Who could have predicted a couple of years ago that the homebody sweatshirt would attain high-fashion status? Well, Norma Kamali, for one. It was, after all, Kamali who in the late 1970s transformed this downtime staple, linked with the locker room and the living room couch, into a fashion trophy.
So it seems only fitting that Kamali has returned to the marketplace with a full-on sweats collection encompassing not just a curve-skimming crew neck, but also leather-paneled sweatshirts, flared skirts, minuscule shorts and a tank top paired with a long trumpet skirt.
Over the years, Kamali has been asked to resurrect her signature terries and fleeces. In fact, she never entirely abandoned them, incorporating sweatshirt fleece jackets, roomy cocoons, blazers and tunics into both her namesake and various secondary lines. But last year, when the designer known as the doyenne of sweats introduced a popular capsule collection for Barneys New York, its success prompted her, she said, “to go back to my DNA.”
Her second, more ambitious collection, which made its debut at Barneys and on her website this month, arrives as a come-lately, alighting amid a flurry (no, make that an avalanche) of so-called statement sweats. These fanciful interpretations began surfacing earlier this year, led by runway hits like a Givenchy photo-collage Bambi shirt and a Kenzo shirt with a mystical “lotus” eye. More recently, a raft of contemporary makers, among them Theyskens’ Theory and Vince, began injecting this once pedestrian item with a fillip of chic.
The news now is that the look, which emerged rather tentatively as a novelty, has asserted itself as a full-blown trend, one that, as spring approaches, is likely to tighten its grip on shoppers’ minds and pocketbooks.
“Not since Jennifer Beals danced under a bucket of water in ‘Flashdance’ has the lowly sweatshirt had so much attention,” said Ken Downing, the fashion director of Neiman Marcus. “Next to the biker jacket, the couture sweatshirt is my customers’ favorite item of the season.”
Indeed, it’s safe to suppose that, like biker coats, punk chains and studs and high-end tees, luxury sweats will become fashion evergreens, carrying on indefinitely as emblems of underplayed style.
“Two or four seasons ago, you couldn’t have enough white T-shirts,” said Ben Matthews, the buying director for Net-a-Porter. “Now people are trading out those tees for a sweatshirt.”
For spring, Net-a-Porter has diversified its offerings, adding sweatshirts in leather and lace, and, to satisfy consumers’ keenness for over-the-top effects, variations like a sweatshirt by Christopher Kane, one shoulder dripping crystals. Its cost? Just over $2,500.
Gym-inspired items introduced for spring include an Alexander Wang crew-neck shirt stamped with a “Parental Advisory” logo, a piece road-tested on a recent outing by Rihanna no less; a giddily patterned silk crew by Prabal Gurung; and marbleized silk variations from Peter Som and Phillip Lim.
Despite the occasional stratospheric price, sweatshirts, even the most rarefied (they can cost less than $100 or $1,200 and more), tend to be considerably less expensive than conventional luxury sportswear.
“These are great pieces for that aspirational customer who wants to buy into a specific brand,” said Tomoko Ogura, the senior fashion director at Barneys.
Moreover, the look straddles casualness and formality.
“People don’t want to look precious,” Ogura said. Combining a sweatshirt, with, say, a pencil skirt and pumps “guarantees that you’ll look effortless.”
It’s a nonchalance designers like to think of as modern. And it holds up after-hours. Kamali, singling out her sleeveless sweatshirt and matching floor-length skirt, considered its ease.
“This is what the red carpet should look like,” she said.