October 1, 2014
By Ruth La Ferla
Rita Ora was traveling quasi-incognito when she was snapped this year at Los Angeles International Airport wearing outsize shades, a blush-tone carryall, Air Jordans and a cushy sweatshirt, its hood pulled seductively over her brow.
Olivia Wilde recently strode the same passageways, the picture of ease in a biker coat … and sweatshirt, as did Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who sallied toward the airport lounge wearing a dark fedora and … hey now, you know the refrain.
At the airport, a hub for the paparazzi, who tend to treat its fluid corridors as a makeshift red carpet, off-duty models and Hollywood A-listers have been flaunting their sweatshirts with careless élan, wearing versions embellished with eye-catching slogans, cartoons and jewels and pretty florettes or, alternately, opting for standard issue, raglan-sleeve varieties meant to signal, one suspects, that the wearer is just like you and me.
Clearly civilians relate, which may be why this cozy insignia of slacker chic, once reserved for furtive cigarette jaunts to the 7-Eleven or late nights on the sofa, binge-watching “Revenge,” has become the would-be style-setter’s trophy of choice, an item for all seasons — and occasions.
Its transition from nondescript wardrobe standby, the fashion equivalent of mac and cheese, to luxurious fashion mainstay now seems to have been all but inevitable. “The world of luxury has gone somewhat casual,” said Milton Pedraza, chief executive of the Luxury Institute, a consulting firm. “A lot of people don’t see sweatshirts as basic items anymore.”
Conversely, Mr. Pedraza noted, “a lot of basic items have gone premium.” He may have had in mind the sumptuous interpretations of this humble item that appeared on fall runways and are sold at Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Barneys New York and on upscale websites. Prices veer from $30 for an orchid-printed top by Altuzarra for Target to more than $4,400 for a Fendi version ornamented with fake fur, felt, swaths of mesh and crystal, but then, who’s counting?
Such gussied-up sweats can still play down one’s wealth while conferring enough raffishness to suggest that the wearer is too young, too prodigiously gifted or simply too chic to go in for a conventional 9-to-5 uniform. Indeed, these days the only thing inelegant about this once unexceptional garment is its name. And even that has had an upgrade.
Statement sweats, as they’re known in fashion-speak, emerged on the runways over two years ago, making their debut on the runway at Givenchy in the form of a photo-collage sweatshirt, followed last fall with a Bambi-print variation that became an instant fashion hit. The look gained traction in the spring with the parade of high-end sweatshirts at Theory, Kenzo and Alexander Wang, whose white shirt, cheekily inscribed with a “Parental Advisory” legend, was a fashion editor’s favorite.
Sweats were reprised for fall at Rag & Bone, where a satin shirt was paired with paint-splatter jeans; at 3.1 Phillip Lim, with burnt-orange leather hoodies; and at Isabel Marant, where a lustrous camouflage shirt was shown with baggy fatigues. Surviving yet another season, they emerged for spring 2015 in a boxy version with cutoff sleeves at Jil Sander, covered in multihued sequins at Dsquared2, in a sunburst design at Fausto Puglisi, in silver at Norma Kamali and as a sleeveless top with an extravagant bow and as an evening dress at Bottega Veneta.
Like biker jackets, sneakers and skinny jeans before them, statement sweats have proved their staying power.
“Today it would be a misnomer to use the word ‘trend’ in reference to the sweatshirt,” said Tomoko Ogura, the senior fashion director at Barneys. Ever-evolving, it is now cut in sophisticated fabrics, including but by no means confined to cashmere, chiffon, organza, leather and lace, and offered in varying textures and shapes. So lavishly garnished are some that they are hard to place as sweatshirts at all. Yet consumers are responding, Ms. Ogura said, “because, while the designer’s hand is apparent, their utility is not compromised.”
Their utilitarian provenance is a talking point, indeed a boasting point, among luxury consumers who like to wear their shirts subversively with tuxedo pants or furs or, conversely, to throw on a sequin-encrusted versions to lend dazzle to their leggings or jeans. It’s like wearing a Casio watch with your Brunello Cucinelli cashmere pullover, suggesting a kind of inverse snobbery. “Like you’re playing the game without quite really playing the game,” Mr. Pedraza said.
In some quarters, sweatshirts, like sneakers, remain the great fashion leveler. Paraded this summer in men’s shows as diverse as Bottega Veneta, Neil Barrett and Lacoste, they seemed intended to mask distinctions of class and income or to render them obsolete. “Turns out,” as Guy Trebay noted in a New York Times fashion review, “Mark Zuckerberg didn’t need to outgrow his hoodie and shower shoes.” (Which is not to neglect those 99-percenters repurposing their gym togs as everyday wear in apparent deference to Gap’s recent injunction, in a series of fashion ads, to “dress normal.”)
“Sweatshirts flourish because they work for every demographic and every retail category — men’s, kids, junior contemporary and designer,” said Sheila Aimette, a vice president at the trend forecasting company WGSN. “They are cross-generational and cross-gender.”
Madeline Alford, a digital editorial assistant at Luckymag.com, has incorporated sweats into her workday regalia. Taking her style cues from the Lucky fashion staff, she may, on any given day, combine her black tubular jeans or leather midi-skirt with an oversize sweatshirt. “Instead of a chunky sweater, you could definitely wear a fleece,” she said, “something still warm and efficient.”
Function trumps showiness among Ms. Alford’s priorities. Fashion, she noted, has been gradually turning its back on the flamboyant extremes of street style in favor of a more accessible look. “Much as we love all that crazy, out-there style, it’s not for everybody,” she said.
Sweatshirts, on the other hand, merit her unstinting approval. “They’re what real women wear all the time,” she said.