Plug Ugly - Washington Post

Ugly is in.

The style of the moment combines cheesy fabrics, loathsome colors and obnoxious patterns into a selection of spring clothes that is likely to make a person queasy. The patterns are busy and distracting. The colors -- lime, orange -- flatter the narrowest range of skin tones and top the list of consumers' most hated shades.

Much of the fashion looks cheap. Most of it isn't. To wit: An antifreeze green evening gown, priced at about $3,500, hangs in the window of a local Versace boutique. Ugly, once an unfortunate state of being or a rebellious stance, has been dubbed fashionable by exclusive designers. Ugly is everywhere. The height of chic is to look downtrodden, poor, disadvantaged.

"The only place people naturally are wearing this look is in Third World countries and African countries where we offload clothes after their life cycle," said David Wolfe, creative director and head of forecasting for the Doneger Group, a New York retail consultancy. The trend hasn't simply changed the look of women's clothing. The menswear market has been invaded by too-tight shirts and polyester pants; models have lost their perfect looks and sexy walks in favor of dejected scowls and question-mark slouches. Pretty is passe. And the rich and fashionable know it. They affect poverty -- expensively -- and wear it like a badge of intellectual chic.

Explanations -- or rationalizations -- of the ugly aesthetic abound: Designers have been inspired by pessimistic youth, or drug culture, or political unrest, or polarizing economics, or perhaps sheer boredom with fashion's luxurious status quo. After years of super-fashion and super-models with big hair, breast implants and miles of teeth, the pendulum has swung. With a vengeance.

High style, class distinctions and dressing for success have now been turned upside-down.

The clothes that poured down Prada's Milan runway for spring '96 were stiff and unflattering. The greens hovered somewhere between shades of slime and mold. The browns were murky -- the color of water as it stagnates over a long, steamy summer. The dizzying, crisscrossing patterns were reminiscent of UHF static or an old-fashioned labyrinth of rusted plumbing.

In these harsh lines were a host of references: schoolgirl uniforms, fast-food uniforms, Junior League uniforms. There were myriad inferences: stifling social constraints, an edge-of-poverty existence and Lolitaesque budding sexuality.

It was, said the designer, a glorification of the hackneyed. It was ironic, shocking and bemusing.

It also was pure Prada: unabashedly, unapologetically unattractive. She followed an unbecoming spring with an unsightly fall. In her secondary line, Miu Miu, which she shows in New York, ugly also reigned.

In the quiet moments after the frenzy of the fall '96 Miu Miu presentation had died down, Prada ventured onto the runway. The catwalk was deserted except for the clutch of camera crews hungry for her image. The English-speaking designer stood in front of a white backdrop under a glare of lights. A mysterious smile lighted up her face.

Yet only confounding silence greeted the whirring cameras. She turned and retreated backstage.

For a designer whose label is at the zenith of hipness, Prada doesn't talk much. She doesn't like to explain her work. She isn't bothered by discombobulated shoppers. She shrugs off their unified cry of "Miuccia, what's with the ugly clothes?"

"I hope {people} don't understand completely because I want to be different," Prada said. "They can't understand completely because it's very personal. They can't be myself."

Prada was by no means the first designer to create clothes that caused women to shake their heads in disgust. Folks hadn't understood ugly when it was incarnated as grunge. Other atrocious notions abound: feather-trimmed evening gowns, plasticized miniskirts, gauchos, tube tops, tube skirts.

But these weren't intentionally bad ideas. They were risks, mistakes and the stuff of bad reviews. Designers just licked their wounds and moved on.

Prada was different. While ugly was out there in youth culture, "Prada was really the thing that made it legitimate in high fashion," Wolfe said.

Heaven help us, but the stuff was supposed to be ugly.

"There's a certain bad taste, but it looks so charming," Prada told The Washington Post after a Miu Miu show last year. "When we do the fittings, we say, How awful -- and how charming.' "

The industry loves Prada so much that the label has taken on icon status.

