Originally created 12/30/98

Fortunes are changing in fashion



This has been a sobering year for the fashion industry. Instead of aesthetic accomplishments or innovative style, this year stands as one in which it confronted cold truths about launching and maintaining a successful enterprise.

The year saw the liquidation of Charivari, one of the industry's most interesting and adventurous stores. The Anne Klein Co. is on the block. Adrienne Vittadini stepped down from her namesake company. Henri Bendel closed five of its six stores.

There were unnerving moments: Bill Blass had a mild stroke. The French used riot police to block the entrance to Giorgio Armani's cancelled Emporio show. The Veronique Branquinho show in Paris brought a stampede of guests clamoring to enter an overbooked presentation.

The industry indulged in embarrassing conversations about a stained Gap dress. Problems with sweatshops and unfair labor practices continued to distress activists.

In many ways, this was the year that many in the industry were forced to grow up. One hopes that designers and retailers will become savvier business people, recognizing the importance of balancing creativity with consumer sensitivity.

The worst outcome would be if those with dreams of changing the way the world dresses are left feeling defeated and cynical. There still is reason to be hopeful.

Ralph Lauren opened a splashy new store in Chicago. Donna Karan revamped her management team to heal her stock market woes. Max Azria of BCBG bought the French fashion house Herve Leger. And a handful of neophytes promise a thoughtful view of future fashion.

What follows are the year's most intriguing fashion events -- some surprising, some reassuring, and all, we suspect, having lasting impact.

-- -- -- Belgian brio: A trio of young designers sent a ripple of excitement through the industry. Veronique Branquinho helped make hemlines fall with her vision of Gothic romance. Olivier Theyskens owes his rise to the patronage of Madonna, who has worn his voluminous ball gowns that merge Cinderella with the Bride of Frankenstein. And Josephus Thimister made an eloquent argument for luxurious simplicity in both his ready-to-wear and couture collections.

-- -- -- Cargo pants: the trend that had legs. For fall, Ralph Lauren sold 1,500 pairs that ranged in price from about $600 to $1,000.

-- -- -- Sean "Puffy" Combs: the new style mogul. His roots are in hip-hop music, but he crossed over into fashion with his penchant for Versace duds and his habit of turning up for photo ops at fashion shows. Now he has his own clothing line and has invested in a style magazine called Notorious.

-- -- -- Isaac Mizrahi: The designer became more influential when his business shut down this year than when he was garnering critical praise for his work. His clothes didn't sell and his licenses weren't profitable. The end of Isaac Mizrahi Ltd. forced the industry to stop deluding itself that positive publicity begets a successful business.

-- -- -- French provinciality: French police shut down Giorgio Armani's Emporio show in Paris, citing fire safety issues. The rest of the world saw it as the French way of protecting its fashion dominance. With so many Americans and British taking over French houses, perhaps there's a reason to worry.

-- -- -- Prada investments: Prada bought some 10 percent of Gucci stock. The company denied initiating a takeover, but talk of a power alliance abounds.

-- -- -- Calendar juggling: Austrian designer Helmut Lang started it all when he decided to show his womenswear collection in New York almost two months earlier than usual. A host of American designers followed suit. Now the Americans will be first to show their fall '99 lines, beating the Europeans to the punch. They hope to set the trends, get their clothes to stores sooner and rack up higher sales.

-- -- -- Khakis: The push was to transform them from dowdy to hip, led by the Gap's "Khakis Swing" campaign.

-- -- -- Clinton as cover girl: Hillary Rodham Clinton's appearance on the cover of American Vogue forever shook off her image as an unstylish first lady. More than that, the cover, coupled with the pictures inside, revealed a feminine, sexy and sophisticated woman who should be neither pitied nor feared.