Expect to see some meaty prints, leather, lace and micro shorts on the racks of fashion-forward stores come spring, but the real trend to emerge from the bellwether catwalks around the world is cautious optimism.
New York, London, Paris and Milan, Italy, just wrapped up their Fashion Weeks for next season. While other cities and individual brands will still stage runway presentations, those four fashion marathons are the ones that set the tone.
At this time last year, the industry - fresh off showing its spring '09 clothes - was struggling to react to the economic downturn. Since it was largely too late to change collections to adjust for a free-falling stock market, pretty much all that was left to do was put jumpsuits, harem pants and tropical-coloured clothes on sale.
Given a little more time in crafting their fall collections, designers stripped down the glitz, toned down the glamour and created a warrior-like muse.
She has served her purpose, insiders say, giving shoppers a few must-have items, including mannish jackets, tarnished metallics and a rocker-chick get-up, but she can't wear such armour forever.
"The tough-girl, biker motif must be working and popular for fall, so we're getting the spring interpretation," says Ariel Foxman, editor of InStyle magazine. "The cool, attitudinal girl has been embraced, but there also was a lot of romantic, feminine collections that were lovely. You have layers, pastels, lace and silk - it's a real dichotomy."
It's a win-win for consumers and the fashion world to embrace a slower evolution instead of the "whiplash effect" of completely switching style gears from season to season, Foxman says.
Designers seem to be flexing their creative muscles, too, realizing that shoppers don't want expensive basics from top-tier collections, adds Allure editor-in-chief Linda Wells.
Julie Gilhart, executive vice-president and fashion director at Barneys New York, says the retailer looked specifically for clothes that were stylish but also offered value and longevity. She is eager to get draped dresses and many of the printed fabrics into stores.
"Spring is about the sum of all the details. You have the sense the clothes have something extra and are not the basics you've seen a million times before," agrees Wells. "It must be a reaction on some level to the economy, that no one is running out to buy a new pencil skirt - but what about one with an applique or beading?"
At the top of Wells' personal shopping list: something in white lace, an embellished cocktail dress and a draped dress. "I love the draped trend. It's soft and interesting, the clothes don't feel flat and ordinary, they seem spontaneous. It seems like the clothes just landed there - perfectly."
A peek at five looks from the four fashion capitals that could end up in your closet:
HEMS UP TO HERE
The high-waisted pant, loose-leg short and fuller skirts seem popular for spring - all to offset the very high hemline.
Designers also encourage a new power suit: a strong-shouldered tailored jacket paired with sleek city shorts.
"There were tons and tons and tons of shorts," says Allure's Wells. "I don't know if anyone really buys designer shorts, but we've seen tons of them. They're good for the young girl going to a club."
The translation into real-life fashion might be a lot of miniskirts.
Short can work when so many of the silhouettes are draped. There has to be this trade-off between length and looseness, Wells says.
"Short doesn't feel so threatening because it's not hugging the body so much," agrees Sasha Iglehart, deputy fashion director at Glamour. "There is draping and delicious colours and fabrics, which are accentuating curves, but it's all short."
Lingerie touches, whether it's sheer fabric, lace or obvious borrowed-from-undergarment silhouettes such as bra tops or tap pants, encourage femininity, but not in a wimpy way.
Granny bloomers and bare-belly bra tops might not be wildfire items for consumers, but the idea that the tough girl has a softer side underneath could resonate with many women, says Foxman of InStyle.
And bra tops as part of layering or the structure of a dress can be a wearable approach, Iglehart says.
Layers upon layers of lace or other sheer fabrics effectively make the garment opaque, leaving a suggestive look without revealing much skin - a great trick if you can pull it off.
"Tulle and sheers when they are draped are not so sheer, which means you can wear it," Wells says.
She finds the lingerie look particularly appealing in soft "makeup colours," including skin tones and pale pink.
RUFFLES AND FLORALS
Under her tough exterior, the new muse embraces a few girlie touches - ruffles and floral prints, among them - but they're not done delicately.
The ruffles are either tight, tiered and seemingly abundant, or they cascade on an asymmetrical angle just to remind you that they're meant to be askew, Wells says. "It's all very beautiful and desirable. I don't know what it is about a ruffle and a woman, but they all go together," she says.
Foxman notes that other nature motifs, including skins, scales and butterflies, got the same treatment creating "hypermodern" prints.
"Prints will be so strong for spring," says Barneys' Gilhart. She was a particular fan of the "ethnic elegance" among the prints at Dries Van Noten. She also likes the juxtaposition of feminine looks in khaki and army green, which emerged as another trend.
Want more of a rough edge? Try an unfinished seam or a sexy slash in the fabric that exposed part of the back, shoulder or midriff. Bandage styles, especially snugly wrapped dresses, also were popular.
"This works with the sheer trend," Foxman says. "It's the illusion of something being there when it's not."
There was widespread experimentation with clothing that appeared torn apart and put back together in a very purposeful "I don't care" manner.
Up close, though, you'll see the attention to detail on these garments, which helps convince consumers that they are getting something really special. "Designers did a fantastic job delivering pieces that the average customer could come into the store and see why this is worth it," Foxman says.
"There's an artistic quality of design," adds Wells. "The art is coming to the top of the collections. You really feel like this is not fast fashion or mass fashion and it couldn't be mistaken for that."
There could be some confusion about the seasons, however. On the runways, long-sleeve black tops, denim and even occasional pieces of fur were mixed with swimsuits and sundresses.
Gilhart identifies leather leggings as a must-have item, continuing a look already in stores now.
Maybe the fashion world has caught on to the fact that very few people out there shop months in advance of being able to wear something. There's also the unpredictable weather and the economic reality that almost no one can afford to buy a completely new wardrobe every few months.
At Chloe, in particular, Iglehart says she had to be reminded what season she was looking at as blanket-style coats covered the runway.
"Maybe 'seasonless' is actually intentional, recognizing that these clothes are delivered the very beginning of spring - even January and February are when they're in stores - so in a way, it's very realistic for early spring," Iglehart says.