Haute Pockets

By Suzanne D'Amato
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 12, 2006

Life for a pocket used to be so simple. All it was asked to carry was a wallet, keys -- maybe a stick of gum or some ChapStick.

But people want a lot more from pockets these days -- and what was once more of a design detail has risen to the fashion forefront. For tech-savvy pack rats, leaving the house sans iPod, BlackBerry or cell phone is unthinkable. But even the Luddites among us have more stuff than ever before, and we need more -- and more innovative -- ways to carry it all. They'd better be stylish ways, too: Just ask Amy Adams, who turned heads at last week's Academy Awards in a swishy Carolina Herrera frock with prominent pockets (all the better to stash a wad of Kleenex should she be called upon to, oh, give an impromptu acceptance speech?).

"There's a lot of conversation around here when students are developing work: 'What is the best place for the pocket?' " says Tim Gunn, the fashion design department chair at Parsons the New School for Design, who is better known these days as the dapper adviser on "Project Runway." "You would think it was cancer research."

Well, not quite. But research is at the core of many recent developments related to pocket design. Under its "Made for iPod" initiative, Apple has invited businesses to develop items -- everything from backpacks to boxer shorts -- that are compatible with the little MP3 player that could.

"I think everybody's anxious to look like they're techno-friendly, up on the latest and newest in terms of trends," says Jamie Ross, creative director at the Doneger Group, a merchandising and trend forecasting company.

Several companies, including such seemingly unlikely candidates as conservative clothier Thomas Pink, are jumping on the trend: They're making clothing that features pockets sized specifically for the iPod, which has sold more than 42 million units since its introduction in 2001.

Levi Strauss takes that concept one step further. This fall, the company plans to launch the RedWire DLX jean, which will boast a pocket with a built-in iPod docking station. A control panel will be sewn into the coin pocket, so that you can choose a song or crank up the volume without removing your iPod. The jean will retail for approximately $250 and will be sold in Levi Strauss stores worldwide. (A similar style without the technological capabilities will sell in stores such as Macy's and JC Penney for about $70.)

"Fashion and technology are increasingly merging and overlapping," says Amanda Freeman, vice president of the Intelligence Group, a trend forecasting company. "Technology is coming to be viewed as an accessory -- it's expressive in that way."

Koyono, an Ohio-based manufacturer, offers a jacket that is partially lined with conductive fabric. Tuck in your iPod, then fast forward from Kanye to Common with just a touch of your lapel. The number of pockets? Five in all, sized to hold everything from keys to a notepad.

Still, the company's founder, Jay Yoo, maintains that when it comes to pocket design, more is not always more.

"It's a balancing act," he says. "Sometimes you have to take out a lot of what you wanted to put in so you can accommodate style, and not look geeky." Yoo cites a line of T-shirts the company designed that feature a snazzy zipper on the iPod pocket (shown on the Sunday Source cover). The two-pocket style initially included four pockets.

"With that, you had gadgets flying all over the place," he says. "But with two, it was perfect."

The pocket wasn't always so fashionable. Gunn notes that, prior to the mid-19th century, its presence sometimes signified the wearer's lesser social status.

"If you had pockets, you were associated with a labor force," says Gunn. "It meant you had things to carry yourself. Otherwise, your lady's maid or your manservant would have done it for you."

That changed with the advent of a middle class that had people to see and places to go -- and no one to help them schlep their stuff. As of late, high-end designers such as Narciso Rodriguez and Miuccia Prada have certainly done their part to elevate the pocket from humble to haute.

At her fall 2006 show last month, Prada dressed up a slick parka with plush fur pockets. Rodriguez has incorporated the element in such unlikely items as beaded slip dresses and evening gowns.

"It takes what could otherwise be a haughty, almost aloof high-end dress," says Gunn, "and brings it down and makes it more accessible. It lends an air of casualness."

That should come as no surprise to anyone who's ever bought a pair of cargo pants. As outdoorsy companies such as Eddie Bauer and Land's End have long known, functional fashion is big business. (At Eddie Bauer, Expedition Shorts, an eight-pocket cargo style introduced in 2004, quickly became a company bestseller. Enter Expedition Pants, which hit Eddie Bauer stores in January.)

The pocket may be on the minds of designers and marketing gurus alike, but will these better, smarter, cooler incarnations resonate with shoppers?

"I think there will be a consumer -- younger, more contemporary, at least -- who understands that whole idea of carrying their iPod and cell phone on them," says Ross.

"It makes you feel very up to date," says Freeman. "It's high fashion and high tech at the same time."

"It's functional, but it can also be a work of art," says Patricia Mears, the research curator at the Fashion Institute of Technology museum. "There's a sense of security with it. There's also a fetish association: To some, it's a symbol of a woman's vaginal area."

Then again . . . sometimes a pocket is just a pocket.

Have a style question? E-mail Suzanne D'Amato, Sunday Source's deputy editor and a former fashion writer at Vogue, at styleq@washpost.com. Please include your name, city and phone number.

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