In Tough Times, Try Tortoise: The Not-So-New Neutral

bryan 11 In Tough Times, Try Tortoise: The Not So New NeutralCall it the Year of the Tortoise: the year that New York women—speedy, combative, bargain-driven shoppers—finally slowed their credit card use to a crawl; and tortoiseshell, named for a lumbering, dwindling beast, bled downward from our sunglasses to color the rest of our wardrobes.

Late last week, the city’s beleaguered retail stores were awash in this mottled-honey hue. Designer Shoe Warehouse was selling tortoise ankle boots by Sergio Zelcer for $179.95. The popular boutique Poppy on Mott Street offered Nicole Romano tortoiseshell earrings for $182. Tory Burch had sold out of tortoiseshell clutches at $425. Fashion Web site Style.com was pushing a Sonya Rykiel leather belt with tortoiseshell bow ($217) as a holiday gift. And let’s not forget the $3,000 tortoise sequin jacket J. Crew presciently introduced this spring.

Tortoiseshell eyeglass frames are classic, of course. Angelina Jolie and Sienna Miller were both spotted in the style recently (Ferragamo and Dolce & Gabbana, respectively); and Kanye West broke out tortoiseshell glasses during Fashion Week in September, rapping with Jay-Z at the Marc Jacobs after-party in a tweed suit. “Tortoise has always been a best-selling color for us,” said Robert Marc, who owns eight eponymous eyewear boutiques in Manhattan and currently sells tortoiseshell frames in 63 styles. “This year, we’ve seen even bigger sales in this color because of the popularization of preppy, geek chic, retro frames.”

But the sudden au courant of tortoiseshell goes beyond geek chic.

We are wearing it because it goes with everything. We are wearing it because it’s subtle, and glaring luxury labels are gauche in a recession. We are wearing tortoise because for most of us, hare and its ilk are too expensive and/or humanely unjustifiable. And maybe we wear it because we, like the tortoise of fable, seem not to be in a winning position right now (though remember that the tortoise is all about perseverance—it lives upward of 250 years, after all).

Sellers of the shade point out that it flatters anyone’s skin tone. “It’s an easy color to incorporate into any outfit,” Mr. Marc said. And: “It always refers to something luxurious,” said Sebastian Marzaro, U.S. president of Italian shoemaker Casadei, which sells tortoiseshell pumps and sandals in several Manhattan shoe boutiques. “Even if it’s not the real thing.”

It hasn’t been the real thing since 1973, when the practice of using actual tortoiseshell was banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Mr. Marzaro, whose company has manufactured tortoise styles for about 50 years, said he noticed a steep increase in the prevalence of tortoise products in general after the CITES signing, as synthetics became more widely produced, and another boom in the mid-’80s, roughly coinciding with the release of Out of Africa. “It goes in cycles,” he said. “It goes parallel to all different prints—exotic prints like leopard, cheetah, zebra.”

Indeed, there is currently an uncanny consensus on Fifth Avenue that predatory mammals and reptiles make excellent shoes and handbags. The gentle, seafaring tortoise has the vague exoticism of furs and alligator skins but is much, much cheaper. (Many retailers specify “faux” tortoise, but most don’t bother.)

At Gucci near 57th Street one recent afternoon, the brand-new “Cruise” collection featured an understated $970 brown shirt with a decorative tortoise ring affixed to the chest, and a $645 black pump with tortoise stiletto; in two weeks, the store will begin carrying the Hysteria Medium Hobo for $1,360 (a patent leather bag with tortoise print). A scruffy sales clerk in a black suit said the collection was “beach-inspired.”

Down the street at Versace, saleswoman Carla Verschuren said a tortoise print had been revived for the fall 2008 collection from the archive of the late Gianni Versace, where it had been in hibernation since 1992. The black and yellow “Turtle” print was adorning two dresses: one jersey ($2,090) and one sateen ($2,495), both with a plunging V-neck.

Nearby at Just Cavalli, a $645 canvas blazer had a green-tinged, unmistakably tortoise-ish vibe, but a salesgirl begged to differ. “We call it cheetah,” she said. “It’s our take on cheetah.”

At Michael Kors on Prince Street, meanwhile, where tortoiseshell sunglasses are standard-issue fare (in particular a high-contrast model called the Madison, said a salesgirl named Carly), we also found a tortoise acrylic bracelet watch for $195 (without crystals) or $225 (with crystals). And the brand Lee Angel has debuted tortoise bracelets with crystals for fall ($260) in New York boutiques like Intermix and Montmartre.

“It reminds me very much of France in the ’50s, where people used to use it for hair accessories all the time, before we stopped killing tortoises, thank God,” said Roxanne Assoulin, the bangles’ designer. “People want value now. Tortoise is going to be an important trend because it’s classic, it’s something you see in Hermès, it’s very upscale-looking. And it goes with everything.”

mbryan@observer.com