"Like isn't a strong enough word," proclaimed one fashion editor of her admiration for Prada. "We live for it."

This message became clear: If you don't get it, you are hopelessly uncool, uninitiated and doomed to a life of safe, mundane clothes . . . the bad kind.

Why does the industry love Prada?

"To me, it's the most advanced take on classics that exists. I don't like clothes that are tricky or complicated, but I don't want to wear anything plain," said Ricky Vider, fashion editor of Allure magazine and an avowed Prada wearer.

"But I don't opt for her prints. Maybe if I was younger, I could get away with it."

The fashion industry also loves experimentation.

"With every collection Prada does, she makes a change and she does it before the others," said Polly Mellen, fashion doyenne and creative director of Allure. "I admire everything she does." An Ugly Epidemic

Ugly has been contagious. Other designers have signed on to the philosophy of dowdy hemlines and dreary colors. Another strain of ugliness, the '70s, has been revisited. Menswear designers have promoted tight, polyester trousers in the Sansabelt style and blazers with big, flapping disco-era lapels. Few designers have had the willpower to resist offering a take on this fashion blip.

For some women, ugly has become a way of being trendy without looking shallow. Those kick-pleated skirts that fall to a modest length could never be construed as gaudy, sleazy or silly. This is weighty fashion. It's the sort of clothing worn by people who want to inform the world that they don't care about fashion, but rather, they are intellectual and complex.

Actress Uma Thurman wore Prada to the Oscars. The label was the perfect accessory to the smooth, sophisticated image that she had cultivated. In Uma's universe, men who had never even met her, much less talked to her, pronounced her deep, interesting and cool.

Ugly hasn't been limited to clothes. The look helped to launch a new generation of models. Bombshell star runway walkers began disappearing from shows. Along came spindly, ungainly models with lousy posture, stringy hair -- or locks gooped up until they hung limp and forlorn. They walked without grace or confidence, often with pelvises thrust forward, slumped shoulders following and a hungry, hollow look in their eyes.

Vogue recently proclaimed model Stella Tennant as having the of-the-moment body, the form that launched the Prada shift. Tennant, tall, gangly with the sort of slouch that makes one's back ache just to see, also happens to be an aristocrat. Up-and-coming model Jodie Kidd, another aristocrat, has a spectacular slouch and maintains such a pained expression that one suspects she may reach the foot of the runway and burst into tears.

It isn't that these girls are unattractive. But stylists go out of their way to make them look ugly, forlorn . . . and poor.

This aesthetic of the downtrodden grew out of a younger generation -- a powerful force in the making of a trend -- that was economically and psychically depressed, Wolfe said. Ugly, according to Wolfe, is also an extension of a culture of violence, drugs and pessimism.

"Designers pick up on vibes," Wolfe said. "Negative vibes produce negative fashion."

And quite simply, after the age of hyper-perfection -- super-models, breast implants, impossible aspirations -- it was time for something new.

"You look to the fashion shows and there is a banality," said Natalia Aspeli, the fashion editor of Italy's La Repubblica newspaper. "Italy is in a very bad period, and I think fashion is a mirror of this. . . . It's influenced by politics."

Milan's fashion houses presented their collections in the few weeks before an election. Politically, Italy was being pulled by the right and the left, Aspeli said.

"This fear of difference, this lack of creativity, this wish to be comforted by the '70s that were, for Italy, good years -- fashion is a mirror of all the world," Aspeli said. "I'm worried with this absolute fear to be different."

And the industry might logically be concerned about a fashion trend that implies that fashion is obsolete. While Prada's women's collection has reported annual sales of $100 million, retail experts say the consumers buying these pricey, ugly duds are part of a small, elite group. Trust fund babies, said one retail consultant.

Most folks, including some fashion insiders, just don't get it.

"I like pretty things," said longtime model Karen Alexander, one of the faces representing Chanel's new Allure fragrance.

