After all the hype and hysteria of the spring fashion shows in New York and Europe, the retro showpieces and the tarty silliness, what will Washington women really want to wear this spring? And can they afford it?
The last time Washington was really warm, the warm-weather uniform was a big tent dress with minimum underpinnings, and flat or high-heeled scandals. The year before it was a T-shirt and a big flowered skirt.
This spring's uniform isn't so easy to predict. The ingredients are a slim skirt with slits front, back or sideways, cut off somewhere just below the knee; the sundress and the coatdress: a suit with shorter-than-long pants, a fuller-than-slim jacket (with shoulder pads), and a cummerbond of any shape or fabric to belt in everything, including what is already hanging in the closet.
"Suits," says Rick Goldstein, vice president and fashion director of Macy's. "That's what everyone will want to own, because they haven't worn one in a long while. And bright colors for the same reason."
Peggy Kaufman of Lord & Taylor agrees. "One good suit and one sexy evening dress - in lace, or maybe with controlled slits and decolletage to reveal more of the body - that's what women will want to own next spring."
Hanne Merriman of Garfinckel's is putting her money on suits as well, with matching jackets and skirts and far more fitted shapes than we've seen in a while. She also expects success with slim, slit skirts that are short - but still below the knee - and with slim coatdresses.
While some manufacturers in New York are quoting price increases from five to 30 percent - and still higher in Europe - Washington buyers are being very cautious.
"They day is over when women are not going to be stopped by a huge price tage," says Alice Dineen of SaksJandel, who has passed up collections when she found the prices "just out of reach."
Kaufman of Lord & Taylor thinks customers are coping better with rising prices stemming from increased fabric prices, labor costs and - both in the quality market and lower-priced imports - the declining value of the dollar. "The customer has learned to look for one good skirt or shirt, pay more, and own fewer things," insists Kaufman.
Ronald J. Lichter, creative merchandising director for Hecht's, has little doubt that women will be happy to get into the more feminine, pared-down look this summer. He says that with some scouting, there are still plenty of good buys in the American market, citing Albert Capraro, Frank Masandrea, and Charlotte Ford. "But people must know that as food prices go up, so must clothing."
Most buyers are not holding back when they feel the increases are legitimate - like the price of a silk shirt going from $50 to $55 at retail.
But there is a limit. In Paris, Diana Parker, who owns shops in Annapolis and White Flint, questioned the salesman on why Claude Montana's prices for spring were double those of a year ago. "We're gotten so much publicity we just thought we should raise our prices to match the other big names," she was told. At which point she turned on her heel and walked out of the showroom.