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WHIMSICAL VESTS PROVIDE AN INSTANT WAY TO UPDATE LAST YEAR’S WARDROBE

SHARE WHIMSICAL VESTS PROVIDE AN INSTANT WAY TO UPDATE LAST YEAR’S WARDROBE

Not long ago, they were relegated to bankers and corporate types as symbols for no-nonsense serious business.

Now vests are back in a big way for back-to-school, and no matter where you wear them, they're not meant to be serious at all.In whimsical patterns or laden with hardware, they provide an instant update to the old wardrobe, and that makes good sense for students who seldom tote bundles of cash in their backpacks.

It's the one thing you buy if you can only buy one thing, the experts agree.

"It's any kind of vest, even in tapestry," said Robin De Graeve, the junior women's buyer at the Jones Store Co. in Kansas City. It's being bought as a separate item and used as an accessory or as part of an outfit.

"It's almost worn as a jacket," noted Lucille Klein, the Dallas-based fashion director for J.C. Penney Co. "It gives off the same feeling."

Overall, fall junior clothes are on the sprightly and whimsical side, toeing the narrow line between the traditional and trendy in most camps. Miniskirts and leggings are selling well in some places. Ditto for patterned pants.

"Anything novelty" is a hit at Saks Fifth Avenue, said Muriel Gonzalez, a New York executive. Clothes decked with, say, joker cards, random words or charms and chains have a scholarly panache.

If there is any common denominator besides vests, it has to be denim, booming again after a significant downtime last year. "There is a real revival in denim," noted Ted Westmeyer, the advertising director for Dillard Department Stores Inc. in St. Louis.

At the Gap, "it's a denim and sweater year," said Sue Meyer.

New treatment washes and embellishments are apparently part of the current appeal. The Lee Co.'s "pepper wash," a clean, soft salt-and-pepper finish, is selling "phenomenally well," said Jim Huntington, executive vice president.

Levi Strauss reports light and dark denims thriving. So are big and skinny shapes. Acid wash, for which the death knell was sounded long ago, still has plenty of enthusiastic fans, according to Debbie Gasparini, spokeswoman at Strauss. Antiqued denim, sandblasted where denim generally fades to make your jeans look like your mother's or father's, is yet another option, while black retains considerable popularity.

Among the trend-trackers, the brightest idea is decorated denims, "like no other denim you've ever seen," Gonzalez of Saks said.

The recent denim slump was due in part to the industrywide switch to dark blues a year ago when consumers were more interested in acid washes. Some observers see the current upturn as a natural cyclical swing after the lack of interest in the past year.

As for sweaters, turtlenecks are riding high and, noted Klein of J.C. Penney, are often combined with slightly oversized pullovers.

The Gap has had considerable success with ramie and cotton textured sweaters in a variety of styles from turtlenecks to cardigans and sweater vests, Meyer said.