The buzz of the fashion industry for fall isn't simply shrinking hemlines on dresses and skirts--but the new stretch fabrics those clothes will be in.
Woven fibers that never had much give, such as cotton, silk or wool, are being combined with spandex and rubberized synthetics usually reserved for active sports.
These new stretch wovens, being produced mainly in Europe, are quietly changing the fit and silhouette of fall '87 and infiltrating collections of L.A.'s Bonnie Strauss and Leon Max, plus Seventh Avenue majors, including Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, David Cameron and Geoffrey Beene.
Most designers say the new fabrics allow a smoother and snugger fit, without zippers, slits or "23 darts and 20 seams," as New York's Michael Kors puts it.
L.A.'s Strauss turned to stretch cotton for her fall suits, skirts and fitted jackets because of that close fit.
"You can get things to fit really tight, with the look of a poplin or cotton," Strauss says. "It molds to the body. It sculpts to you."
"It's about movement and sensuality," Karan in New York adds. "It controls and establishes a different kind of shape and proportion, especially with the new, shorter suits."
Karan calls stretch wovens "the next leap" beyond jerseys and knits. She says she first considered working with them while skiing in Aspen.
"Every time I got into my ski pants, I looked great," she says. "But I didn't want to use active wear fabrics. So I used it in luxurious fabrics--wool crepe, cashmere and cavalry twill."
The Karan camp insists stretch isn't just for the skinny: "It flattens out all those bad spots--kind of like a girdle," one assistant says.
New York's David Cameron took his stretch cue from a swatch of '40s ski fabric, which he had duplicated at a French mill. The result, a wool-and-spandex blend carried out in a James Bond-and-the-Jetsons theme, accounts for a third of the designers' fall orders.
Despite the new high status of stretch--and its relatively high price to date--designers say nothing about it should look obvious.
"I don't like it to look wet or shiny--or like you're wearing a rubber band," says Kors, who used lightweight wool and melton for his stretchy fall street wear. Likewise, L.A.'s Leon Max says he treats stretch wovens as he would any fabric.
"The bonus is after you start wearing it. When you bend an elbow, there's that extra give."
That resilience is what attracted Calvin Klein to the new stretchy wools and cottons, which account for about 20% of his fall designer line. And the company is experimenting with other stretchy silk blends for spring '88.
In fact, designers and retailers consider stretch only at its start. They talk of developing elasticized blends of silk chiffon, cotton and linen for the warm-weather months of '88.
And where designers tread, private-label fashion from department and specialty stores can't be far behind.
Lee Hogan Cass, vice president and fashion director at the Broadway, says that store will make a push toward private-label stretch wovens for spring '88.
"Stretch wasn't very important in Europe," says Cass of the recent fall fashion shows. "But it suddenly became a big deal in America at the designer level."