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Clothes Go Cross-Cultural

Eclectic street fashions - now going mainstream - reflect a growing global consciousness

IN downtown New York City, a street vendor spreads a rich red cloth across a section of sidewalk. Dressed in ethnic costume, she unloads some colorful bracelets and bags before a small crowd of passersby and simply says: ``From Africa.'' Ethnic goods in a city like New York aren't new, but their influence in today's fashion world is more prominent than ever. Whether it's batik shorts from L.L. Bean, African kente cloth tops from a boutique, or an Indonesian sarong skirt sold on the street, men and women are discarding Western fashion rules and stepping into the world of cross-cultural fashion.

The trend is largely fueled not by designers, but by street fashion and a growing awareness of different cultures. Greater availability of goods from around the world allows boutiques, designers, manufacturers, and mail-order companies to obtain clothing, materials, and ideas. Consumer interest keeps growing.

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``We're calling it `cross-cultural,' because of the globalization of everything,'' says Shauny Burns, fashion director for Bloomingdale's department stores. ``A lot of designers take their designs from different cultures,'' she adds.

Why this trend now? ``Part of it came with the '90s,'' she says. ``All of a sudden, we're looking at a new decade. We're seeing a world awareness that hasn't happened since the '60s. ... It's given [people] a chance to look at ecology, look at the planet, not just thinking about looking nice,'' she says, concluding: ``Fashion is always influenced by music, art, politics.''

Global awareness has become a buzzword not only in politics, but also in business, education, and the environment. Such things as international travel, fax machines, ethnic cuisines, ``world beat'' music, and a growing consciousness of the global environment touch people's everyday lives.

There's no question that people are more interested in different cultures through clothing and home d'ecor, says Melvin Ember, a cross-cultural anthropologist and president of Human Relations Area Files Inc., a nonprofit data base of world cultures at Yale University. A former student of his now buys folk art for Ralph Lauren stores, for example, and a group of Indians in Ecuador made a fortune selling native goods in New York.

``The folkloric or ethnic inspiration is certainly here as we approach 1992, with the opening of the European market,'' says Marilyn Harding, vice president of the Tobe Report, a weekly publication known as ``the fashion industry's Bible.'' ``The influence from far-flung ports or even from your closest neighbor have become important to fashion designers,'' she says.

There are no rules for today's fashions, say observers: ``Individuality'' is the key word. The emphasis is on clothing that is comfortable, functional, affordable, maybe unusual, and fun - especially for young people, and especially for summer.

Enter ethnic fashion, where people can cross cultures and create their own ``look.'' It may be a pair of cutoff blue jeans with a Guatemalan shirt, or a plain cotton dress worn with an elaborate Indian necklace. It could be black stretch pants, a Gap T-shirt under an embroidered vest, and an African hat. Some goods may be handmade; others are machine-made imitations.

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Goods and styles from places such as Morocco, India, Guatemala, Peru, the Caribbean, Indonesia, Bali, Burma, and Brazil show up in various ways: through colors (earth-colored vegetable dyes, ethnic brights), prints (Indonesian batik, African patterns), fabrics (kente cloth, embroidery, madras, weaves), and many accessories, says Lois Ross, a fashion consultant in Westport, Conn. The ``draping'' look, inspired by Middle East clothing and the sarong, seems to be popular, she says. Altogether, one's look can be subtle or strong, and a lot of ethnic wear is unisex, she adds.

``You can't look at it and say `that's from this country,''' says Ms. Burns of Bloomingdale's. The cross-cultural look may combine Indian with African with Far Eastern.

``The availability of it all is allowing people to dress this way more conveniently,'' says Tom Asher, owner of Artventure, a mail-order ethnic clothing company (``with a conscience'') in Berkeley, Calif. He adds that now ``men are dressing more creatively.''

Foreign influence in dressing is not new; designers have always borrowed from different cultures. Sixties' fashion incorporated foreign influences, and every summer brings some ethnic touch. But today the influence is farther reaching, more diverse, and more mainstream because the world has opened up, say observers. ``It's less of a fashion trend and more of a cultural trend,'' says Mr. Asher, who is also a sociologist.

Deb Colburn, owner of Nomad in Boston, recently attended the International Fashion Boutique show in New York. ``Indonesia and Guatemala was what was being shown the most,'' she reports, and fabric from Senegal is up and coming. Ethnic fashion has always been popular with a small set of people, but now it's more mainstream, she observes.

Dorothy Rudzki, textile history teacher at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, has also noticed the greater number of vendors selling goods from their own countries. ``Oftentimes the ethnic clothes we're imitating are almost despised by people in the country,'' she says. ``To them, it's peasant.''

International dressing includes accessories: jewelry, belts, scarves, hats, even shoes, satchels, and backpacks. Some city youths are sporting nose rings.

``Ethnic accessories are big,'' says fashion consultant Ross, mentioning shoulder-grazing earrings, woven belts, beaded necklaces, barrettes, pins, and the ``overload of bracelets.'' ``It's like around the world in 80 days in the USA,'' she says.

``A little bit goes a long way,'' says Shelby Acteson, a freelance fashion stylist in New York. If you deck yourself with the ethnic look ``from head to toe, it's not effective,'' she warns. Ms. Acteson says she's attracted to bright ethnic colors. With a business suit, for example, she likes to add a colorful ethnic belt or necklace. ``It changes the mood and you don't look like everyone else,'' she says.

Looking ahead in global dressing, the fashion industry is focusing on Russia and ``save the Earth'' themes. For fall, ``the whole kind of Russian peasant look is very opulent,'' says Bloomingdale's Burns.

``The big area for spring is the whole-Earth type of thing - sea-blue coloration, fish on shirts,'' says Hi-Fashion's Mr. Carey.

Some companies, such as Artventure, appeal to customers' consciences by focusing on ``ecostyle'' (using environmentally friendly materials, such as natural fibers in clothing and recycled paper in sales catalogs) and goodwill policies (donating some percentage of sales to a cause, for example).

So what's the appeal of all this for the consumer? ``There's something enticing about looking like you're from somewhere else,'' says Ms. Harding of the Tobe Report. ``As the world becomes closer and more united, taking on what has been considered in the past as `foreign dressing' has great cachet. It brings countries closer together.''

All clothing and accessories courtesy of Nomad, Boston.

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