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Fitting the Bill : Traditional on the job, but given to fits of over-casualness, President Clinton receivesa mixed approval rating when it comes to sartorial style

April 30, 1993|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Compared with the deficit and taxes, the state of President Clinton's wardrobe is probably a trivial matter.

Yet many in the menswear industry have good reason to keep close watch on the President's clothing. Should Clinton turn out to be a trendsetter in the tradition of John F. Kennedy (a bit of haberdashery history that most experts agree Clinton shows little sign of repeating), he could have a far-reaching influence on men's fashions.

So far the President has a mixed approval rating when it comes to style. While some experts applaud the traditional attire he's been wearing around the White House, those polled agreed that his casual wardrobe needs a workout.

To be sure, one's assessment of the President's wardrobe can be colored by one's politics.

"I'm having trouble with him politically, so this is really hard for me," said Tom Fuller, owner of Fuller's for Men in Monarch Beach, before launching into a critique of Clinton's wardrobe.

"Clinton is just following in previous Presidents' footsteps," he said. "It's still the dark Southwick suits and white shirts, but that's my business. I can't knock it. It's popular with Orange County businessmen."

Most define Clinton's style as traditional but more relaxed than his Republican predecessors. The President's favorite working wardrobe: a navy suit, regimental striped tie and a white shirt with a straight collar.

"With Clinton being younger than Bush, it will give new credibility to the traditional look," said Ray Wills, men's fashion director for Bullock's/Macy's who rates Clinton's style highly.

"For a while it wasn't chic to wear clothes that fit you or looked right. Anti-fashion was in fashion. The rep tie, the white shirt wasn't happening," he said. "Now the pendulum is swinging the other way. The white shirt is our No. 1 shirt. Ties are back to more controlled patterns and stripes."

Tom Julian, fashion director of the Men's Fashion Assn. in New York City, expects Clinton to have "a very positive impact" on what men wear.

"Clinton doesn't dress like a typical D.C. politician," Julian said. "For the first time we're seeing a very contemporary business dresser. Clinton has selected suits with an international silhouette. They have soft, rounded shoulders. The jackets have low-notch lapels and no vents. The pants are pleated. He's wearing slit welted pockets instead of flaps because he does have a waist area.

"Clinton is 6-foot-2 and has very strong shoulders. His style can carry over to a lot more men of his same ilk. They don't have to have the perfect model figure," Julian said.

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Cliff Chally, the Los Angeles-based costume designer for "Designing Women" and "Evening Shade" (two TV shows created by Clinton pal Linda Bloodworth-Thomason), is partly responsible for Clinton's evolving style.

"During the summer I was asked to help coordinate his wardrobe. I talked to him and made some suggestions. I put him in suits with a little bit of a younger cut and fine-tuned his image for television," Chally said.

Chally persuaded Clinton to update his suits a bit--so the jackets had a more relaxed fit and no vents. He also weaned Clinton from his favorite white shirts.

"The photographers were always complaining about the glare on his white shirts. Now he often wears light blue or ecru--which looks white on camera."

Chally maintains Clinton has a natural sense of style. "He's very classic. He has nice taste. He has a great tie collection."

Clinton's favorite color is navy, Chally says, although recently he's been seen wearing gray suits.

"It's a relief," Wills said.

*

Clinton's fashion record is not without its blemishes.

"He's not a bad dresser, but he could improve," said Bjorn Sedleniek, owner of POSH menswear in Fashion Island, Newport Beach. "Some of his suits don't look presidential. The lighter-colored ones don't come across with the authoritarian look a President should have.

"The only good thing he pays attention to is his shirt collar. He wears the right kind--straight."

Sedleniek gave Clinton low marks when he appeared to experiment briefly with contemporary, wider-shoulder suits and baggy pants at election time. "He looks better in the classic clothing. Currently he has stayed with a more traditional look. It's relaxed, but it's not that baggy, sacky look."

He also complimented Clinton on his choice of ties.

"Unlike former Presidents, he's wearing a lot more current neckwear," he said. "He's worn some of the more abstract patterns, and the ties are more colorful than the red, white and blue ones that George Bush wore all the time."

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Clinton really loses votes in an area a young, sax-playing President should ace: the casual wear department. Sedleniek faulted him for looking sloppy in his jogging clothes.

Fuller was even harder: "He looks like a slob to me. He wears plaid shirts, but they don't look like quality shirts. He probably saved money on his wardrobe to give to Hillary (Clinton). And those baggy running sweats--to me that doesn't show class. Bush always looked good, even when he went fishing."

Should the President call him for advice, Fuller would suggest Clinton switch to sportswear by Henry Cotton, such as the company's classic polo knit shirts, or knit shirts and casual cotton pants by Ralph Lauren.

One possible ensemble: Ruff Hewn khaki pants ($65), a navy Nautica jacket (about $100), button-down cotton shirt ($45) in plaids or stripes and a pair of Timberland walking shoes ($90).

But Fuller wouldn't give the President any special treatment:

"I'd charge him full price, with the California sales tax."

'With Clinton being younger than Bush, it will give new credibility to the traditional look.'

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