NEW YORK -- It was mere months ago that most fashion fans would have shunned a poncho.
You can almost hear them saying, "What, that shapeless thing?! Our hippy-dippy mothers wore it - and we won't."
But that was months ago, and the fashion cycle has gone full circle.
Ponchos have been one of the most popular trends of the summer and they'll be prominent in fall wardrobes, too.
Same goes for prim-and-proper capelets.
"Women want a way to cover up without wearing a coat," says Sally Singer, Vogue's fashion news and features editor. "They're just other strategies to reinvent the pashmina."
Last year's favored cover-up, the more urban and glamorous shrug, has merely been replaced by its "loving-hand" sister, the poncho, Singer says.
"This season is about wearing very traditional pieces in untraditional ways. ... This is how I'm seeing it (the poncho) out and about in the city: Women are wearing it with skinny pants and heels in the evening. It's the new cool top, it has a little peekaboo effect, replacing lingerie," she observes.
Meanwhile, a cape adds a sweet-but-sexy touch to an outfit.
"You're covering up to bare all. It's 'mystifying' sexy," Singer describes.
It doesn't hurt that both ponchos and capes are flattering to many body types because they create a "T" shape, adding a little volume to the top and creating the illusion of a slimmer, straight bottom.
"A poncho exemplifies what you have but it's not enough structure to put too much emphasis on any one thing," Singer says.
"Ponchos epitomize a laid-back quality to be paired with anything from jeans or shorts if you have great legs, to nothing at all for evening, just as long as the silhouette remains streamlined," adds designer Michael Kors, who sent a purple fur poncho down the runway at his fall preview.
"My poncho combines both indulgence and comfort by using knitted fur and double-faced fabrics - they carry a much lighter weight attitude."
Singer likes that that the cover-ups offer a way to bring color, pattern and texture to a wardrobe dominated by more sensible pieces. Ponchos or shawls typically aren't items people buy as investment pieces; instead they are the accessories that jazz up the suit or even jeans that need to last more than a season or two.
A man's long scarf would do the same trick.
Singer likes the way the silk scarves looked at the fall runway shows for Stella McCartney and Chloe: Either worn with a brooch or with a simple, button-down shirt or sweater as an ascot. "It's a very clever way to add a classy and weirdly timeless touch to your wardrobe," she says.
A man's scarf can also update last season's must-have piece, the trench coat. "Loop the scarf under the lapels. It'll look modern," she advises.
Cristiana Proietti, designer and founder of Cris, a cashmere collection that features both ponchos and capes for fall, says consumers like the flexibility of these garments.
"People have changed the way they dress. They like to dress in the morning and don't want to change in the evening but they want to look appropriate all day. We're all looking for pieces that are easy to dress up and down," Proietti says.
She's done just that with a capelet that's held together with a jeweled pin. Her ponchos have an asymmetrical silhouette and come in candy colors and they are without 1960s-style fringe.
Sari Sloane, head buyer for retailer Intermix, thinks the primary appeal of these chic toppers is their balanced blend of bohemian and luxury - "which is where fashion is right now."
"There are a lot of bohemian, earthy looks out there, and there are feminine, pretty looks. You can wear a poncho or a fur capelet with both," Sloane says.
Fall merchandise is just beginning to arrive in stores, but Intermix has already sold half its seasonal supply of ponchos. If you're wearing a tank top and sandals with your poncho or capelet now, Sloane says try a thin-weight turtleneck with jeans or even dressier slacks, and boots as the seasons change.
"People are gravitating to earthy colors and gem tones, a lot of winter white, camel, brown and deep green and purple. For fur, they like white and natural browns. There's not a lot of black and gray going on," reports Sloane.
Another draw is that ponchos and capes are typically "one size fits all," says Sloane. "You can be petite, short, tall, a little larger. They don't have to fit perfectly because there really is no 'fit."'
She adds: "In general, the accessories business has been so strong because it has wide appeal. ... A cashmere poncho is much more flexible than a cashmere sweater."
Also, Sloane notes, these pieces simply are comfortable. "I wear my poncho on the plane. It's luxurous loungewear."
But just because you can wear a poncho in dozens of ways and in dozens of settings doesn't mean you'll have the time to do so.
"I can't see this as a lasting trend," says Vogue's Singer. "It'll dip in and out. The poncho can't be reworked 100 ways like the pashmina or a shawl. ... The summer ones will give way to fall ones. Someone who discovered this summer that they looked good in a poncho will invest in a second one in a heavier fabric but it's too strong a statement to make for too long."
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