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'80s fashion: We've been here before

A return to the exuberance and individuality of that decade may be because, in several ways, the era was similar to this one.

September 06, 2009|Emili Vesilind

The hot new looks in fashion? Padded shoulders straight out of "Dynasty," sequined tops fit for a "Golden Girl" and the kind of pleated pants last seen on "The Facts of Life."

These are only a few of the '80s hallmarks that sauntered down fall's runways. Though designers have been flirting with the decade for several seasons, a clutch of marquee names delved into the era's flashiest, most bombastic side for fall. The homage to the color-drenched era was, in some cases, so unapologetic you almost expected Joan Collins to stroll out in a Swarovski-encrusted Bob Mackie gown boasting shoulder pads meatier than twin rib eyes.

Full of pleated, tapered pants and boatloads of neon, Marc Jacobs' uber-'80s show looked like a casting call for "Square Pegs." Meanwhile, designer Christophe Decarnin of Balmain -- the house that nudged fashion into the decade's decadent side last season with pieces such as Michael Jackson-style jackets -- harnessed the hard-edged party girl of the era with skin-tight minidresses and pointy, winged, padded shoulders.

Considering the worldwide recession, it seems a curious time to be making such showy, fashion-forward clothes. Wasn't it just a few months ago that women's fashion magazines were espousing the virtues of "investment dressing"?

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, September 09, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
1980s fashion influence: In an article in Sunday's Image section about 1980s looks showing up in styles for fall, the name of the trend-forecasting firm the Doneger Group was misspelled as the Donegar Group.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 13, 2009 Home Edition Image Part P Page 2 Features Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
1980s fashion influence: In an article in the Sept. 6 Image section about 1980s looks showing up in styles for fall, the name of the trend-forecasting firm the Doneger Group was misspelled as the Donegar Group.

What is it about the current climate that's delivered us back to the '80s?

"People are tired of being worried about money and being sensible," said David Wolfe, creative director for the Donegar Group, a trend-forecasting firm. "Even though it wasn't the carefree time everyone remembers it to be, the '80s looks like the party we've not been allowing ourselves to have lately. It's a denial of the recession."

Fashion wisdom has it that in bad economies, clothes tend toward the staid, and in boom times "the fantasy is to look downbeat and poor," said Wolfe, citing the grunge-loving '90s as an example. "And now that a tough economy is the reality, we want to look fun." Suddenly, we're living the old adage of hemlines rising and lipstick colors getting brighter when the economy tanks.

"We're in a tough economic time, and a lot of these '80s-inspired looks give off the image of a strong woman," said Gregg Andrews, fashion director for Nordstrom, which is betting on '80s-style boyfriend blazers from Stella McCartney and shoulder-centric pieces from Donna Karan this fall. "It's about a woman still being feminine, but not fragile or frail. The strong shoulder, the hardware on things -- I look at it as being modern urban armor."

Sophia Coloma, co-founder of L.A. brand Whitley Kros, which played with '80s-style looks including harem pants and oversized tribal-print tops in acid colors for fall, said the time is ripe for an '80s revival because "people are bored with recession."

"It's black and boring," she said. "Let's go back to a time when everyone was having fun. I think it's really a rebellion."

Betsey Johnson, who launched her famously whimsical line in 1978, said fashion's '80s redux makes perfect sense because "when times are threatening, they always inspire creativity." And in her estimation, "It's actually the first time anything creative [in fashion] has happened since the '80s. It feels the same now as it did then."

It's no wonder she's feeling some deja vu. Economically, culturally and politically, 2009 has more in common with the '80s than some might realize.

The decade is remembered for its Wall Street-fueled decadence, but Black Monday -- the largest one-day percentage decline in stock market history -- occurred in 1987. And although we weren't at war, U.S.-Middle East tensions were certainly high: The U.S. bombed Libya in 1986 as retaliation for the country's sponsorship of terrorism against America.

No wonder fashion fanatics back then were emulating the kooky, colorful looks of artists such as Cyndi Lauper and Madonna. Looking back, those were heavy times.

But some fashion professionals warn against getting too deep when pegging looks to social or cultural forces. Fashion is, by nature, cyclical -- always has been.

"You can get really esoteric with fashion, but you have to be careful with that," Andrews said. "The return to the '80s is a swing of the pendulum back. A lot of these silhouettes we have not seen in a long time. The key silhouette of the decade -- the inverted triangle -- is about a strong shoulder moving to a narrow leg."

Pamela Skaist-Levy, co-founder of Juicy Couture, said she's never analyzed why the brand's been dabbling in '80s aesthetics -- and doesn't want to. "[It's] too cerebral," she noted, and added, "I came across an insane photo of Adam Ant. . . . That music made me feel like I could do anything. His marching band jacket, tribal makeup and overall style influenced our fall line, as well as our campaign." Eighties-style fall offerings from the brand include a leopard-print velour tunic (very "Married to the Mob"), leggings with zippers and form-fitting sweater dresses.

Jeannie Lee, owner of L.A.'s Satine boutique, said it's high time fashion started looking brighter and bolder. "I think there's a customer looking for something so over-the-top decadent suddenly," she said. "After all this borderline-Amish fashion, the whole Balmain-big-shoulders thing is so refreshing."

L.A. accessories designer Tarina Tarantino said the grab-bag nature of '80s fashion makes sense now more than ever because the concept of personal style is so paramount.

"I think that every generation is going to reinterpret the '80s because it was one of those eras where everyone was mixing it up and putting it in a blender," she said. "There was nothing definitive."

It's true that there are few decades that have offered such a treasure trove of memorable (and cringe-inducing) looks. And in this era of anxiety, maybe the season's key trend is, as Betsey Johnson insisted, "individuality."


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