Monday, February 13, 2006

Frumpy Americans and pencil skirts

Cleaning out our closets with reality fashion television

By Helyn Trickey
Special to CNN

(CNN) -- If you're hoping to turn heads for all the right reasons with your fashion choices, take a note from Daniel Vosovic.

The young fashion designer and star of Bravo's hit television show "Project Runway" has a sterling piece of advice, but be warned: If you're like most Americans, you've violated his mandate more times than Britney Spears has appeared on Mr. Blackwell's annual worst-dressed list.

"I say if you can sleep comfortably in it, I don't want to see it on the street," Vosovic said in a phone interview from his native New York City. "It's too easy."

Indeed, many fashion followers bemoan our style reputation in comparison to our more dapper contemporaries around the world.

"They just take the effort," Vosovic says of our global counterparts.

He recalls a particular evening when he was living in Florence, Italy, and making a late-night run to a grocery store where he encountered another shopper: "I saw this beautiful woman dressed in knee-high stiletto boots and pushing a baby carriage down a cobblestone street. I took note of it," he says, "because it's just something you wouldn't see very often in the U.S."

"(Writer) David Sedaris has a great quote about American fashion," says Finola Hughes, host of the Style Network's reality show "How Do I Look?" "He says something like, 'Comfort has its place, but it seems rude to visit another country dressed as if you've come to mow its lawns.'"

Frump or fresh?
If it all sounds terribly bleak, don't despair quite yet. At least some experts think our style is less about frump and more about fresh.

"I think Americans are just different," says "Project Runway's" executive producer Shari Levine. "There's an argument to be made that sports fashion, the street look, is very hip and current and that it translates overseas too. We're known for our ... fresh sensibility; our style is much more reflective of our lifestyle and our priorities."

Whether our personal clothing choices are really daring fashion statements or blissful blunders, one thing is for sure: Americans are embracing reality television fashion shows with as much enthusiasm as a sale table at the Dress Barn.

Two shows that debuted in 2003, Bravo's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," a lifestyle makeover program that quickly wrested its way into our pop culture lexicon, and The Learning Channel's "What Not to Wear," an American version of the popular British makeover show, helped usher in a slew of other reality fashion shows.

And the popularity has paid dividends in ratings glory.

"'Queer Eye' launched to phenomenal numbers and, because of its popularity, brought new viewers to the network," says Bravo spokesperson Amelie Tseng.

And "Project Runway" is performing well for the network, too. The second season premier garnered triple the audience from its season one launch.

"Last Wednesday (January 18th), 'Project Runway' was the No.1 show across all networks," Tseng says.

Today, a menagerie of fashion reality shows follow on the fashionable heels of their successful predecessors. ABC has "Extreme Makeover," and the Style Network offers "Fashion Police" and "How Do I Look?" Women's Entertainment Network jumped into the fray with "Style Me," and Fox contributed "The Swan."

We tune in week after week to watch our worst offenders transformed, so is it possible that we sloppy Americans are actually taking an interest in stilettos and pencil straight skirts? Are we suddenly worrying over the drape of the fabric, the tonal colors of a print, the silhouette we create with our work suits?

If we are, Vosovic says, it's nothing new. Our grandparents were probably more fashion savvy than we are today.

"Americans didn't always have this denim-wearing, casual mantra," he says. "Think about the 1950s. They used to get dressed up; people used to get dressed up just to get on a plane."

Hughes sees American interest in personal fashion revving up again.

"I think it's interesting that clothing stores like the Gap are suffering. It seems like the average khaki and T-shirt brigade are looking for something more, something personal. It's almost becoming a statement of intelligence, like a competition to see who can get something unique at an affordable price," she says in a phone interview from the set of her show in Los Angeles.

Indeed America's shifting fashion sense may be affecting the bottom line of some well-known clothiers.

In late November, Gap's chief executive, Paul Pressler, announced the company had suffered its worst quarterly sales decline in three years. At the time of his announcement, Pressler said the company's premier chains, Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic, needed to spiff up their stores and align themselves better with changing fashion trends.

Still, Vosovic knows the average housewife in Missoula, Montana, is unlikely to wear any of his runway creations to pick up milk from the local 7-Eleven. But he hopes "Project Runway" and the other fashion reality shows will inspire average Americans to experiment a little more with their wardrobe choices.

"It doesn't have to be an entire wardrobe change," he says, "just try to cycle in pieces that are more flattering to your body."

Hughes says accessorizing well can add new life to your everyday look.

"Handbags and shoes are such a huge fashion statement," she says, " want to add (an accessory) that is personal, so when you wear it there are comments and conversations that go on."

Edgy young designers add fresh perspective to the runway
Just as a seismic shift may be shaking up the way average Americans view their own clothing, a notable change in the fashion industry itself is slowly taking shape.

Young, relatively unknown designers are starting to truly influence the haute couture trends that prance down the runways in New York, Paris and Milan and ultimately land on sales racks in major department stores and discount retailers like Target and Wal-Mart.

Already, designers like Isaac Mizrahi, Mossimo Giannulli and trendy British designer Luella Bartley have teamed up with Target to sell their collections to the masses.

"The big names that America has known for decades now - Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren - are getting up there. Newer designers are preparing to take the reins of American fashion. We will be seeing the passing of the torch soon," Vosovic says.

He has his eye on designers Zac Posen and Derek Lam, dubbing them the next American classic designers.

Hughes says young designers would do well to pay close attention to the business strategies of leading designers: Selling fashion as a lifestyle, not just a cashmere sweater or a leather bag.

"Donna Karan can dress a woman's body at any age ... and when you wear her you are the urban woman walking along city streets with your boyfriend. Any exciting new designers will bring a lifestyle along with their designs," she says.

Hughes, who will host "Style Network Invades New York Fashion Week," the network's glitzy coverage of the annual Fashion Week in February, says she's continually thrilled by the fashion choices she sees in Proenza Schouler's collection by Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough.

"We always follow the young designers," says Hughes. "They bring in what their peers are wearing, and so when you see their collections it immediately makes sense because you've seen young people on the streets wearing that."

Whether you follow fashion trends from a seat next to a runway in New York, or you're just trying to find something flattering to wear to the grocery store, Vosovic hopes Americans learn that fashion, ultimately, has the power to transform.

It's as simple as "waking up in the morning and deciding who you want to be. You can take on Greta Garbo. You can either put on the black loafers or the red stilettos. It changes your complete outlook," he says.

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