"That green plaid stuff? . . . Why would any woman spend a lot of money on things that aren't appealing? Why would you want to look like that?" she wondered.

"The quick answer," Wolfe said, "is stupidity."

A more complex reply deals with class distinctions.

The rich -- or those willing to hike up their credit card debt -- are distinguishing themselves with clothes that stand out because they are so off-kilter, so mockingly lower-class.

Consider Miuccia Prada. Her grandfather, Mario, founded the family leather goods company in 1913. His granddaughter was raised wealthy and sheltered. She was well-educated, politically and culturally aware. She was stoked on the good taste of Yves Saint Laurent and the social consciousness of the hippie movement.

"The upper classes like to say they have empathy with the lower classes," said Patricia Williams, associate professor of retail studies at the University of Wisconsin. "Fashion is a very good way to empathize."

With the shrinking of the middle class, Williams said, the move to ugliness and cash-strapped style just might be the new bridge -- real or pretend -- between the monied and the struggling.

"The upper class is becoming aware of the differences," Williams said. "They're distancing themselves from their wealth and privilege."

That sort of fashion empathy has deep roots, Williams said. "When looking at social consciousness being stirred, people begin imitating the lower classes." Sometimes it's for the sake of sheer survival, as when it becomes physically dangerous to look like a member of the monied upper classes. Sometimes it's to show solidarity.

But fashion empathy is a luxury that only the well-to-do can afford.

"The rich can take the style from the poor, but they're free to take it or leave it," Williams said. "The poor are not."

If the rich are dressing like the poor, then to what do the disadvantaged have to aspire? What does dressing for success -- at least the monetary kind -- look like?

The rich are turning the vocabulary of achievement and success into a baffling, insider code. It was so much easier when an Armani suit was the ultimate sign of hipness. Hip or Hopeless

It is a weekday evening and a young woman is riding up the escalator in one of the District's Metro stations. Her corduroy, bootleg trousers fit a bit too tightly through the thighs and are a nondescript shade of beige. Her top, which looks to be made of polyester, has a pattern of horizontal stripes in shades of bark brown and tan. Its elongated collar is a bit too '70s. Tucked under her shoulder is a vinyl shopping bag.

She is a fashion faux pas. Instead of looking as if she has chosen to wear destitution as a hip new style, she just looks disadvantaged. One is inclined to offer her a job, buy her dinner, though she needs neither. She misread fashion's new vocabulary and wound up on the wrong side of the line demarcating camouflaged prosperity and unfortunate poverty.

"The more subtle the marker, the more defining the line," says Dave Murray, a statistician with a doctorate in social anthropology.

"Your mistakes can be devastating."

The rich can drive beat-up cars, wear tweed jackets with fraying elbows. They don't need to conspicuously consume. "They're comfortable and secure in what they've achieved or inherited," said Nijole Benokraitis, a sociology professor at the University of Baltimore. They don't need to show the world that they're upwardly mobile. Here Today, Gone When?

Backstage at the Miu Miu show, Prada accepts congratulatory kisses from fashion editors. A tray loaded with glasses of champagne makes the rounds. Cathy Kasterine, the show's stylist, elaborates on the goal of the fall '96 presentation.

"It's the idea of reworking the classics and making them hip," she says between hugs. "We're still going back to uniforms, we just wanted to make it nice. We wanted to make it pretty, but we didn't want to make it cutesy-pie."

Pretty? The woolens are soft as a feather; the cottons are light as air. The clothes feel expensive, even if they don't look it. Or perhaps we've simply grown more accustomed to this aesthetic.

Ugly is evolving. The new fall clothes still are not traditionally good-looking. They don't aid a woman whose quest is to look sexy or glamorous. She must be beautiful in spite of them.

But at least there's more color. "Some of the ugly clothes aren't necessarily looking more attractive, but they're not as depressing," Wolfe says. "They're ugly and happy."

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