Trickle-down fashion. As designs move from the runways to the retail racks, exaggerated shapes and details are picked up and pared down into styles we dare to wear

High up Fifth Avenue you'll find high fashions, high prices, and high hemlines. The exclusive boutiques cater to exclusive clientele. Yet, many of the ``shoppers'' are actually ``fashion tourists,'' drawn in by novelty.

Small audiences watch video fashion shows, while others scope the designer clothing in designer displays. Some look admiringly, others skeptically. ``Your average person comes in here just to look,'' says a sales clerk at one boutique, as she tucks a price tag back into the sleeve of a $15,000 dress.

What is it about those designer outfits from Paris - costing as much as a new sports car and worn by only a select few - that attracts the curious and causes designers and fashion reporters to ooh and ah over ``new rages'' that ordinary women wouldn't think of buying?

Who, after all, cares? Will any of us actually wear them? Will anybody remember them a week from now? And what does that skinny lady wearing a pout on her face and a pouf around her hips have to do with the real world, anyway?

For answers to these questions, you might ask the man who was kicked out of a designer boutique the other day for taking pictures. ``He'll go home and figure out a way to copy and mass-produce styles here, only much cheaper,'' explains the clerk.

The trickle-down theory of fashion works like that year after year. The top designers present their haute couture, leaving a trail of bread crumbs for clothing manufacturers to follow. Then, smaller labels blow a kiss to designers' flamboyance and pick up the gist of the styles - a pouf here, some velvet there - and voil`a: The couture copies show up everywhere from Saks to J.C. Penney's.

So it goes in the drop-a-pebble-in-the-pond world of high fashion. The rings keep spreading; and before you know it, we're all walking around in ``poufed out'' dresses.

Couture presents evolving forms of dress in the most extreme way. High-fashion collections ``are harbingers of what you'll accept,'' explains Laura Sinderbrand, director of the design laboratory at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York. ``Mass-produced clothing is still adapting designs from Paris, Milan, Tokyo, and New York.'' Couture filters down to all price ranges, Ms. Sinderbrand says.

Take, for instance, this year's focus on high hemlines, which are considered to be a radical change from years of well-below-the-knee. Although some top designers are showing mid-thigh-high minis (microskirts), most stores will carry skirts just above the knee, as well as the still-popular below-the-knee length.

Among some of the ringleaders in 1987 couture, designers Christian Lacroix, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, and Ungaro are showing fashions evoking the feeling of frivolity and theatrical flamboyance with consecutive ruffles, poufs, wrinkles, and bustles to overemphasize feminine curves. Power colors, quilting, bows, and ornamental trimmings make for dramatic dressing.

Buzzwords such as short and sassy take form in tight-fitting stretch dresses by names such as Pierre Cardin, Geoffrey Beene, and Bill Blass. Swing coats, A-line skirts, and minis (slim or tutu) with opaque legs, along with high, snug waists with rounded hips such as skirts by Calvin Klein and Donna Karan, add to the overall feeling of wearing curvaceous clothes for the fun of it.

Exaggerated shapes, colors, and textures are translated into a variety of styles all the way to conservative, attracting a wide range of individual consumers along the way. And it can take more than a year for styles to travel that route from the Paris shows to ready-to-wear clothes.

How closely you follow the fashion swings, of course, is purely a matter of personal choice. From a practical point of view, adding and updating is clearly the name of the game. With this year's focus on pairing extremes - bright and neutral, shine and matte, long and short, tight and pouf; it may mean shortening a hemline, wearing a high-waist belt, adding a long jacket, and buying a pair of fuchsia gloves to start updating an outfit.

``If you buy simple pieces that are fashionable, they're timeless, and it's important to adapt to the trend, but not in an obvious way,'' says Joan Kaner, fashion director for women's ready-to-wear at Macy's, New York. ``The more overly designed it is, the quicker we tire of it.''

One should view the most outrageous things in high fashion as fun to look at, stimulating to see, and as a preparation for versions likely to be purchased, says FIT's Sinderbrand. ``Fashion is a combination of evolving style and what is popularly accepted within that evolving style.

``It's a question of the eye becoming accustomed to any radical change in proportions; adaptations of truly radical shapes are watered down.''

Sinderbrand notes that fashion is reemphasized without people really noticing it - through store windows, the media, and the entertainment industry; it serves to readjust the eye to different looks and encourage acceptance through continuous appearance.

The key to interpreting fashion that has been termed ``wacky'' is to see it ``as the total image,'' says Sal Ruggiero, fashion director at Marshall Field's in Chicago.

``It's like viewing art,'' he says. ``You try to see what the artist is trying to say instead of analyzing a particular flower in the corner.''

Without putting yourself into the garment, Mr. Ruggiero suggests, interpret it for your life style. This may mean taking a designer dress with a terribly busy print and seeing certain colors or ethnic influence that could be tamed and incorporated into a wardrobe.

``People are comfortable when they feel they are dressed in a timely, acceptable, expressive way,'' Sinderbrand says. Yet, she says, ``this is the most encompassing `fashion look' period we've ever had: Every form, creative expression of how people put themselves together is acceptable.'' Fashion is a creative outlet of self-expression, whether you're a rock'n'roller in black leather or a lawyer in tweed.

Says Ruggiero: ``Women are developing a sort of security that there is no longer just one look.''

These threads of style form a crazy-quilt of fashion that's woven from the runways to the racks.

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