On a recent cold afternoon at a cozy boutique in San Francisco, a silver-haired Elton John look-alike in zebra hat, coat and boots, demonstrates the art of tying scarfs.
Willis Hill--known to cognoscenti as the Scarf Wizard--weaves his magic on a stream of Saturday shoppers. A giant silk square in red-and-black polka dots became a blouse, a halter and finally a colorful cocoon wrap.
Hill, who appeared recently on KABC-TV's "A.M. Los Angeles"--"he's great TV; he gets people excited about scarfs," says supervising producer Steve Ober--is one of a growing number of fashion consultants around the country giving scarf seminars at department stores, boutiques, adult-education and health-care facilities to "educate" women on the virtues of colorizing and expanding their wardrobes with scarfs.
Increasingly frustrated by the rising cost of ready-to-wear, women are investing in chiffons and challises of all shapes and sizes. (The bulk of sales remain in the $20-$35 range.)
The once-lowly scarf--which used to rank behind bags and belts--has in the last two years emerged as a strong contender in the estimated $12-billion accessories stakes. Sales have mushroomed from an estimated $100 million in 1987 to a projected $350 million for 1989.
The prestigious Parisian house of Hermes, which annually adds 12 designs to its catalogue, last January in New York organized "A Scarf is Born," a retrospective of 100 Hermes scarfs.
With projected sales this year at $50 million, family-owned Echo Design Group, a New York scarf-and-belt business also licensed to sell Ralph Lauren scarfs, is adding a new line to its fall scarf collection aimed at the moderate-priced consumer. Dubbed Runway, the polyester product sells for 30% less than regular Echo scarfs, priced from $20 up to more than $100 for better silks.
Tiffany & Co., which launched its scarf line in 1987 with six silk designs, plans to carry 50 styles--priced from $130 to $225--at its nine United States outlets by the end of the year.
Although new designers are attracted to the lucrative accessories market, many remain perplexed by the potential of the scarf.
New York newcomers Aude Bronson-Howard and Elizabeth Kramer were unprepared for the success of their first season. They are still personally filling orders, transporting their luxurious silk and velvet creations, priced from $350 up to $1,300, in suitcases from coast to coast.
"We started off in March last year with two scarfs in a suitcase. Now we have 800," said Howard-Bronson, 37, also a costume designer whose recent credit was on "Mississippi Burning." "Many of our clients are in the movie industry, and this has helped."
Paloma Picasso, in Beverly Hills recently with her husband and business partner, Rafael Lopez-Cambil, to promote her spring accessories collection at I. Magnin, advocates yet another role for the big pieces: "letting them lie around the house.
"Scarfs used to be draped along pianos and furniture and this is going to come back in a big way," Picasso said. "If you don't wear them, at least put them where you can see them."
Frances Patiky Stein, artistic designer, accessories for Chanel in Paris, who in the fall of 1987 launched her own line of accessories, calls herself "a major scarf person.
"I collect them. It's like buying dishes in an antique store," said Stein by phone from her Madison Avenue office. "On my travels, I always include a knitted cashmere that I can use as a bathrobe.
"But women are just beginning to learn how to handle pieces of fabric. Large scarfs are intimidating and not the easiest things to handle. That's why my big pieces are in taffeta--you can beat it up and it doesn't slither and fly away like crepe de Chine."
Both Picasso, who anticipates doing more than $7 million in her first year of business, and Stein, who projects sales at $3.4 million for 1989, mandate that stores house their collections in a boutique environment.
But educating retailers on the importance of display--and of the potential of the scarf business in general--has taken concerted efforts on the part of the neckwear industry.
Andrew Pizzo, president of Accessory Street in Manhattan, (licensees for Oscar de la Renta and Adrienne Vittadini), and Sol Schulman, executive vice president of Vera (licensees for Anne Klein and Perry Ellis), point out that pressure from scarf producers led to the introduction of open-selling, where customers could finger the merchandise and pay for it without consulting a salesperson.
The industry also pushed for store seminars and the production of how-to videos and guides to promote sales.
Jana Larkin, 28, a former TV account executive who lives near Chicago, co-created the video, "Scarves Tie Into a Great Look" (Larkin Enterprises Ltd: $19.95). Since its September release, the video has sold more than 15,000 copies.
Nordstrom offers a pamphlet on 40 scarf-tying techniques. Designer Ginnie Johansen, whose Dallas-based accessories concern did $20-million business in 1988, publishes an instructional leaflet.
Santa Barbara-based Flamingo Design Group has a guide of its hand-painted Indonesian scarfs that at first glance resembles a wedding album.
Recently, Jackie Bartolini, who served as fashion consultant on the Larkin video, gave a scarf-tying demonstration at Bullock's in South Coast Plaza.
Bartolini, who owns the Bellissimo boutique in Chicago, gives 20 to 30 seminars each year at stores, banks and large corporations. Believing that fashion is therapeutic, she is particularly proud of her work at several hospitals doing headwraps for cancer patients.
"The basic philosophy behind any fashion is feeling good," Bartolini said. "Looking good, is feeling good. People's attitudes change by the way they dress. We are what we wear. And accessories, I believe, can add the finishing touches to everything."