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Fall Forecast: Leather Weather

September 15, 2000|VALLI HERMAN-COHEN | TIMES SENIOR FASHION WRITER

Even in the most refined hands, leather possesses a slightly sinister side. But its animalistic and dangerous past life as the apparel of choice for bikers, punk rockers and strutting antiheroes is helping designers solve one of the most difficult design challenges of recent seasons: making classic, almost stale, silhouettes hip.

Cut a prim A-line skirt in leather and, suddenly, it's gone from schoolgirl to bad girl, with the attitude of both. That skirt is poised to become the key element in L.A.'s new fall style. Whether it's a skirt, sleek pants, an exotic designer handbag or the ultimate finishing accessory--a pair of tall and spindly boots--leather and suede fashions are defining the latest spin of the luxury fashion cycle.

"It's a status, luxury time right now," said Los Angeles designer Melissa McElrath, of the new Melissa M contemporary clothing collection. "Anything that has a luxury feel we have a better chance of selling now."

Even in the heat of late summer, the city's fashion cognoscenti have been quick to party hop in their freshly minted suede hip-huggers and leather skirts, all worn with sheer or bare tops, sandals and statement handbags. Leather is the first big fall trend to emerge for temperate Southern California. Like cashmere, leather is becoming widely available, though at varying quality and prices for men and women.

When the new fall clothes debuted on runways last year, ladylike looks, such as chiffon blouses, neat suits and tweeds, were heralded as the must-haves for the season. They're still important, but L.A. has embraced racier leather.

"L.A. has always been such a big leather city," said Julie Gilhart, vice president of fashion merchandising for Barneys New York. "It has the appeal of being sexy. It's seasonless. And people now know how to wear it."

Retailers from Macy's to Gap to Neiman Marcus stocked up in August on key leather looks, buoyed by the success of spring's snakeskin phenomenon. They stuffed their racks with multiple personalities of leather--from adventurous snug pants, to timid leather-trimmed denim and tweed skirts, to classic zip or button jackets for the investment dresser. Some sensitive manufacturers are offering animal-friendly alternatives in synthetic pleather, vinyl and Ultrasuede.

For guys, leather chinos and zip jackets have emerged as the fall front-runners, even for the workplace. Banana Republic illustrates office-worthy leathers on its Web site, http://www.bananarepublic.com. Macy's features $170 leather Levi's jeans for guys, as well as Kenneth Cole's $360 car coat and other jackets from $300.

With the new mood, designers are replacing leather stereotypes and are embarking on a more experimental path. "We just treat leather like it's another fabric in our collection," said McElrath. "We've been doing leather year-round for the last year, and that's unusual." She offers 16 colors of suede, including hot pink, burnt orange, yellow and lavender. "Black leather really is classic. It's great in a five-pocket jean," she said. "But there is a whole lot more you can do with leather."

Los Angeles designer William Beranek of William B. decorates his leather skirts with geometric appliques. McElrath suggests a casual luxe look for her A-line leather skirts. "The cooler way to wear leather is one piece of luxury with a bunch of stuff that's not--flip-flops, jeans, T-shirt and a Louis Vuitton bag," she said. When the weather gets cooler, switch to a knitted turtleneck shell or a chiffon blouse, tall boots and that fabulous handbag.

Some progressive ideas emerged a year ago, when runways featured leather as sweeping evening gowns, as tiny paillettes, and in skins as featherweight as silk. The momentum continued as virtuoso leather makers such as Spain's Loewe, France's Louis Vuitton and Italy's Gucci applied to leather apparel the same inventive techniques that had long distinguishedtheir accessories.

One thing hasn't changed: Quality leather is still an investment. The least expensive good-quality skirts hover near $200, and designer labels are often double and triple the price. Boots can be had for as little as $100, but $300 gets the cutting-edge style. While mainstream companies from Nine West to Kenneth Cole keep leather handbag prices accessible, one of the hottest trends in purses is an air of inaccessibility.

"These days, $1,000 is nothing for a bag," said Beranek. "I went shopping the other day with my girlfriend and she had her eye on this doctor bag from Prada in red. They were sold out across the country. It's like $1,500."

A status bag is easier to rationalize "because you can wear it every day," said Gilhart of Barneys, where their upscale bags have had double-digit sales growth over last year. "You even see young kids carrying status bags," she said.

Just don't get carried away by the luxury vibe. Part of great style is looking like you aren't trying too hard.

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Valli Herman-Cohen is at vallihermancohen@latimes.com.

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