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FASHION: What's Smart for Spring? : Basic Instincts : Stuck in Neutrals? Try a Jump-Start of Color

February 26, 1992|CINDY LaFAVRE YORKS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The '90s dictum, less is more, is nothing new for fashion followers. Plenty of women live by that time-tested rule. They buy fewer things and hold out for the best quality they can afford. Often as not, however, that approach leads to conventional choices: black pants and a white shirt, a safari suit and brown leather sandals are all very correct.

But there is a way to make cost-containment a lot more exciting. Bounce one old rule off another. Start with the uniform plan. But make it flashy enough to give a wardrobe a boost. Even if it's memorable as an exotic floral print, wear it as often as you want.

Conventional wisdom has it that neutral shades make the most versatile uniforms. And that idea still applies. But neutral doesn't have to mean beige or black. Artists consider chrome-yellow a neutral because it mixes with any other. Florists see green the same way.

After the leap into color, prints and patterns, the rest falls right into place.

Need a role model? Ask any man. He probably wears one suit to work several times each week--with a change in shirt and tie, of course. And if he has anything going for him style-wise, he is still considered well dressed.

Women of any income can adapt the same plan. A designer suit for $2,000 or a snappy ensemble for $200 can fill the bill.

Of course, a uniform doesn't have to be a firecracker, if a sizzler is really a woman's style. A pantsuit in bold black stripes with half a dozen red buttons on the jacket isn't for everyone. A solid color can have an impact too.

"I treat my business outfits like uniforms," says Sheri Mobley, a partner in the public relations firm Mobley/Burt and a former president of the Fashion Group of Los Angeles. She has no problem wearing the same navy pantsuit three times a week. She changes the look with one of 20 bold- or quiet-colored T-shirts.

The pantsuit look is red-hot this spring, with major league designers from Christian Lacroix to Calvin Klein featuring it as a basic ingredient in a workday outfit. What sets the newest suits apart are their ultra-feminine shapes. Jackets drape and close with as few as one low-set button. Pants are narrow and gracefully fluid.

For women who prefer a skirt, short, pleated varieties are filling store racks. For longe- range planners, the safest buy is a narrow, knee-length style.

Cecilia Goodman, co-owner of Image Works, an Irvine-based image consulting firm, finds that the uniform approach can help women stay on a tight budget and still communicate a very powerful statement. Particularly if that uniform is the best quality she can afford.

"It achieves a richer look than if a woman wears five inexpensive printed dresses in a week," Goodman says.

Donna Karan is tapping into women's buy-less attitude with Essentials, a small line of seasonless black jackets, skirts, pants and sweaters. Although the clothes are not cheap--ranging from $115 for a crew-neck bodysuit to $1,230 for a jacket--they are designed to be worn "to death," the designer says. And basic black mixes well with chartreuse, hot-pink and other unexpected colors, to add some pizazz.

While the small-wardrobe concept seems to fit right in with these stringent economic times, some women say they don't see it as a long-term plan.

Image consultant Goodman points out, "It is better to look wonderful every day (in a uniform) than mediocre and different every day. But if you carry the idea on too long, people are going to catch on."

By then the economic picture could be a lot brighter.

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