The Buy Society

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There's something strange happening among the daughters of the infamous New York ladies who lunch. These rich young things spend their days working at charities or studying medicine--not picking at lettuce leaves like their mothers. They are not big-screen Hollywood celebrities, nor are they exotic models, but they still make for good fashion magazine copy: they go to the right parties, they photograph well and you don't have to deal with annoying publicists to get to them. But of course their most important role in fashion is that of consumer. They are the ones who buy, at full retail price, the designer clothes seen on the runways of New York, Milan and Paris. Some of the rest of us may own an Armani blouse or a pair of Gucci shoes or a Louis Vuitton bag, but these women are all designer all the time, right down to their Prada underwear.

"Socialites love fashion. They wear it. They're not afraid of it," says Harper's Bazaar editor Kate Betts, who did a six-page feature on those junior league socialites in her March issue. Celebrities, once the ones to watch for fashion direction or for fashion faux pas, have become so afraid of the harsh glare of negative publicity that they play it safe. Sure they wear designer clothes, but not the edgy stuff you see on the runway. Oscar night now looks like a small town high school prom, with every star in a monotone gown and a glittery necklace. But a gathering of uptown girls is, well, glamurama.

This season the designers are returning the favor. In runway shows for the fall-winter season in Milan, New York and London, the world's top designers paid homage to the socialite. The big fashion story, begun last season by Miuccia Prada, is ladylike or bourgeois chic: chiffon blouses, pleated skirts, silk dresses often in florals or adorned with three-dimensional rosebuds. Fur collars, high heels, and gobs and gobs of jewelry make it official: these are not clothes to work in. They're clothes to lunch in, to dine in, to be seen in. It's a tribute to a socialite who, given the rising careers of the bright young things, may be disappearing. It's a tribute to their mothers.

From the start of the Versus show in Milan, it was clear that something had changed. Instead of a traditional Versace shocker--say a mesh dress or thigh-high slit skirt, Donatella Versace opened with ... a suit. A beige suit. A beige pants suit with a nipped-in waist and smartly creased trousers. Other suits had low cut blouses: an unmistakable stamp of Versace tramp: there's nothing more Versace than leather and even in little lady mode, Donatella couldn't resist. And it's a good thing. The leather lavender fitted coat was one of the best pieces in the collection.

Prada's best collections, aside from being beautiful, are subtle inside jokes for the fashion intelligentsia. Last season when the look of the bourgeois hit the runway of fashion's most influential label, many were confounded. Who would want to go from modern, functional utility chic to that? But the true fashion devotees got it immediately (skirts with prints of lipsticked lips helped hammer home the message): playing dress-up in mother's clothes can still be fun. This season the parade of pretty continued at Prada. The show's feel of the 1940s, created in part by high, thick-heeled open-toe shoes and military-influenced coats, prompted some in the crowd to call it fascist. Yes, the slim suits with pencil skirts evoked the war era, but ribbon ties at the waist of the suits and the coats softened the blow. And that ability to mix the hard with the soft, the warm with the cool, is the only predictable thing about Prada.

For evening, the mixing continued. Prada showed floral or striped chiffon dresses under tweed coats. And nearly everything in the show, from the beaded slip dresses to the heavy coats, was shown with separate fur collars that hung loosely around the neck.

Earlier this winter, the Gucci group sealed the deal on its purchase of Yves Saint Laurent's fashion house and Italian shoe designer Sergio Rossi. From the design helm of this, the world's newest fashion conglomerate, Gucci's Tom Ford showed a collection that demonstrated how he got to the top and why he stays there. As the show opened, the uptown lady made her appearance again, though this time she looked as if she'd been pulled from her booth at a cocktail bar in the mid-1960s, in sheer black chiffon blouses with ruffled collars and cuffs and plunging necklines, shiny stiff silk dresses and coats with raised necklines that reached cheekbones. It was Mrs. Robinson all dressed up for a night on the town. Gucci's bourgeois aren't just ladies who lunch, they are ladies who drink and gamble and seduce their neighbor's son. (Ford's own mother, looking nothing like the runway version, flew in from Texas to see his show for the first time.) But at the end, the Gucci lady is ... a lady. The shoes said it all: low-heeled cap-toe slingbacks that could, in any other season, be mistaken for mother's Chanel pumps.

Designers today agree that "lady" still means jewelry, stockings, handbags and pumps, but consumers can pick almost any era, any mood of lady and find a designer who has revamped it for fall. At Antonio Berardi she was F. Scott Fitzgerald's Daisy in flowing floral chiffon pantsuits and satin shoes, long embroidered leather coats and sheer flapper dresses. At Narcisco Rodriguez, she was a modern boarding school dropout, with her slip showing and bags under her eyes, but still clutching her good crocodile bag and wearing her cashmere tweed suit with three-quarter sleeves. At Dolce & Gabbana she was a French bohemian (one from the best family of course) who fancies herself an arty rebel. She wears sherbet-colored accordion-pleated slipdresses with maroon Lurex tights, long beaded scarves doubled around her neck and beaded berets; patchwork fur coats in browns or grays or bright blue and pink stripes. She wears below-the-knee tweed aviator pants with tight bright tank tops. She rarely matches. She looks a mess.

But whatever the lady of preference, the big question remains: Do the daughters of the ladies who lunch, these women (not called ladies before in their entire lives, thank you very much) who are fashion's most loyal devotees, really want to go back to dressing like their mothers and grandmothers?

In London the week before the Milan shows, Hussein Chalayan showed that ladylike can also mean modern. Much has been made of the chair covers he turned into pinafores, the table he turned into a skirt, but the collection of blue suits, one with a large, asymmetrical collar overlapping traditional lapels, another with a Nehru-collar jacket that fanned out at the bottom and folded over itself, made the more dramatic with white piping, were perhaps just the thing for today's modern, fashion-forward socialite.