Color, comfort and funk

Whatever spring fashions blow into Asheville along with the irises and azaleas, the city’s fashion arbiters (that would be the owners of a randomly chosen, eclectic selection of the city’ s clothing stores) seem to agree on one thing: People here are much less influenced by what’s “in” than by what feels good. In other words, we may not know fashion, but we know what we like.

“Our customers are more interested in comfort and the sensual experience of clothing, rather than trends,” notes Mystic Eye (30 N. Lexington Ave.) employee Susan Flint.

“Asheville being the way it is, everybody wants to have their own look,” says Deirdre Mercure, owner of Interplanet Janet (68 N. Lexington Ave.). “How I get dressed is however I feel that morning.” (The day I spoke with her, she apparently felt like a long, slim skirt and a short, sparkly, ethnic vest.)

“Asheville fashion? Arty, creative, original,” says Forrest Hogestad, who owns The Enchanted Forrest consignment shop (235 Merrimon Ave.).

Constance Ensner of Constance Boutique (62 Haywood St.) finds that her customers’ tastes, for the most part, match their politics: “Generally artistic and liberal politically.”

“Funky,” says Mona Lax, who owns 2 on Crescent (2 All Souls Crescent), adding, “Maybe wearable art; any style that becomes individual to the person wearing the garments.”

Asheville may resist stereotyping, but these six women didn’t hesitate to climb right out on a fashion limb in forecasting what we’ll see people wearing around town this spring. The buzzwords: color and comfort (with a little funk sprinkled in, for good measure).

The spring lines at 2 on Crescent are nearly all in cool, subtle shades: plantain (light yellow), gray, cocoa brown, mint, orchid. Lax says she anticipates an outbreak of “neutrals and some really pretty spring colors — lavenders, mint green, robin’s-egg blues.” Spring style at this Biltmore Village boutique means big overshirts and long vests and tunics, with loose pants or long, loose skirts. One intriguing New York line, Bluefish, features hand-painted shells, flowers and leaves in soft colors, for a screen-printed look.

Shoppers at 2 on Crescent favor an easy, nontraditional, comfortable fit, reports Lax: wearer-friendly clothes, mostly easy-care, washable linens. “I think that’s really the direction of clothing,” she notes. “It’s definitely the way Asheville women are — very relaxed.”

The true individualist (what Lax calls “a small niche market”) may gravitate toward the Only One label — highly colorful, beautifully detailed, one-of-a-kind, vintage-style dresses made in Marshall, N.C.

At The Enchanted Forrest, spring colors and fabrics are influenced by the millennium, Hogestad says — “metallics, grays, pearlized fabrics” (these looked like satin, to me). She expects themes for this spring to reflect a Caribbean/Latin look that’s “really punched with color. And lots of roses.” Hogestad predicts we’ll see “a whole lot of linens, lots of drawstrings, lots of feminine clothes — lightweight sheers, see-throughs, lace.” She also names longer skirts, Capri pants, lots of khaki, and lots of pockets as spring trendsetters.

The store specializes in natural fibers, plus the unusual and one-of-a-kind — for instance, a lacy black see-through top with a turquoise tie-dyed swing skirt, with patchwork accents. “What do you call that look?” I ask Hogestad. “Asheville,” she says, without hesitation.

Khakis and denims still rule among the teen-and-20-something crowd, says Mercure. But you can look for spring styles to be more “futuristic, somewhat military, more urban.” On the other hand, “A lot of younger girls like vintage, because it’s unique –they have their own look; they’re piecing it together.” For guys, baggy pants and T-shirts are de rigueur. Mercure points out an upper-leg detail on a pair of khakis: “It’s a little secret, hidden pocket for … whatever.”

As the weather warms up, tank tops will continue to be “a must, a staple,” according to Mercure. And Interplanet Janet carries “a cosmic line of screen-printed tank tops in fun designs — lots of glow-in-the-dark colors.” Freshjive, Mercure’s favorite line, is doing “that retro Hawaiian thing — tube tops for the girls, and Hawaiian print shirts for guys.”

