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California dreaming: Spring fashion's awash with neoprene Add to ...

For a number of designers showing their spring 2012 collections last fall, the runway might as well have been a boardwalk with seating set in the sand and a soundtrack of crashing tides.

Peter Pilotto, Rag & Bone’s David Neville and Marcus Wainwright and, to lesser extents, Dries Van Noten and Canada’s Joeffer Caoc all explored surf culture, elevating neoprene or re-contextualizing beachy prints beyond board shorts and bikinis. In doing so, they were riding a wave that had already been set in motion by Proenza Schouler last spring, Joe Fresh last fall and Michael Kors when he unveiled his resort collection, which boasted electric-bright, body-conscious scuba mini dresses. Three years ago, Lisa Marie Fernandez’ sleek, flattering neoprene bikinis set the standard, jumping on the neoprene bandwagon before anybody else (even actual surfwear companies) and still leading the pack today.

Altogether, this embrace of surfing culture might qualify – in surf-speak, at least – as an epic trend. Before anyone decides to dive in headfirst, however, it should be noted that the surf theme is as much about a sensibility as a literal look. In other words, it’s not simply a matter, dudes, of donning a wetsuit on dry land.

“Whether you surf or don’t surf, everyone wants to be able to incorporate that cool factor into their wardrobe,” says Roopal Patel, fashion director for the online retail site Moda Operandi, which sells high-end labels straight off the runway. “How do you bring that laid-back fantasy lifestyle – that relaxed approach – into high fashion?”

Shannon Davenport, trend expert for Stylesight, a global fashion forecasting agency, offers one answer. “Expert tailoring and beautiful details and considered colour choices – it’s the attention to detail that moves [the look]into the fashion category.”

Neoprene, moreover, continues to be neo-styled. First developed over 80 years ago by chemical maker DuPont, the material entered into commercial use in 1937, eventually becoming the default material for wetsuits.

Even though neoprene has its critics, who raise concern about its synthetic origins, the foamy fabric has been increasingly employed by the fashion world, appearing as a leather alternative on strappy shoes (Jimmy Choo, Pierre Hardy) and lively handbags (Diane von Furstenberg, McQ) alike. For designers, neoprene’s appeal is the way it bridges sporty and sculptural; it can be moulded like Silly Putty and is smooth to the touch.

“For the past several seasons, we have seen different [designers]revisiting [past]decades, but neoprene feels truly modern,” Davenport says, adding that, rather than looking back to mod or 1930s influences, focusing on a new material has prompted many designers to return to essential principles of form and function.

American designer Prabal Gurung has an innate way of combining maximalist finery with such sleek silhouettes. For spring, he showed silk georgette printed dresses (inspired by a Nobu Arakai floral print); fall will bring neoprene pants and sweatshirts.

His intention is not to reference surf culture explicitly, but the influence is undeniable.

“Neoprene,” he writes via e-mail, “makes for a statement piece but ensures comfort all at the same time.”

Lanvin’s Alber Elbaz is another designer who seems to have a soft spot for neoprene, shaping it into stunning dresses boasting ruffles and peplums, a combination that felt fresh.

In the surfing world, Kelly Slater types have a word for someone who dresses like a surfer but steers clear of the sea: a shubie. But that’s not what’s happening in fashion, where the codes and iconography are acting as loose inspiration. Pilotto’s hyper-saturated floral prints and streamlined scuba dresses, for instance, could not be confused with actual sport gear.

Patel suspects, incidentally, that neoprene will circle back and be adopted by active-wear labels. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we even start to see it in a new literal sport translation – like a great jacket for the gym,” she says, citing Lululemon or Stella McCartney as the brands most likely to leverage the moment.

Beyond neoprene, a surf vibe – vibe being a word that seems fitting in this context – is also being generated through vivid photo prints. Van Noten, for one, introduced a range of beach and city images onto sheaths and skirts that would satisfy anyone nostalgic for either Anguilla or Los Angeles – or both.

Such motifs evoke “some of most classic, instinctual things we love to look at,” Davenport says of these idyllic scenes. “Now we can put a beautiful beach sunset on a dress.”

The sun, it seems, won’t likely be setting on this trend any time soon.

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