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BY DESIGN : Not Your Father's Seersucker . . .


Seersucker gained respectability as a preppy status symbol on college campuses in the 1920s. But by the '50s, snug-fitting wash-and-wear seersucker suits gave the fabric, well, a square spin.

This summer, the puckered and striped cotton has been reborn--re-colored, re-styled and embraced by a new generation of men who apparently don't find it the least square.

"The new suit has broader shoulders, an easier fit and a lower button stance," said Charles Heines, vice president of sales at Haspel, the company that pioneered the wash-and-wear seersucker suit in the 1950s. For young men, he says, seersucker is an integral part of the retro fashion movement.

Guess and Mossimo are selling short-sleeve seersucker sport shirts for $58 and $34, respectively. A tunic-length seersucker vest from Claiborne is $87.50. Polo/Ralph Lauren and Baja Blues make pull-on plaid seersucker swim shorts, both $38. Perry Ellis Portfolio long- and short-sleeve seersucker dress shirts are $31 to $46. (All available at Bullock's.)

Massimo Iacaboni, fashion director of the trend-tracking New York-based Fashion Assn., says seersucker is experiencing a resurgence because of the recent emphasis on texture in menswear. "Seersucker is the most classic look when it comes to textured fabrics," he says.

Seersucker comes in a range of prices: Italian designer Gianfranco Ferre's silk seersucker blazer is a mere $1,850; Brooks Brothers' traditional three-button cotton seersucker jacket is $198, matching pants are $80; J. Crew features a crisp, fully constructed cotton seersucker sport coat for $188 and an unconstructed version as low as $98, both available with matching pleated trousers priced at $58.

Brooks Brothers, the venerable men's store, introduced seersucker to its customers in 1932. In 1995, men can find two- and three-button suits, striped seersucker sport shirts and plaid walking shorts.

"We expect our seersucker business to be up 15% to 20% this summer," says Robert Squillaro, product director of men's tailored clothing, "because men seem to be interested in traditional fabrics again."

New York menswear designer Sal Cesarani agrees. "Women are once again wearing structured Chanel jackets reminiscent of Hollywood in the 1940s," he says. "Who's going to complement those women better than a guy who's dressed up like the Great Gatsby?"

Cesarani thinks seersucker suits--properly worn only during the summer months between Memorial Day (May 30) and Labor Day (Sept. 4)--look best teamed with a T-shirt, over a white linen shirt and rep stripe tie or with a placketed knit pullover, while seersucker trousers are generally worn with white buck shoes. Yet during his spring/summer runway show in Las Vegas in January, the designer also showed puckered suits over old-English cricket sweaters and two-toned Oxfords.

"A man wearing a seersucker suit can cash a check with no questions asked," wrote Damon Runyon in 1945. That's because, he reasoned, "a man self-confident enough to wear one must be affluent, while a poor man would not make his poverty so apparent." Guess Runyon hadn't met Gianfranco Ferre. . . .

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