She calls across the store to a clerk whose hair is gelled into peaks, “What’s great about Freshjive?”

“West Coast, baby!” he calls back.

Teens who eschew khaki or denim for, say, the prom are “definitely asking for color and sexy,” says Ensner. What’s sexy this year? “They want tight and low cut, maybe with an open back.” Ensner was fresh from making the rounds of the New York City spring style shows, where she saw “a lot of workout-inspired stuff,” including footwear that looks “like running shoes on the bottom and Mary Janes on the top.” She was particularly struck by a trend away from backpacks toward “a sort of ergonomically designed, fitted body bag, worn close to the body, with lots of zippers.”

Ensner’s boutique — “traditionally known for a lot of black,” she points out — is unlikely to change radically, but the owner predicts a general shift toward corals, pinks, aquas and mint greens and, yes, a lot of khaki. What you’ll continue to find in her shop are slim dresses with classic lines “and a little twist,” for what Ensner calls her mostly “body-conscious” clientele — plus a selection of elegant, bias-cut ’30s- and ’40s-style gowns.

“What’s fun about Asheville,” says Ensner, “is I don’t have to be so cutting-edge. We work more with the customer’s lifestyle and what expresses their personality.” But keeping her own fashion biases out of the way can be a challenge, she concedes: “I think sometimes, ‘You can’t be a Republican and wear that!‘”

Mystic Eye focuses on what could be called wearable art — lots of luscious silk and velvet pieces custom-designed by owner Laura Petritz. Flowing dresses, skirts, blouses and robes — mostly made from hand-dyed silk, with graceful velvet accents in leafy designs — pervade the shop. Particularly beautiful are a series of long skirts and overblouses in cool mint greens, with navy blue or black floral accents. “Our clothes aren’t trendy; they’re really original or classic in design,” says Flint.

For spring, Flint points to a Petritz-designed long, loose, spaghetti-strapped dress in chocolate-colored velvet, with a deeply plunging back. “This is one of our newest designs,” she notes, adding that it can be ordered in custom colors.

Unlike many boutiques, says Flint, Mystic Eye caters to women of all body types — particularly plus-sized. “We make clothes that all women can feel good in,” she enthuses, “and we love to have women come in and play dress up.”

Contemporary lifestyles guide the selection of knit separates at Wings, too, says co-owner Jennifer Patterson, who describes her favorite line, Jonden, as “total ease with a sophisticated edge. No buttons, no zippers, nothing to mess with; just throw them in the washer.” For a woman who’s adventurous with color, one spring outfit Patterson recommends combines Bali Iris (intensely violet) pajama pants (“they’re soft, straight-leg, gathered at the waist, loose-fitting”) with a Rio Lime shirt. “With a nice hat, this would be gorgeous for Easter Sunday,” she muses.

Speaking of hats, at Wings, men with some maverick in their soul will find “The Gambler” — a straw hat with the brim slightly rolled up on the sides — just the ticket for that riverboat-cardsharp look. Another option: an ivory bucket hat (the official cap for Buncombe County lifeguards, according to Patterson). And “for a young woman who creates her own style,” Patterson recommends, perhaps, a pink straw number with a marabou (turned-down) brim.

Patterson points out a romantic, ankle-length dress made of ivory chiffon, with lace panels. “I have to carry this dress every spring and summer — it’s perfect for garden weddings or a wedding up on the Parkway,” she reveals. For those same Parkway weddings, men can choose from ivory or white peasant shirts handmade in Ecuador, for either a pirate or Victorian look — “gorgeous with a Panama,” she gushes.

Asheville fashion isn’t what it used to be, says Patterson, who has been in the business for 20 years. “It used to be a lot funkier,” she notes. Never fear, however: There’s plenty of funk to be found on our fair streets, even as we speak.

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