Originally created 07/06/97

Nothing like straw for chic summer



It's an old saw that a drowning man will grasp at straw. With the hot sun overhead, any woman who wants comfort and fashion will grasp at straw, too.

Designers are weaving easy, breezy straw into everything from jaunty hats to traditional totes to stylish sandals, but a touch of twine will likewise do.

From head to toe, these lightweight, lighthearted natural selections have you covered. Look for openwork cloches and big-brimmed sun hats in raffia, lightweight basket bags to replace leather, and wedges with cork heels or canvas espadrilles with braided rope soles.

These earthy go-withs complement ready-to-wear from romantic summer dresses to ethnic prints and eco-friendly neutrals such as khaki linens and ecru cottons.

A classic brimmed straw in royal blue, orange, yellow, purple, black or red that would go most places in the sun is $6 at Target. For city slickers, there is Salvatore Ferragamo's tote in natural raffia covered with slick PVC, $465, with matching wedge sandals, $210.

The Milanese maker also has a bag with three tiers of straw and black grosgrain handle, $265. Also prim and proper is Kate Spade's burlap top-handle bag trimmed with 3-D raffia flowers, $170. Susan Gail handbags are about dress-up, too.

"Our bags are more tailored, so you'd wear them with a nice linen suit to work or to a luncheon," says Hollister Trott, a media-relations associate. A midsize straw shoulder bag with a slight gold sheen, saddle-color leather strap and faux tortoise-shell buckle is $185 at Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom.

But you don't have to drop a lot of cash for a lot of style. Corbin Seitz, style consultant for Target, the Minneapolis-based retailer, says most of its straw accessories sell for less than $15. A chocolate brown straw fedora with downturned brim is $10.

"Very Audrey Hepburn, very Breakfast at Tiffany's," Mr. Seitz says. "It looks very mysterious, very sophisticated with big Jackie O sunglasses."

If vintage romance is more your mood, the store has a natural raffia cloche with small roll brim trimmed in faded burgundy and pink roses, also about $10.

"You wear it low down on the head, and it's very '20s-looking," according to Mr. Seitz. "Pair it with a flowing floral summer dress, and it has an antique feel to it that immediately says romance."

The harvest of airy accessories also includes a black straw modified derby, $6, and a little straw knapsack in denim blue, about $12, also at Target.

Carol Hochman, president of accessories at Liz Claiborne in New York, says a woman's healthy respect for the sun is another reason for straw's popularity.

"We're having such a good season with straw hats because they make you feel like summer," she says, "but they also help prevent the sun from getting at you."

Choose from Liz Claiborne's natural-color straw visor, $14, or an up-brim in natural or black straw, $20, at Macy's.

The whole category of natural fibers is a good bet for the season, thanks to summer simplicity, says Elena Hart, fashion director for the Fashion Association in New York.

"It's all about ease, and there's nothing as easy as these nubby, natural fabrics and textures," according to Ms. Hart. "Like minimal make-up, in the summer, you want something as uncomplicated and simple as monochromatic straw."

One complication. Natural fabrics such as light-colored straw or rope don't always fare well with dirt.

"Ideally you will spray a straw accessory with a repellent such as Scotchguard before you wear it, so it's clean and repels water and dirt better," Jeff Prine says, director of Accessories Council, a trade group in New York.

"If it's very dirty, there's not that much you can do," according to Mr. Prine. But there's an upside.

"Usually, people get tired of wearing the accessory before it gets too soiled," he says. "Or, fortunately, the season is over."