Playing hooky in Laguna Beach recently, designer Holly Sharp invested heavily in beads, jewels and trinkets. Wanting to do "something fun with them," she sewed "all $200 worth onto a vest. When I wore it to work the next day, everybody went crazy."
Not long after, she wore it to her Los Angeles showroom where buyers unexpectedly clamored for more. The designer has obliged with one-of-a-kind, hand-decorated pieces that retail for approximately $100--some decorated with buttons, charms, coins, faux gems, watch chains and fishing tackle. (They're currently at select Bullock's stores.)
Ranging from beaded to bare-bones, from unisex to downright sexy, from baroque to very British, the vest has become the latest fashion darling, rated an accessory as important as a belt, as decorative as jewelry. In fact, Sharp says she wears one every day, be it with jeans or something dressier, "for a splash of color or a layer of texture."
Proving vests can be an inexpensive way to take the blah out of a basic wardrobe, John Eshaya, store manager for Fred Segal on Melrose Avenue, recently created a collection of $42 vests for the store. He bought vintage styles from thrift shops and redecorated them with velvet bows, flowered fabrics or \o7 milagros \f7 (small Mexican "miracle" charms).
All vests at Fred Segal are unisex and multifaceted, says Eshaya, who has seen schoolgirls buying flower and vegetable designs by Paul Smith. The same styles look good under leather jackets. And they work wonders for Eshaya's black-tie wardrobe.
A favorite look for Linda Grosfeld, owner of the Antony Moorcroft clothing company in Los Angeles, is a vest teamed with a shirt and a pair of sheer chiffon pants. She wears the shirt out and belted, for a neo-hippie look.
"I felt the whole '60s era was going to come back," says Grosfeld, explaining why she has been collecting vests for the past two years.
One favorite in her collection is a red, raw-silk style by Los Angeles designer Bryan Emerson, decorated with embroidery and gold coins, that she found at Shauna Stein in the Beverly Center.
Another prize possession has a tapestry front with lapels and a sheer-chiffon back. She combines this one with tapestry pants, a white, full-sleeved shirt and an ascot tied at the neck.
Antony Moorcroft offers mixed-pattern vests for spring, in combinations of polka dots, stripes and florals ($98 to $110 at Ice in Beverly Center). But Grosfeld suggests that women new to vests might want to play it safe, starting out with a solid color (black, white or khaki), which they can decorate to their hearts' content with pins.
While fashion fanatics claim the current revival does not include the androgynous image inspired by the film "Annie Hall," Grosfeld disagrees: "I think \o7 anything\f7 pertaining to a vest is in."
"Layering is a big part of the look," points out Ann Stordahl, vice president and merchandise manager for Bullocks Wilshire and I. Magnin. Even so, the couture crowd likes to wear vests instead of blouses under jackets. And the trendies are wearing theirs with nothing over and almost nothing under. (If a vest has large armholes, Stordahl suggests a tank top or a body suit can give essential coverage and still preserve the bare, sleeveless look.)
Fall will bring out knit versions, as well as fur vests, which are always a big item in California, according to Stordahl. "You see them in Palm Springs. It's a casual look; a gabardine pant, a sweater and a little mink vest."
Men's vests are part of the Benetton look for women, says the company's U.S. fashion director Patrizia Spinelli. "It's something you can lend to your boyfriend or borrow from him. If you wear it loose and informal, it doesn't matter if it's too big."
Her personal preference is a vest worn loosely over a white T-shirt, or for a dressier look, over a camisole that has a little lace in front.
Corporate women who want to lighten up their office attire might consider what Patty Fox, fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue, practices and preaches. Her own wardrobe includes one outfit with a dressy baroque-inspired vest, an oversize damask shirt and a short black skirt. She wears the shirt out, wraps it with a chain belt and adds a cluster of pins to one lapel.
"It's not to be taken seriously, like a three-piece vested suit," she says. "It's done for wit."
At Robinson's, Wesley Clay, vice president of fashion merchandising, sees the Southwestern look continuing with "a wonderful vest, a white shirt and a long, sweeping skirt--preferably in chambray."
For more exotic dressing, Clay likes a mix of ethnic prints, starting with the vest, moving on to the ikat- or batik-dyed T-shirt and ending with a long, sarong-front skirt: "It's a tribal statement for the '90s."
One of Clay's favorite outfits for working women this summer is a vest, a white blouse with a portrait collar and a long, fluid skirt. For fall, he sees the arrival of "the British countryside movement," in which the vest teams up with a lace-collar blouse and jodhpur-style pants.
All told, this is one fashion movement that lends itself to couture tastes on a thrift-shop budget. Segal's Eshaya suggests how it can be done: "Get a funky old vest, put charms all over it or add tons of buttons."
As might be expected, designer Sharp recommends charms \o7 and\f7 buttons, along with anything from the garage.