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The Heidi-Wear Chronicles : In the Alps, finding bargains on Tirol garb--beyond dirndls and lederhosen

March 09, 1997|JILL KNIGHT WEINBERGER | Weinberger is a freelance writer who lives in New Britain, Conn

INNSBRUCK, Austria — One of the many charms of the Alpine city of Innsbruck is its citizens' unabashed embrace of tradition--most notable, perhaps, in their dress. Women tend to their errands along busy downtown streets wearing flower-print dirndls, the traditional full-skirted dress with closefitting bodice, while men in leather breeches and jaunty felt hats look as if they had just hiked down from the surrounding mountain villages.

How I long to dress like an Austrian, to wear an apron-fronted dirndl in Tirol. And how I long to see my husband, GJ, in a pair of lederhosen. GJ calls this my Heidi fantasy and though he resists any attempt to clothe him Austrian-style, he patiently endures my many stops at shop windows to gaze at traditional garments, for which the general term is Trachten, meaning costumes.

Any Austrian will tell you that authentic Trachten vary from region to region and even from village to village. I am told that an authentic dirndl, for example, cannot be purchased in a shop despite all the facsimiles for sale. A bona fide dirndl is made at home, a collaboration between mother and daughter in adherence to strictly local designs.

I am, at any rate, far too practical to buy even an inauthentic dirndl, regardless of how utterly captivating I find them. Surely I would feel fraudulent wearing one in Tirol and foolish wearing one at home. But over several visits to the region I have discovered the next best thing: high-quality, locally made dresses, skirts, sweaters and coats that reflect Austrian style and charm but are modern and quite chic in design.

Several of Tirol's finest textile and clothing manufacturers, including the internationally known Geiger and Giesswein companies, have adapted Trachten designs and traditional materials such as loden, boiled wool and linen to create contemporary garments suitable for life beyond Alpine valleys and villages.

During last summer's stay in Tirol, I went hunting once again for fine clothing and was not disappointed. Although the factory outlet concept is not nearly as widespread in Austria as it is in the United States, several of the major manufacturers invite the public to peruse their factory shops, where they offer reduced prices on first-quality goods as well as on last season's items and seconds.

GJ and I visited five factory shops, all within an hour's drive of Innsbruck. (Together they could be visited in a single day's outing.) While their appointments and ambience varied from the basic to the elegant, all provided private dressing rooms and friendly, helpful service.

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The Original Tiroler Loden factory is only a few minutes' drive from Innsbruck's historic Altstadt (old city), and has been manufacturing Austria's famous loden since 1796. The word "loden" comes from a medieval German term for hair, referring, of course, to the sheep's wool that is the source material for this celebrated cloth.

For centuries, the traditionally green loden was merely the rough fabric of the peasantry. It did not undergo refinement or become fashionable until the aristocracy discovered that it made sturdy, waterproof hunting garb. Portraits of Emperor Franz Josef on vacation at his villa in Bad Ischl show him dressed informally in loden and testify to its acceptance among the upper classes in the 1800s.

The smooth felt-like quality of today's loden, as well as its wide variety of weights, textures and colors, is the result of evolving technological advances. But traditional techniques and tools are still employed. Fabrics are combed with thistles, for example, which raises the nap, an essential part of the manufacture. The raised fibers can then be trimmed back without damaging the cloth, to make a softer and thinner fabric.

Original Tiroler Loden supplies fabric to some of the world's great fashion houses, among them Hermes, Armani, Chanel, Donna Karan and Polo. Its small factory store sells remnants, dozens of bolts of which line the shop in an array of textures and muted colors that would gladden the heart of any home sewer. Having no skill at all in that department, I was nonetheless reluctant to bypass this bounty of gorgeous material, priced about $25 for a little more than a square yard.

But there was plenty of clothing for sale in this tiny shop. Most of it was created from Original Tiroler Loden's fabric but bore the labels of upscale Austrian firms such as Sportalm and Resi Hammerer. These items were generally remainders or seconds and represented excellent value for high-end sportswear.

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