London spotlights the new 'art sweater'

Certain designers shine through: Jean Muir, with her butter-soft suedes and a new jacket that has an ingenious S-shaped closing; Janice Wainwright with stunning art deco prints in the Sonia Delaunay manner; and the irrepressible Zandra Rhodes, with seemingly outlandish styles that somehow work better than many more conventional creations do.

But what London is really all about this season, buyers agreed, is wonderful hand-knit "art sweaters." The British have been turning out witty pictorial conversation piece knits for some time. But this cottage industry craft came into its own recently in the course of London Fashion Week, when showings for autumn-winter 1980 went on at various locations here.

"Luxury sportswear from Milan, couture ready-to-wear from Paris, and sweaters from England, that's where it is," was the word from C. C. Eckhof of Frost Bros. , the Houston specialty store.

Zandra's oft-dyed hair -- a visible barometer of her bubbling spirits -- was flamingo pink all week. The British showings needed this indication that there will always be Zandra, if only to demonstrate once again that eccentricity can have its rewards.

From Zandra came cowl-draped matte jersey dresses, some (but not all) of which are as short as the law allows. She also did a number of hip-length mohair sweaters with deep armholes and ridged ribbing.

In new prints, she adds a tic-tac-toe motif to her familiar squiggles. Her new flared cuff reaches to the elbow and is beaded, studded, or decorated with geometric mirror spangles.

Her new detail (used around the necklines of evening dresses) is fabric folded to form a zigzag border. A strong Persian turquoise dominates, but black , white, Parma violet, cream, and celery jeweled with amethyst are also in the collection.

A believer in the short skirt, Zandra showed two-tone stockings (light to the calf, darker thereafter) with her minis.

In London young fashionables wear mini kilts (which Paul Howie showed on the runway under equally short trench coats); bright bomber jackets; and colored tights with cone-heeled pumps. Like the fad for wearing men's dinner jackets of vintage age in place of blazers, the kilt bought in the children's department is something of a uniform with the modish younger set.

Otherwise, ultrashort skirts are not taking over as a hemline dictum here. "Options" is the byword in lengths. Arab oil money may play a part, through buying power and the dress codes imposed on Middle Eastern women. Some stands at fashion exhibitions here featured ankle-length, harem-oriented spangled chiffons in shocking pink and robin's-egg blue, with veils to match.

The area to watch as redevelopment proceeds is Covent Garden. Already dotted with smart boutiques and small, beautifully decorated restaurants featuring excellent food, the remains of the old flower market and its environs are a focal point for artists and writers as well as designers.

Paul Howie picked a nearby dance hall as the site for his show, which had a spirited winter sports theme, carried out through skier-print sweat shirts and tunic dresses, and also Norwegian-inspired sweaters with extra-large reindeer patterns. In both hand and machine knits, Howie presented a wide assortment of pictorial sweaters in bubble shapes as well as shrink and tunic styles. Among the designs were pop art drawings, Lombard and Gable in a movie-close-up kiss, and a charming group of pint-size sweaters that reproduced children's drawings in hand-knit form.

Another star of London sweaterdom is Patricia Roberts, with such knitted scenes as her circus clown with balloons and a delightful clothesline design of horizontal stripes, with socks and mittens up to dry on a blue sky background. Other sweater designers are Edina and Lena, Vanessa Keegan, Kay Cosserat, and Sandy Black.

Most of them do raised texture and openwork designs in fancy stitches as well as pictorials. "Block of Flats," by Vanessa Keegan, reproduces windows of an apartment building with a fire escape ladder up one side of the pullover. Edina and Lena's all-over patterns of raised flowers combine the visual with the tactile. Kay Cosserat does subtle-colored three-piece outfits and uses suede inserts in many of her costumes.

The newest member of the group is Sandy Black. A specialist in the raised dots these knitters call "bobbles," she is also a landscape artist who has converted painting into landscape-to-wear. Sunrise, sunset, and valley scenes with two-dimensional trees in raised stitches are among the success stories from her knitting needles.

Leathers and cire sports gear are other areas where the British are going places. In Paris, Yves Saint Laurent picked up on the colored leather fringed frontier jackets Maxfield Parrish did last season. So there are obviously good ideas to ferret out in London. Most obvious for now are those marvelous art knit sweaters.

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