That Downturn Chic

"I don't usually shoot homeless people," Scott Schumann said. It was just that the man's jeans-shorts-over-sweat-pants look, his pale blue boots with matching socks, gloves and glasses, suggested that he had not lost his need to "communicate and express himself through style." Designers as unalike as Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto and even Marc Jacobs have spoken admiringly of the improvisatory and, naturally, desperate way some people without a permanent place to live compose themselves....Erin Wasson, a model turned designer, seconded Mr. Dufty's view that the professionals could take some tips from the homeless. "The people with the best style for me are the people that are the poorest," Ms. Wasson said. -- New York Times Style Section, 9-12-09

Judging by last week's Fashion Expo, this fall's downturn-inspired clothing will be even bolder and brassier than last year's extravagant offerings, bringing to mind the creativity of the Reagan era, when Vagrant Chic had its feisty, post-Depression Era zenith. The Armory was filled to capacity with buyers, designers, and reporters giddy to glimpse the new collections of this, our inimitable American look, and to sample the free buffet.

In keeping with the theme of this season's Expo -- "Donations: Past and Present" -- the audience of fashionistas and former financiers paid tribute to this year's movers and shakers in Downturn Fashion. Anna Wintour, her sunglasses dangling a Duane Reade price tag, welcomed Ben Bernanke, who brandished a bandolier of bailout funds strewn in an X across his hirsute chest. Richard Fuld, former CEO of Lehman Brothers, sported a tattered Mets cap in a nod to a team whose collapse was as dramatic as Lehman's one year earlier. Vera Wang, sitting beside the jowly Greenspan, was given an Outstanding Achievement Tin Cup for her new line of low-priced fashion designed for Kohl's -- featuring her smart and sassy use of fake furs, teased to shed, as the centerpiece of her "waif wear" line -- and spoke affectionately of polyester as "the new silk."

Other luminaries included Ben Stein, displaying such a dour demeanor -- and mumbling about lowering profit outlooks and hemlines in tandem -- that rumors abounded that he'd had one too many Madoffs, the drink du jour in the Hamptons whose giddily intoxicating first flush eventually gives way to a debilitating hangover that is said to last for months. Jim Cramer leapt to his feet, blowing whistles and clanging bells (thus discomfiting Ben Stein) at the clunk on the runway of every approaching pair of clogs or Converse. Nina Garcia seemed exasperated by the erratic behavior of her neighbor, Paula Abdul, who repeatedly tried to climb over Nina into the lap of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner; apparently Paula had overheard while eating pigs-in-a-blanket that Geithner is responsible for dispensing $700 billion in bailout funds.

But while such distractions "begged" for our attention, it was the designs the attendees were most "hungry" for, and their appetites were well sated. Elie Tahari opened with a line that showed how digging out those old leggings, worn with last season's tunics, can bring down the house with the restrained use of rips, runs, and stains. "The idea is not to imitate but to emulate," he said. "You want to copy the way an urban bedouin dresses and adopt some of his comfort and élan, but not surpass him with your version of indigence." Tahari also showed a "rich" assortment of downturn jewelry: big hoop pipe-cleaner earrings, bandage rings, pop-top chain bracelets, and necklaces of yarn, string, and electric wire. "Of course a strand or two of chewed gumwads dipping into the neckline then casually peeking through a frayed rip makes a dynamite fashion statement."

In keeping with the flouncy, flophouse sensuality of Paulina Straits' best designs, her new line shows even more flesh than ever. The audience oohed and awed over her newest look: a trim, somewhat open blouse (shown here pinned just above the navel) to reveal a bit of stained white undershirt beneath. Her line emphasized low waistlines showing more than a flirtatious glimpse of undergarment waistbands. Otherwise Straits' trademark oversized clothes -- especially her enormous, tattered slacks, sans belt loops, requiring the wearer to hold up the garment -- contained few surprises.

Above: Charlie Chaplin created a fashion stir with his tramp outfit. Then, as now, dressing was part of a mystique, the aura of impeccable impoverishment. The cane today remains a bold and useful accessory, and as Tim Geithner quipped, "something to lean on if your 401K has disappeared."

Left: "Joe", a vagrant whose calculated indigence is a match for his bristling, surly manner, has his own ideas about vagrant fashions. "Git outta my face," he says with a wave of his arm, revealing French cuffs fastened with adhesive tape. And he sports a matching adhesive pinky ring. (Polyethylene plastic vest, $3.29 [box of 20], by GLAD, at Shop-Rite. Knife, $18.95 [sheath is extra], at Bob's Thrift Shop)

An added bonus at this season's Expo was the accessorizing workshops held by some of the designers after the runway show. This reporter peeked in on a number of these and came away with more than "spare change" worth of tips:

MAKEUP should be well-planned and carefully applied to create those all important "wish I had a mirror" smears and smudges. For those with more of a flair for the dramatic, the bad news is that the "festering sore" still makes too bold a statement for everyday wear on or off the avenue, but a blood-red vertical line from eyebrow to cheekbone can be a successful attention-grabber without detracting from a strong ensemble. Teeth-blackening, though effective, should be used sparingly.

STAINS are marvelous for reinforcing an air of casual, unselfconscious destitution. They, too, must be carefully thought out and applied. Stains can be boldly colorful, as with mayonnaise, mustard, grass or blood, or uniquely textured, as with mud, chewed luncheon meat, or excrement. But placement is all! A slap-dash application can tumble a refined dishabille down to déclassé.

ACCESSORIES are convenient and, as the fashion-forward philosophers might say, utilitarian. Paper coffee cups lend that "Buddy-can-you-spare-a-dime" air and conveniently double as a clutch or purse. Plastic shopping bags remain de rigeur--they should be doubled if possible and well stuffed: with this season's roomy bags and the increasing trend toward scrimping and saving, there's no reason to leave your essentials, or your resume, behind.

Right: An open trouser fly deftly enhances the aura of je n'ai rien. Mittens, $3.95/pair, by Gold Toe, at The Sock Shop. Wine, $3.99/pint, at Frank's Beverages.