the new Material Girl

The 80s look is back, only this time you don't have to rip your fishnets to be fashionable.

March 11, 2001|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

Madonna's Material Girl was a trashy-glam bad chick. The unforgettable '80s fashion icon was a rebellious lass with a penchant for one-shoulder jersey dresses, ripped T-shirts, fishnet stockings and miniskirts paired with fat belts slung low on the hips. She favored unkempt hair festooned with black-lace bows, cut-off gloves and way too much eye-liner.

And she's back.

Just when we thought we had permanently expunged the Material Girl from pop culture, the fashion world decided to resurrect the defiant damsel this spring. Think what you will of the '80s, but this season, poufy skirts, one-shouldered blouses and other clothing reminiscent of early Madonna are prominent fixtures in many collections.

"What we saw last fall was the return of the '80s, but the good girl of the '80s - the `Dynasty' look with the power suits," said Erin Carmack, Neiman Marcus' director of fashion presentation. "Now, what's coming on the heels of that is the bad girl of the '80s look - the leggings and the accessories. Certainly not everyone wants to look like Madonna in the `Like a Virgin' video, but that tough-girl chic is making a comeback."

The millennial Material Girl, however, is slightly different. Even though the outfits generally are in keeping with the multihued flavor of many a Cyndi Lauper ensemble, spring's designer offerings are not as tawdry.

The look is slightly pared down and, often, more wearable in these times when the minimalist '90s are still fresh in our minds. Instead of having 30 zippers, for example, a tough-girl black-leather dress may just have one or two. And instead of ripped fishnets, the key this season is to wear your punky hosiery intact.

"It's more subtle and modern," Carmack said. "And our younger customers, who didn't do the '80s the first time, they really want that look."

Some elements of the '80s dress code do have their advantages. The jersey dress, which is the rage this season, drapes so well on a body that it is very forgiving of less-than-perfect figures.

But not all retailers think their customers will buy the Material Girl look. Ray Mitchener, a buyer for the upscale Baltimore boutique Ruth Shaw, said he usually stocks up on Jean-Paul Gaultier but passed on the designer's offerings this season because they were too heavy on the bad-girl flair.

"I don't know where it would really sell," Mitchener said, "other than in a major, major city where you have people who buy fashion just for fashion's sake."

As for the '80s items he is bringing in, Mitchener said he plans to work with customers to incorporate elements of the era into an overall modern look. His suggestions include pairing a belt with a big, rhinestone-studded buckle with a plain T-shirt and jeans or white pants.

"You don't want to look like a fashion victim by having everything on at one time - the fishnet panty hose with the rhinestone belt and the big gold bangles," Mitchener said.

What retailers are expecting shoppers to eat up is the other side of the Material Girl chic - the spirit of '80s excess and materialism manifested in designer clothing or accessories that have large logos. In fact, fashion observers already have noticed an interest in prominent designer labels among the public.

"Upscale is a consumer mantra from the high end to the masses," said Tom Julian, a fashion trend analyst for the New-York-based company Fallon Worldwide. "The accessories continue to tell a status story - whether it is real or fake. No matter where I've been in the last week - Miami, Detroit, Minneapolis and now Seattle - the discerning eye can follow the status brands in eyewear, purses, shoes, bags and totes."

Shawny Burns, spokeswoman for Saks Fifth Avenue in Chevy Chase, said one of the store's most popular items recently was a pair of Chanel tights that had the logo emblazoned all over them.

"We've reached that peak again where logos are really hot," Burns said. "Anything with a logo sells like crazy."

The easiest way to indulge in '80s "bling-bling" - pop-culture-speak for flashiness - but still maintain a modicum of sophistication is to wear only one or two prominent designer items. For example, wear a low-slung belt that has a large buckle that says "Prada" or "Gucci," or don a chunky silver watch that says "Armani." Or, wear a blouse or T-shirt with a big Donna Karan emblem and pair that with a tiny Christian Dior purse with a repeated pattern of the logo.

Sure, this flashy excess is a little out of sync with the current angst over the sinking economy. But retailers and fashion analysts said they predict the Material Girl mindset will stick around for a while.

"Self-indulgence," Julian said, "is still an escapist approach for this consumer."

IF THE MATERIAL GIRL ISN'T FOR YOU ...

So, you burned your Material Girl threads long ago and refuse to revive the spirit of early Madonna in your fashion leanings. Fear not, spring brings other trends that might be more palatable.

Girly charm

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