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NEW YORK TIMES: Preppy Gets a 21st-Century Makeover

NEW YORK TIMES | KATE WEISMAN

NEW YORK — The young male models at Thom Browne's fashion show last week may have worn some unusual styles like short-sleeve blazers and quilted codpieces. But they also sported one of the most iconic preppy items ever: the white braided-rope friendship bracelet.

Preppy signatures seem everywhere. Polo shirts have become a trendy uniform with young women favoring the tight-fitting, navel-bearing Lacostes while men opt for faded or oversized versions. The white dress shirt has staged a comeback, and no-iron technology has made them a best-seller at Brooks Brothers.

But are we really in the midst of a preppy trend? Or are some savvy companies and designers - other than Ralph Lauren, of course - now realizing that there are not a lot of "proper" or "appropriate" clothes on the market?

"Fashion is fun and intoxicating, but most of it is fantasy," said Jenna Lyons, the creative director of J. Crew, the U.S. catalog and retail purveyor of chic and casual sportswear. "'I have always had an appreciation for approachable, wearable clothes. There is nothing more satisfying than giving real people a hint of glamour."

Lyons says that one of J. Crew's strengths is its ability to update the classics. This approach to design helped the company's revenues grow 27 percent in 2006, to $366.7 million. And energizing classics and inventing new ones has been a key factor of Ralph Lauren's success. Polo Ralph Lauren saw revenues rise 15 percent, to $4.3 billion, for the fiscal year ended March 31, 2007.

"Maybe we are the reason why this trend is happening," Claudio Del Vecchio, the owner and chairman of Brooks Brothers, said as a joke - sort of. He noted that the popularity of preppy and classic clothes is taking place simultaneously with the renewed success of Brooks Brothers.

Del Vecchio acquired the 189-year-old company from Marks & Spencer in 2001 and, in addition to restructuring, Del Vecchio and his team have sought to improve the quality and style of the men's and women's selections. For example, the company recently added a "trim fit" option to its basic oxford shirt for men, "opening the door to younger customers," Del Vecchio said.

He also surprised the fashion world last year by inviting Thom Browne to create "Black Fleece," a capsule collection for men and women that had its inaugural party in New York Tuesday.

Observers note that the preppy out there today is not the clichéd preppy uniform of the 1980s (like a twin-set with pearls) but a more interpretive version ranging from the sexy, soft button-downs and super low-waisted jeans of Abercrombie & Fitch to the sly martini glass-printed ties of nine-year-old Vineyard Vines.

Yet Lilly Pulitzer, reborn after being acquired by Scott Beaumont and James Bradbeer in 1993, continues to thrive with its super-preppy signature bold floral prints for women and girls, and brightly printed blazers from its recently debuted men's collection.

Many believe that this preppy peppering of fashion will be around for some time. "If our orders for upcoming seasons are any indication - and we book our orders a year ahead - then we expect this preppy or classic trend to continue," said Shep Murray who, along with his brother, Ian, fled New York in 1998 and founded Vineyard Vines with an $8,000 charge on their credit cards.

Last year, this fashion firm, based in Stamford, Connecticut, which makes clothes and accessories for men, women and children, had sales of $37 million - and this year they expect sales to rise 60 to 70 percent. The Murrays do not disclose profit or other figures of their privately held company.

Ian Murray notes that the bulk of the Vineyard Vines business is done in staples - khaki pants, solid polo shirts or cabled sweaters - as opposed to their tongue-in-cheek brightly patterned preppy separates, even though the louder pieces draw customers into their stores.

"Preppy has always been around, but now its fashionable," observed Robert Siegel, the chairman and chief executive officer of Lacoste U.S.A. For the American market, the subsidiary of the venerable 74-year-old company tweaked the shape and fabrication of its legendary polo shirts, introducing new form-fitting cuts, stretch blends and a tinier crocodile.

The reasons behind this so-called trend are many. Lyons at J. Crew referred to the lack of designers creating innovative, modern classics. Thus, those who do stand out and have an impact in the market.

Robert Burke, founder of the Robert Burke Associates luxury brand and fashion consultant based in New York, followed the same train of thought. "Consumers don't want to look like fashion victims," he observed.

Tiffany Vasilchik, a principal at BrainReserve, the trend forecasting and marketing consultant founded by Faith Popcorn, said the preppy trend is a result of "icon toppling" trends and expects it to continue for what the agency describes as "the medium term."

"People are frustrated by big corporations, from the Catholic Church to Enron, and the scandals. They are thirsty for stuff that's good. Preppy is here as a solution; it's a clean look, more innocent," she explained. "It's why some are flocking back to classic retailer Talbots because they want their children to actually look like kids."

Many in the business use the terms "preppy" and "classic" interchangeably but most consider preppy to be the extreme or exaggerated pink-and-green interpretation of classic styles.

"Preppy is polos, cables, pink and green, pears and seersucker, all worn together," Lyons of J. Crew said. "Classic is taking those pieces you've owned for years and making them look new with your own take and style."

The term "classic" is generally frowned upon in the fashion world because it conjures up images of frumpy navy blazers or practical trousers. But some of the more "fashion forward" designers like Thom Browne exploit classics and take them to the edge.

"My signature collection started from a classic point of view - timeless, effortless. It's how you take something classic and interpret it," Browne said in an interview earlier this year.

"Classic becomes a bad word when it's lacking in personality or identity," he added. "If it's simply a commodity, then it's nothing. Yet, there is nothing more beautiful than a classic white shirt."

'Preppy' and 'classic,' but so 21st century.