Sweater dressing is making a comeback, thanks to the return of classic looks that won't unravel with time.
Simple, elegant sweaters have returned, many in tried-and-true styles such as button-front vests, cable knit crew necks and cardigans.
Fading fast are the bulky, over-sized sweaters with wild graphics that Bill Cosby made popular. The new slimmer sweaters have subtle patterns with muted colors. Wearable earth tones such as burgundy, heather and hunter green have replaced trendier hues such as chartreuse and magenta.
And although the looks are timeless, they're not old-fashioned. Navajo patterns, animal prints, Western wear themes and plaids are among the progressive looks that have woven their way into knitwear.
Women can find sleek cat suits, fringed "denim" jackets and Chanel-style suits--all of yarn. For men, there are sweater vests and crew necks with tartan plaid or American Indian patterns.
These sweaters are not the eye-popping "works of art" of seasons past, says Ray Wills, men's fashion director with Bullock's/Macy's West in San Francisco.
"They've toned down so you're not a walking neon sign," Wills says. "A sweater should be as comfortable as an old friend. In recent seasons they were too heavy. Now we're getting back to more wearable sweaters that work with other parts of the wardrobe."
For instance, he says, some of the new sweater sets for men, with lightweight cardigan and matching crew-neck pullover or vest, can be worn in place of a jacket.
Among the versatile pieces available at Bullock's Men's Store in South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa: a button-down wool cardigan in a soft abstract blend of cranberry, rust and hunter green tones with green ribbed trim ($135); a crew neck pullover with a Navajo pattern in gray, berry and navy hues ($115), and a V-neck vest with a subtle diamond pattern in deep natural colors ($75).
Basic sweater shapes in colors inspired by the Earth are also being produced in luxurious cashmere.
"We're really emphasizing the classics. We're selling out of twin sets, cardigans and turtlenecks," says Mary Kay Harrison, regional manager for TSE Cashmere at South Coast Plaza.
Some of the styles at TSE Cashmere have been around for decades: The women's ruby red cashmere crew neck top ($158) and matching cardigan ($198) could have come straight out of the '50s, and the men's ribbed crew neck cardigan in "whale" blue ($495) is timeless.
Other styles follow fashion trends more closely. For women, the poor-boy ribbed turtleneck ($270) of cocoa-colored cashmere and the ribbed column skirt that falls to the ankles ($598) capture fall's new long and lean silhouettes. Novelty looks for men include a mock turtleneck in a shaker stitch ($540) and hooded sweat shirts of pure cashmere in basic colors such as charcoal and oatmeal ($400).
Improved technology in the manufacture of knitwear has stretched knitwear's appeal.
Computer-generated weave patterns that allow for highly detailed novelty graphics and new stretchy fabrics such as Lycra have allowed knitwear makers to quickly cast on to fashion trends.
"Since the '80s, knitwear has become a way of life," says Billur Wallerich, spokeswoman for Neiman Marcus in Fashion Island Newport Beach.
"Knit performs, and it doesn't wrinkle."
This season almost every major trend has been reproduced in yarn: metallics, animal prints, Western fringe and embellishments. At Neiman Marcus, Adrienne Vittadini showed her claws with a leopard-print V-neck sweater ($296) and taupe leggings ($196). Andrea Jovine jumped on the Western wear bandwagon with black wool fringed jacket ($178) and fringed skirt ($88) and added a line of metallic knits, including a gold cardigan ($235) and gold stirrups ($158).
Steve Fabrikant created a Western-style fringed jacket and straight skirt made of knit that looks like denim ($760) and a classic black metallic chemise with gold and pearl buttons down the front ($710).
"Knitwear used to be very simple. Now there's more detail," says Mimi Cox, owner of Mimi's in Fullerton.
Consider Mimi's purple tunic sweater with a gold chain pattern woven in and set with big faux gems ($480) and matching stirrup pants ($240), or a purple chemise with gold leather cuffs and belt ($690).
"Knit looks are younger, more exciting. Styles aren't so conservative," she says.
Her selection of St. John Knits proves the point: In addition to the company's classic chemise dresses, there are form-fitting jumpsuits and tunics with leggings. One St. John black jumpsuit has arrows made of crystals down its sleeves ($790).
Says Cox: "If you have the body, why not?"