties sources to develop her vision. Fashion designers Rudi Gernreich, who popularized the topless bathing suit, and Paco Rabanne, who experimented with unconventional materials like plastic and paper, were core influences, as were images from '60s British Vogue, "The Avengers" and "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In."

New York's gallery of vintage stores was Appel's main resource for swatches. When she sought rare fabrics like heavyweight chenilles, she turned to the upholstery departments. And when the perfect color was nowhere to be found, like the cranberry tone of Austin's velvet suit, she dyed the material herself.

Appel's flirtiest creations are reserved for secret agent Felicity Shagwell (Heather Graham), Austin's lust interest.

She flaunted stunner after stunner, including a long, back-baring velvet dress. It's a "rich hippie" look, according to Jenkins. Each half of the low-cut number is an opposing shade of blue. The result is a mega-sexy whole that makes Austin hyperventilate.

But Appel's grooviest contribution to Felicity's wardrobe is a bell-sleeved, flawlessly fitted orange and pink crocheted mini-dress.

This provocative frock is the only costume in the film that Felicity wears twice. The ensemble's encore isn't a tribute to Appel's creativity. It's the result of a last-minute editing decision.

"In a way, it breaks my heart, because you try to create a certain story through costumes," says Appel, who has also designed for such movies as "Now and Then," and "He Said, She Said," which was filmed in Baltimore. "I hadn't intended for her to wear the same thing twice."

For Austin, fashion double-takes weren't a mistake. It's part of establishing the character as an icon.

"It was really important to Mike to create a silhouette that became a staple," Appel says. "There are certain areas where Mike likes the shorthand of familiarity."

Perhaps that's why the time-traveling stud agent wears the same ostentatious '60s garb even when he's swinging through the '90s. Or maybe Austin's charmingly oblivious fashion time warp goes deeper.

"He's a man of principle, he expresses himself no matter what culture he's in," Jenkins says. "He's true to his spirit. And he's the spirit of the '60s."

Making a mark

Appel wasn't responsible for custom-designing clothes for the hundreds of extras, but she did help select the apparel. She stuck with vintage '60s clothing, instead of '90s knockoffs, to preserve the crude authenticity. Appel wanted to avoid spandex and other technological advancements that have replaced the heavy, stiff materials of impractical '60s fashion statements.

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