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Wearable -- and that's a compliment

Derek Lam's fashions revive classic American styles. They stick to the basics but have a sense of humor and irony.

January 03, 2007|Samantha Critchell | Associated Press

NEW YORK — Fashion designer Derek Lam can shed his "up-and-comer" label.

He starts the year with a new deal as Tod's creative director and a collection from his signature line that was almost universally praised when it was previewed for editors, retailers and stylists.

One of the biggest compliments? His clothes were called "wearable."

There were loose dresses, though they weren't the tent style spotted on some other runways, and there were lovely daytime coats, including a collarless trench and one in khaki-colored suede with an empire waist and asymmetrical line.

Michael Fink, fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue, says he's been a fan since he first saw Lam's clothes on the runway four years ago. "I remember going to his first show and everyone was smiling and saying, 'He gets it,' " Fink said.

"For spring '07, I took a more serious look at America and the idea of the American designer, which I am. We're known now for imperialism, being cowboys, going it alone, but that's never how we were in fashion. We're humble and pragmatic -- that's very American," Lam said.

He found himself inspired by the classic sportswear of Claire McCardell, Geoffrey Beene and Bonnie Cashin. Working with simple cottons with patchwork or mattress-ticking stripes, Lam says so many of his peers overlook the basics in favor of something flashier -- something that will be worn on the red carpet.

"American fashion is not just eveningwear. I wanted to see people dressed up in the day, like in the '40s and '50s, but with a sense of humor and irony. It's not for the red carpet, but for a barbecue."

Growing up in San Francisco, Lam liked visiting his grandparents' factory, which produced wedding gowns. "I feel at home surrounded by seamstresses," he said.

But for all that folksy talk, don't mistake Lam as a designer for the everywoman. The pieces of his that are available at the moment on Neiman Marcus' website hover in the $1,000 range, so even if they have that touch of utilitarianism, they're really not garments for the masses.

The partnership with Tod's, a brand known mostly for its fine leather goods, will work, he predicts, because they both emphasize craftsmanship, elegance and unpretentious luxury, if not cutting-edge trends. Lam will do ready-to-wear clothes, expected to be in stores this summer, as well as accessories.

At age 40, does Lam find it at all odd that he's described as that up-and-comer after more than 15 years in the business, with a resume that includes design jobs at Michael Kors and Geoffrey Beene?

"I guess you need a label.... Who's the old guard and who's the new guard is open to interpretation. I like being in the 'young and new' group because it means how I'm perceived isn't set in stone yet."

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