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Black tie not an option

Ruffles, pleats, embroidery: The tuxedo shirt, sans tuxedo, is tweaking a lot of old ideas about what men should be wearing.

November 12, 2002|Michael Quintanilla | Times Staff Writer

Javier Andrade is holding an armful of shirts that are, for lack of a better word, pretty. There are two with ruffles, one bibbed with baby blue pleats, another in denim with rows of fuzzy and frayed pin-tucking and a swashbuckle creation with layers and layers of frilly fabric.

Shirts along the line you've seen on prom night, or at the opera -- or on your sister. But Andrade, a 30-year-old law firm accountant, is not shopping for her or for any tuxedo-expected event. He's buying them to wear with jeans.

The relaxed tuxedo shirt is tweaking a lot of old ideas about what a guy should be caught wearing. It's a way to make the informal a bit formal, add some frills to a men's garment that's expected to be no-frills. The shirt is typically worn open at the neck, unstarched (almost as if it was just pulled out of the dryer) and not tucked in. What the shirt isn't really meant to be worn with is a tux--unless it's low-rise, boot-cut and looks like it's been tortured to death.

"Right now, there are more tuxedo shirts available than I've ever seen before, and they're coming from designers and manufacturers that aren't specialists in tuxedo shirts," says David Wolfe of Doneger Group, a New York-based firm that analyzes fashion trends. "That's a clue to a wider-spread trend for men that really comes from the urge to dress up and not be sloppy but also not be formal."

And did we say sexy?

"It's sexy dressing, for sure, and fun because the look is very rock 'n' roll, like L.A.," says Sara Dovan, the owner of Traffic, a men's haberdashery at the Beverly Center that has been doing brisk business with tux shirts by Comme des Garcons, New York Industrie, Romeo Gigli and Fujiwara. "The best thing is that you don't need an excuse like a black-tie invitation to wear one. Just add blue jeans and a guitar."

No guitars, but big-shot designers Ralph Lauren and Karl Lagerfeld were wearing tux shirts and jeans at their recent New York and Paris runway shows; John Varvatos sported a lavender ruffled shirt, faded jeans and smoking jacket at a benefit this month at his Melrose Avenue shop.

"The business of fashion is always looking for new ways to take something that has been around and reinvent it," says Marshal Cohen, co- president of NPDFashionworld, a New York-based market information company. The tuxedo shirt is being shown in spring lines for 2003 and may have staying power well beyond that. Prices range from about $60 to more than $300.

Sales of smooth fabric shirts (including plain white ones and the re-imagined tux) are increasing; some manufacturers say those orders are up as much as 60%. Falling out of favor -- don't tell Bob Villa or your dad -- are polo shirts, plaid shirts (unless they're Burberry) and sweaters.

NYBased President Dennis Dassow says his company will send out more tux-tweaked shirts next spring "because I don't see the trend slowing, and guys need new shirt ideas. What makes this shirt even more attractive to guys is that they don't have to dry-clean most of them."

While the tux redux and its frills may be a not-me-no-way for some, for others it's the shirt to have. "For me, it's all about extremes," says Tony Ross, 35, an L.A. nightclub owner. "I'll wear a tank top or a tux shirt, nothing in between."

Cohen, the market watcher, says the current crop of tux shirts is a reaction to what's out there already.

"It used to be that guys would come home and change out of their suits into their polo shirts," he says. But, now, with casual dress the norm in many workplaces, guys are more apt to dress up after they get home from work. "A shirt without a tie and you're set to go out to dinner. With the tuxedo shirt, you can look like the non-establishment and show your individualism, be a bit avant-garde but not look sloppy or grungy, which is what casual Fridays had become."

Designer and shop owner Timoteo O'Campo says the more deconstructed the tux shirt, the better it looks. For instance, instead of traditional pleats, you might get vertical shredding. He's already sold out twice -- and reordered -- a variety of tux shirts for his West Hollywood boutique. He calls one the coffin shirt because of its Dracula-like exaggerated Victorian collar and gathers on the front and sides; others feature pleats sewn with pink thread; one with frayed-edged pleats has been popular

New York-based designers Robert Stock and Graham Flower, a design duo known as Robert Graham, are doing their part to fuel the trend with seven whimsical looks -- at $175 a pop -- which they put together for Neiman Marcus. They include a wing-tipped tuxedo shirt with stars embroidered on it, a shirt bibbed in black and white ruffles and one with a patchwork of stripes in all directions.

Flower says the shirts appeal to men "looking for a cool way to dress up ... and appeal to women. Women think tuxedo shirts are very sexy."

And the men who buy them for the women who love them do too. Andrade, the accountant trying on shirts at a Bloomingdale's, uses these words to describe the one he ends up buying: laid-back, dashing, romantic. And if his sister wants to borrow it, well OK.

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