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YSL Seizes Imagination by Leaving Little to It

Designer Tom Ford's lacy blouse receives tremendous exposure, much as a wearer would


Before a single stitch of fall clothing hung from store racks, before the weighty fall fashion magazines landed with a thud and before anyone really thought about what they were going to wear in the waning months of 2002, one black blouse seemed to be everywhere.

It had everything necessary to be a showstopper: sex appeal, distinctiveness and a major designer's name in the label--Tom Ford for Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche. As one of fall's most graphic romantic tops, it became shorthand for the season's hot blouse trend.

The most distinctive feature of the $2,595 YSL top is a black satin ribbon that laces provocatively across the wide divide of a waist-deep plunge. In fact, the lacing appears to be about the only thing keeping the nearly see-through blouse attached to a very bare body.

Immediately after Ford put two versions of that black blouse on the YSL runway back in March, photos of it began to appear in newspapers, in magazines and on the Internet. One photo showed the willowy model Eugenia in a black lace version worn with a sleek, knee-length velvet skirt. The other style, in sheer black chiffon, was worn by top model Carmen Kass, who managed to look sexy even though she was wearing a controversial item that many hoped and prayed would never reappear on the YSL runway--knickers, these in velvet with bows at the knees.

It will probably be the image of Kass in the little-boy pants and the seductive blouse that becomes the lasting impression of the fall YSL collection. And if history is any guarantee, Ford most likely knew it when he put the two together. The market-savvy designer often predicts which items will be his bestsellers. A year ago, his sultry, off-shoulder peasant blouses unleashed knockoffs and a peasant trend that's still going strong.

Though few of the new blouses are available for sale, they have already become part of the popular culture of fall fashion. "It starts at the show," said Jaqui Lividini, senior vice president of fashion merchandising for Saks. "The whole thing begins with the model Tom Ford selects to wear the pieces that he thinks are the most outstanding. The press feeds on that. When it's an important model in the perfect outfit, you'll get tremendous editorial exposure on a certain piece immediately following the show. Then the magazines use it in their editorials, and stores select it for their advertising." Pretty soon, every fashion-obsessed shopper has her name on a waiting list.

"That's the making of an iconic piece," she said.

"Ford is very good at doing those pieces that sum up the season," said Michael Macko, publicity director for Saks Fifth Avenue, which featured the chiffon lace-up blouse in its New York store windows. "The blouse is very complicated to put on," said Macko, who saw stylists struggling with it for a Saks photo shoot. "You'd practically need a dresser."

Defiant and seemingly gravity-defying, the blouse is a bit of fashion magic. Though the wide-apart lacing seems as if it's barely attached to the blouse, the construction is actually a complex arrangement of bows, buttons and cufflink-like hooks.

Yet that's the very intrigue. Like the plunging green Versace dress that Jennifer Lopez made famous at the Grammy Awards two years ago, this YSL blouse appears to be so precariously attached that a mere breeze, or a clever lover, could instantly remove it. That's not exactly what got retailers excited, however.

The look also signaled a strong new direction in evening wear. "The next generation of cocktail dressing is the romantic and elegant evening blouse with the skirt," said Lividini. "It's a very important trend for us." The blouse also features ribbons at the elbows, adding the all-important new sleeve detail.

In a partnership with Saks for the Fashion Targets Breast Cancer campaign, a current Mercedes-Benz ad features the new CLK 500 coupe on one page and a photo of a model in the YSL blouse on another page. The tacky double-entendre tag line? "You give in to its sensuality. Your heart races as you take in every curve." (They forgot to say: "And while you're nearly naked, get a mammogram.")

Compared with some of the shaggy-dog and decidedly unsexy sweaters that cropped up in the fall collection, the bare blouse was one of the most alluring articles of the season. Some debate, however, if the YSL version will reach the level of icon.

"Millions and millions of garments are created each decade," said Katy Rodriguez, co-owner of the designer vintage boutique Resurrection in New York and Los Angeles. "When you stop and look back, there are very few that become these icons of fashion." Rodriguez said that because the peasant look has already had so much exposure, she doubts that one blouse could rise above to register in history. "When designers get a new idea," she said, "they tend to feed off that idea for a couple more collections."

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