NEW YORK -- Shoulder pads, leggings, studded shoe booties and power suits. When it comes to fashion this fall, it's an '80s world, and we're just living in it.
The best-known runway names are playing an ode to the decade that was known for its excess and then, toward the end, a stock-market slump. Maybe the tastemakers are hoping the style redo will help bring on the next step in today's rather similar situation: recovery.
But no two eras are exactly the same, not even in retro-loving fashion. Stephanie Solomon, Bloomingdale's fashion director, says that to create a modern look, take the key styles from the '80s and put them together in a way that says 2009.
"That power suit of the '80s? It should be worn not with the bow blouse. No 'Working Girl.' Go to a T-shirt department and find T-shirts that work as layering pieces, T-shirts that are cool and appropriate."
Ms. Solomon uses the word "evolution" a lot in describing the season.
Popular brands need to do the same thing -- build on heritage while looking firmly to the future. And they need to seem cool to the younger generation.
Here are three popular '80s brands aiming to do just that.
Candie's. The perfect partner to the tight designer jeans was the Candie's high-heel slide, which helped create a supersexy silhouette. The shoe, with its single strap of leather and flesh-tone heel, felt bare and a bit naughty.
Neil Cole, CEO of Iconix Brands, the parent company of Candie's, says the stars aligned for the company in the disco days, putting the right shoe with the right fashion trend. "They just made a woman's body look good. It was a rage -- there were 14 million pairs of the one shoe. . . . It was the shoe to have," he says.
Using that capital with consumers, Candie's expanded into a full lifestyle brand, adding sportswear, nail polish, sneakers and hairdryers, among other items.
"Sales became $150 million by the mid '80s. We did what Calvin (Klein) did with five-pocket jeans and Ralph (Lauren) did with the polo shirt -- we could make a brand that was known with one product," Mr. Cole says.
The turn toward '80s-influenced style could only be a plus for a brand with this kind of heritage. Despite the recession, Mr. Cole expects big business in footwear, dresses and handbags, and swimwear did well earlier this year.
It's likely that sexy slide shoe will make a return appearance in 2010, as it did in 1998.
Candie's is currently exclusively available in Kohl's and, according to Mr. Cole, is doing twice as much business now as it did 20 years ago. Britney Spears is the current spokeswoman, following in the footsteps of Kelly Clarkson, Destiny's Child and Jenny McCarthy. There also have been partnerships with runway designers Vivienne Tam and Anna Sui.
Pop culture has always been an important link between Candie's and its customers, and its a tool that keeps the brand young.
"We don't tell young girls we used to service their mother -- that would be a problem."
Norma Kamali. Sweatsuits and swimwear got Norma Kamali prestigious magazine cover gigs and a spot on New York's Fashion Walk of Fame, so she's not going to turn her back on them now.
In fact, Ms. Kamali, an early adopter of e-commerce and now direct-to-consumer sales, knows that her future lies with the continued success of the looks that made her a fashion force.
While the practical and chic draped tube tops, sexy jersey dresses and slouchy pants give her longevity, it's the innovative sweatsuit and parachute ensembles that drive new interest.
What teenager wouldn't take note on eBay or in a vintage store of a classic Kamali cocoon that promises both to flatter and to comfort? And then Ms. Kamali, who maintains a place in high-end retailers, will try to hook that shopper with her boxer-style athletic wear or an adaptable wear-in-five-ways tunic at a knockout price at Wal-Mart.
"I can pull out most things I've done over the years, and they can come out now," Ms. Kamali says. "I don't intend things as 'timeless,' but I'd make the case that my parachute pants or sleeping-bag coat could still be worn."
Where Ms. Kamali really has evolved is in her selling strategy.
You want to try a Kamali dress on but you live far from a boutique? She'll stick it in a FedEx box, and you model it in your own living room for up to 48 hours. If you like it, keep it, and your credit card is billed; if you don't, put it back in the box and never give it another thought.
That's when the relationship begins. Ms. Kamali and her team then take note of what was bought and start asking -- and answering -- more questions from that customer online. If the shopper wants to know if the size is right, Ms. Kamali puts her on Skype to see her in it. If she's not sure to belt a top or let it hang loose, the Kamali store stylists will weigh in.
"'Try before you buy,'" she declares. "Everything is so different in this new economy that we're redefining who we are and how people shop. The idea of shopping in your own closet doesn't sound like a great prospect for retailers or the fashion industry, but it's what you make of it."
Jordache. In the ads from its heyday, Jordache reminded the public of its "look," which was sexy, tight and strongly linked to its horse-head logo.
You can still get it today, this time sold as Jordache Vintage, available at Urban Outfitters.
"Jordache has a couple of different faces at different retail outposts," explains Liz Berlinger, Jordache Enterprises president (and a veteran of the brand for 30 years). "We are a dark denim jean, tight with back-pocket embroidery -- all of our businesses still have that. What makes the Vintage the most true to the old Jordache is the rises are higher and more similar to an '80s fit."
The difference? Stretch.
"Now the product we're shipping in all our lines has stretch, so you get comfort and fit that's more like a legging. You don't have to lay on the bed to zip it up," Ms. Berlinger says with a laugh.
There also are exclusive Jordache lines for budget-conscious Sears and Wal-Mart customers. A few years ago, Heidi Klum collaborated (and starred in racy ads) on a line that was sold at Bloomingdale's.
Jordache was part of the "designer jeans" craze, which was the predecessor to premium denim, Ms. Berlinger explains. When jeans were starting to cost $200 or more, that wasn't Jordache's market, she says, so it focused again on its identity as a brand with a little more glitz.
The rekindled interest in the '80s could only be good, she says, since Jordache already is making some "Flashdance"-inspired tops and jumpsuits.
"I think the level of brand awareness we established in the '80s has been amazing. We're a global brand that most people recognize and have a relationship with. Maybe it was their first pair of jeans, and high-rise and sexy was so much a part of '80s style. . . . Maybe Jordache ties back to that era in terms of nostalgia and where you were in your life."