Preppy is trendy

With its Fair Isle sweaters, cable-stitch cardigans, its penny loafers, oxford cloth button-downs, reversible wrap skirts, and Lacoste shirts, the prep-school look -- or what designer Ralph Lauren calls "Brooksy Ivy" -- has been doing just fine, thank you.

Madras plaids and argyles have been the fashion staff of life to a large segment of the American buying public for decades.

Now designer Lauren has made Ivy League and British tweedy looks his own by mixing shetlands, tie silks, and tartan kilts with Western Americana and Victoriana (his delicate lace-trimmed embroidered lawn blouses have grown to dress length for spring).

New companies like J. G. Hook have recently moved into the preppy and collegian classic area with middle-priced lines of skillfully cut updated Seven Sisters' styles.

But the fundamental, bedrock customer is the outer-metropolitan who swears by the Talbots and other catalog suppliers on the East Coast and in the Midwest.

This customer's tastes rarely change. She generally wends her country/upper-suburbia way in Pappagallo flats and carries woodframed Bermuda handbags with a set of monogrammed button-on covers in different colors.

She likes what she likes, and she doesn't pay much attention to fashion with a capital F.

But if she won't go to fashion, this spring fashion is coming to her. Preppy clothes have been adopted (and adapted) as long lost friends by a number of Seventh Avenue's junior mass market manufacturers.

Yes, this is true. Casting around for a kicky new trend to promote for spring, fashionmakers have come up with what a large group of Americans have never stopped wearing.

It had to happen. Since this customer is fairly affluent, her rigid buying habits have long been the cause of painful frustration to the fashion directors of major store chains who wish she would be more with it.

Now she is -- almost. Since selling oldm preppy wouldn't exactly be news, the answer is newm preppy -- recognizable still, but just different enough to give women a reason to buy.

Thus, oxford shirts have lace edgings (an idea Ralph Lauren originated three years ago and reissued for fall and winter). The shirt itself, a Brooks Brothers traditional, has been stretched to dress length and given a white button-down collar.

Fair Isle sweaters come in fashion hues like magenta and teal as well as watery ice cream colors. Their traditional patterns have been revised to include animal motifs -- frogs, for instance, or whales -- or have been done away with entirely in favor of cable- stitched yokes.

The Bermuda bag has a fresh slipcover -- eyelet- embroidered. Duck shoes and down vests stay the same. But wearing the shoes with pastel argyles and the vests with a sweatshirt layered over a T-shirt is commendable.

The 14-kara gold open heart (preferably Elsa Peretti's) on a chain plus other thin gold chains and twisted know jewelry rate well. Add-a-pearl necklaces, elastic belts with interchangeable gold buckles, and narrow grosgrain headbands are okay as they are, orderable straight from the catalogs.

It is a clean-cut, appealing, and young way to dress, and, unlike Ralph Lauren's costly versions of traditional school and country classics, relatively inexpensive. But when you come down to it, the merchandising of new preppy is really the old story: If you can't lick 'em, join 'em.

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