Fashion is singing Soprano

Style: The popular HBO show, with its average-looking characters wearing the clothes of middle-class suburbia, is inspiring male viewers to imitation.

May 13, 2001|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,Sun Staff

The new face of men's fashion, some say, is soft, pudgy and just a tad lumpen.

The eyes are beady, the lips are menacingly curled, the hairline has long crept past the halfway mark of the head. And the belly is recognizable for its unabashedly comfortable droop over the belt.

Sure, these are highly unusual elements of a male icon in the fashion world, where those anointed for deification tend to possess the dimensions of an Adonis. But when you're Tony Soprano, a likable mob boss on one of the most popular shows on television -- well, the rules of fashion can be altered.

And the new style dictum is that the Tony Soprano look soon could be hotter than the stolen cars on the hip HBO show.

"The buzz on Seventh Avenue is that 'The Sopranos' look is going to be in," said David Wolfe, creative director at the Doneger Group, a fashion consulting and trend-forecasting company in New York. "Maybe [the show] is going to bring back that Versace style that's vulgar but flashy and cool at the same time."

The outfits Tony Soprano wears often are from the pricey Italian line Vestimenta, whose dress shirts sell for $210 and whose suits cost about $2,000. But the show's look is fairly easy to achieve. While classic Mafia movies like "Godfather" and "Goodfellas" flamboyantly showcased exquisite tailoring and elegant, stylish dressing, "The Sopranos" attempts to exude none of that intimidating high-brow chic.

The show, whose third season finale airs next week, centers on a Mafia operation in suburban, middle-class New Jersey, and its characters' clothes reflect their environment. The Soprano crowd is so realistically outfitted that last year the show's costume designer Juliet Polsca got her first Emmy nomination.

While Tony Soprano and his cadre sometimes appear in sleek, simply cut suits, they're also shown effecting everyday glory in ratty bathrobes, jogging suits and rumpled shirts with the sleeves pushed up. Tony himself is most often seen in belted black pants and a loose-fitting polo shirt or a casual bowling-alley shirt like the ones Kramer from "Seinfeld" made popular in the '90s. Sometimes, he leaves his retro bowling-alley shirt unbuttoned to expose the white muscle shirt underneath.

The show's generic suburban look is enhanced by the highly wearable colors the "Sopranos" characters are partial to -- olive, khaki, black, cream, blue and gray. And the characters look so convincingly middle-class that many ordinary men who watch the show may find they already inadvertently look like Tony or Paulie.

Stan Gellers, senior editor at Daily News Record, the leading men's retail and fashion publication, said the "Sopranos" look appeals to men because the outfits seem comfortable.

"From the looks of the people on the show, they're very much at home in the clothes that they wear," Gellers said. "The clothes don't wear the characters; the characters wear the clothes. The men on the show are very average-

looking guys, and the clothes they like to wear look good on them."

Geller noted that men always have consciously or subconsciously looked to television shows and movies for fashion tips.

"I constantly talk to custom-tailors who say they have men who come in saying they want to look like so-and-so on TV," said Gellers, who noted that the most popular TV fashion role models seem to be personalities Stone Phillips and Bryant Gumbel. "Very few men pay attention to fashion, but it's so convenient for a man to watch TV, and the clothes are right there, and with enough exposure it sinks in."

In the '80s, "Miami Vice" inspired men to copy Don Johnson's customary pairing of a T-shirt with a casual jacket with pushed-up sleeves. And Regis Philbin spawned a frenzy last fall for monochromatic combinations of dress shirts and ties when he wore them on the wildly popular game show "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?"

But the trend-setters in film and television shows almost always have been young, handsome or, at least, trim. In "The Sopranos," where the portly Tony Soprano resembles many husbands and fathers in the real world, there finally is a fashion icon with whom the ubiquitous, less-than-perfect man truly can identify. And since the show is so popular -- drawing an average of 9 million viewers each week this season -- and is known for being edgy and hip, men want to copy Tony and the guys even though they don't look like the male models in GQ.

"It's harder to associate with someone like Fabio, with his long hair and his great body," said Edward Steinberg, owner of upscale Pikesville menswear store J.S. Edwards. "How many guys can look like that? But with Tony Soprano, the average guy out there can look like him. Many are built like him -- they have a bit of a belly, and they may not be in the best physical condition."

Some fashion observers, however, expressed doubt that the Soprano look would catch on.

"It's New Jersey dressing," said Tom Julian, fashion trend analyst for the New York company Fallon Worldwide. "It's so unappealing. And there isn't a status factor to it."

But others think the show's popularity may yet prevail over current fashion trends.

"Dressing up is coming back in style, but not everybody has good taste when they dress up," Wolfe said. "So the people who may lack traditional good taste or like something a little bit more vulgar need a role model. And the Sopranos are a perfect role model."

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