Did Sleaze Bring Preppy Back?

As New York Fashion Week gets underway, Linda Wertheimer talks to fashion writer and Barneys' creative director Simon Doonan about the resurgence of prep. A sequel to the 1980's The Official Preppy Handbook has just come out. And preppy clothes are being worn by everyone from Brooklyn hipsters to Palm Beach dowagers.

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Break out your khaki paints and pearl chokers. Preppy is back. One way we know that is a sequel, 30 years later, to "The Preppy Handbook." But there are other indicators that America is rediscovering its taste for Oxford shirts and gin and tonics. With us, to sort through this trend, is Simon Doonan, a long-time columnist for The New York Observer and the creative director for Barney's New York.

Let me ask you, Simon, since this is Fashion Week in New York, is preppy on the runways right now?

Mr. SIMON DOONAN (Columnist, The New York Observer): There's a million different trends concurrently operating. But, having said that, I think there's a renewed interest in preppy. And I think it's probably a function of how slutty and trashy everything got in the last few years, like the "Real Housewives of Orange County" or the "Jersey Shore." There's this super porno chic that sort of dominated much of pop culture. And it's natural that there's this sort of conservative reaction to that and that people might rediscover the sort of simple WASP-y elegance of preppy style.

WERTHEIMER: How would you describe the 2010 version of prep?

Mr. DOONAN: The 2010 version of prep is really fascinating. It's sort of you have to be kind of a Margaret Mead of prep to go in and discover...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DOONAN: ...all the different nuanced versions of prep, because you can wear prep ironically, you know, like a Brooklyn hipster will wear a button-down oxford but it will have frayed cuffs and maybe tears in it.

WERTHEIMER: Or fit like it belonged to their very littlest brother.

Mr. DOONAN: Yes. Shrunken, preppy, prep school kind of look. Or you can have the people, say, in the Hamptons or Palm Beach, who never relinquished prep and wear it without any iota of irony whatsoever, you know, fully embrace it. So between those two extremes, there are a million ways to engage with prep.

WERTHEIMER: Preppy, as pictured by Ralph Lauren, I've always thought was sort of aspirational, you know, dress like people who are so rich that they can dress like that.

Mr. DOONAN: Well, in terms of fashion history, Ralph Lauren is a really important milestone for the history of preppy-ness, because in the '70s everything got super sleazy. I think people took the counter culture and they just ran with it into this world of polyester and Plato's Retreat, and hairy chests and medallions and, super sleazy...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DOONAN: I call it geezer chic. And so along comes Ralph Lauren who says, wait a minute, let's not live as if we were sort of third string Vegas performers, let's live as if we were the Duke of Windsor.

WERTHEIMER: I think of prep as an American archetype. But I must say, I've always thought that the French, when they really get going with it, that they do it better than we do. And then there are the Sloane Rangers in Britain. Paris prep, I've always called it but that's not what the fashion magazines call it, I think.

Mr. DOONAN: Well, I think Americans have a very sort of masochistic relationship with France and with French style. Like they, you know, as you just did, you love to say oh, they do it better than us or they're chicer than us, and that's really not true. If you look at a Sears catalog from, you know, 1963 or something, like nobody does it better than America. Or even an old Esquire or Playboy magazine from that period, and you'll find these great madras button-down shirts. And that's one of the things like pop music and rap and blues that America exported and the rest of the world should say thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: Thank you very much for helping us out, defining prep, Simon.

Mr. DOONAN: My pleasure.

WERTHEIMER: Simon Doonan's books include "Eccentric Glamour," which he says is a kind of anti-preppy handbook.

(Soundbite of song, "You're A Rich Girl")

HALL & OATES (Musicians, Singer-songwriters): (Singing) ... never be strong cause, you're a rich girl, rich girl, and you've gone too far 'cause you know it don't matter anyway, rich girl. You can rely on the old man's money. You can rely on the old man's money. It's a bitch girl, rich girl and it's gone too far 'cause you know it don't matter anyway, rich girl. Say money, money won't get you too far, get you too far.

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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