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FASHION : High-Tech Couture : Sometimes on-line guys chat about politics. Sometimes military history. Sometimes current events. But fashion? You bet. And they love it when women chime in.

February 23, 1995|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cyberspace resonates with chat.

On the Internet, a traditionally male domain, computer-heads from around the world swap messages on everything from military history to bestiality. And sometimes, boyfriend, they talk fashion.

A cry for help blips across an electronic bulletin board. The dilemma? How to keep your underwear from bunching up.

"Usually it helps to have a wider thong, strip-in-the-back, or whatever you want to call it," replies Jeff Legato, a.k.a. "Lycra Leopard Brief." "Sometimes I think trial-and-error is the only way to find out."

Perhaps smarter fare circulates through university archives and publications that can be accessed via computer. A study of 1800s couture. An article on smart shopping. But the best stuff is found in the messages that ricocheted through chat groups, at street level on the information superhighway.

Rich wonders about khaki. John solicits opinions on footwear.

Here the Internet approaches its fashion potential: The cloistered keyboarder can seek advice from his peers and, more importantly, from women.

"To me it's not the brand, it's how you wear the shoe," Cheryl tells John. She represents a growing league of females in cyberspace. "When I look at a man, I start at the top and work my way down. He can have an Armani suit and a Rolex watch, but if I get to the bottom and his shoes need a visit to the shoe repair, then. . . ."

*

The Internet connects millions of computers worldwide, be they mainframes or laptops. From his bedroom in Covina, a "newbie" (someone new to the Internet) can stumble across books in a European library or a newsletter from Thailand. There are thousands of grass-roots 'zines to peruse. Every conceivable topic is broached and argued somewhere in the vast web.

The technology, however, is not perfectly suited for fashion. Some personal computers still cannot download photographs from mainstream, on-line magazines such as Vibe and Time. The very act of sitting at a keyboard precludes window shopping and boulevard strolling, activities by which we observe style firsthand.

But "netizens" can chat. They congregate in electronic meeting halls and private rooms. They trade banter and send e-mail. On Usenet, they gravitate to a handful of message groups that specialize in clothes talk.

In a lingerie group, Todd confesses to wearing silk boxers under his jeans. In a fashion group, Rich and Mustafa share their admiration for Ralph Lauren while Jonny from London seeks an unusual sewing pattern.

"A zoot suit," he writes, "would be perfect for those swinging nights."

Retro-Latino on Savile Row and baggy jeans with frayed bottoms in Minneapolis--this is the style pulse of the Internet, even if you don't always care to put your finger on it.

Adidas circa 1972? Yes. Banana Republic? Maybe. CK1 cologne?

"Men are wearing the scent," says a message from someone named Awamore, "regardless of the fact that it is totally repulsive."

Just as female interjection is encouraged, men can venture into women's fashion discussions. The journey can prove alternately enlightening and bewildering.

Under the heading "Cosmetic Salespeople--Born or Made?" Alektra describes a land inhabited by Stepford clerks.

"They seem to operate in one of two modes: insulting know-it-all or suck-up," she writes. Citing a specific saleswoman, she continues: "I avoided the store for months, and about a year after my initial encounter with her, we were riding in the same elevator. She remembered my name and wanted to know when I was coming in for a make-over. Stalker-like? Or am I overreacting?"

Meanwhile, an anonymous man speaks up during a debate on high heels.

"Once in Amsterdam, where you feel free to do what you want, I tried on some eight-inch heels," he writes. "All in all, the heels were great but absolutely unwearable. Maybe if you don't try to walk but only stay down, maybe on all fours, they could have a use."

*

"Fashion?"

A telephone salesman for America Online seems puzzled. The popular service offers its customers chat groups to gossip about sports, hobbies and entertainment. But fashion?

"I don't think so."

A search through CD-ROM catalogues proves equally futile. There are computer programs that locate any star in the heavens or any street in America, but nothing to help navigate the men's department at Neiman Marcus.

Maybe that is why fashion talk on the Internet tends to be gentle. While some participants eagerly "flame" each other, most adhere to "netiquette" no matter how inane the suggestion or question. In cyberspace, these people have nowhere to turn but to each other.

So, via the World Wide Web, a netizen feels comfortable displaying a picture of her new shoes and including scores by which others can rate them. And John's query on footwear attracts mostly encouragement.

It seems he read that a man's shoes reveal something of his soul. So he lists the contents of his own closet, from Birkenstocks to Vans, laying himself bare to attack.

White athletic socks, Malificent gently warns, won't go with the wingtips. "The monk shoes are trendy," Liz chirps. Another reply rings harsher.

"Well, if one guy owned all of these, I'd say he probably was a slave to society."

But later the critic softens.

"I'm not hypercritical," he says, referring to so-called style slaves. "I'm married to one."

* David Wharton's Internet address is wharton@news.latimes.com.

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