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Mini Trend Changes the Rules of the Gam


PARIS — The appearance of designer mini-dresses, short-shorts and ruffled miniskirts no bigger than the valance on your kitchen windows might once have been taken as a sign of good things to come--for the economy.

For nearly a century, as economic outlooks and stock market indexes rose, so did hemlines, though not exactly in perfectly timed tandem. Exuberance begat sex appeal, recessions brought dowdiness. Now things seem to be headed the other way around. As news broke about the Dow industrial average and the NASDAQ scraping the gutters, designers from New York to London to Milan and now here hiked hemlines.

Already, it's a style shift that's meeting resistance. "I think the looks are a little too mini," said Linda Wells, editor in chief of Allure magazine. "It's nice to see a change, but these are really short. It's unforgiving."

Designers aren't cutting hems high because fabric is expensive. They're trying to advance fashion. So said Anna Wintour, editor in chief of Vogue magazine, who takes a "something for everyone" approach to the spring collections.

"The sexpot, Barbarella look is fine for the beach or the nightclub. Or for a young girl," she said. The real message "is more about designers trying to get everyone's eye attuned to a different length. To me, it's an option." Wintour, for example, loved the mini wetsuit dresses from Balenciaga.

Mini makers may be cutting their future profits if they insist on the shortest of short for spring. They probably won't, though.

"Most of the things on the runway are there for a point," said Julie Gilhart, vice president of fashion merchandising for Barneys New York. "They'll be longer when they're in the stores," she said, promising an extension of at least three inches. Gucci designer Tom Ford, however, said he would allow only about four-inch extensions to his ultra-short dresses. There is a market for that kind of thing, particularly in the land of the professionally thin and beautiful.

"Short skirts are a natural for Los Angeles," said Gilhart, who predicted that the Beverly Hills Barneys will stock high hemlines, along with other skirt looks.

Unlike the mid-'90s, the last time when designers widely endorsed the ultra-short look, spring's new collections almost always include hemline options. Skirts and dresses end at or above the knee or drag the floor, but few hit between mid-calf and ankle.

Though the realistic minis and ladylike knee-length skirts won't be mistaken for a belt, retailers like the message the itty-bitty skirts send: youth, fitness, sex appeal--and maybe the hope of a stronger retail season.

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