This winter, the female shoppers of New York will have a hard time finding the traditional bit of wool or cashmere to pull over their heads before venturing into the cold. Why? Because to walk into any retail store nowadays is to observe that the traditional entry point for sweaters no longer exists. Essentially two sleeves and an amorphous jumble of fabric, the sweater du jour circles the waist and ties to itself, or cinches with a belt. Occasionally, it buttons. As often as not, it doesn’t fasten at all, draping instead like a benevolent curtain over a holiday-augmented waistline or held tightly in place by the wearer herself in a sort of modest, self-swaddling posture (lest a gust of wind expose her midriff, perhaps).
“The nice thing about a wrap sweater is that it makes a woman feel very cozy,” said Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, co-founder and chief merchandising officer at Gilt Groupe, the popular invitation-only designer-sample-sale site. “It’s almost like putting on a bathrobe, but it can be elegant and chic.”
Call it a wrap sweater, a cape sweater or some combination of the two—cardi-shawl wrap, wrap sweater cape—the defining feature of This Year’s Sweater is that it opens in front and has an excess of fabric. Some are cropped, ending at the waist. Some plunge to mid-calf. Many are thin silk, meant to wrap several times around the body or tie with a shape-enhancing knot under the breasts. Others are chunky, utilitarian wool, meant to obscure the body entirely in a moment when an Equinox membership seems an unjustifiable luxury. And then there is the separate but related “boyfriend” cardigan, which is thin, like a traditional cardigan, but sized to fit a man. How convenient!
Perhaps sensing our eagerness to cloak ourselves from not just the elements but the storm clouds over the stock market, designers have rolled these comfortable sweaters out en masse. “You can wear them with a lot of different things; they’re versatile, they have a relaxed elegance to them, like you’re not trying too hard,” said Michelle Smith, designer of the romantic label Milly, whose basic cashmere wrap sweaters are sold at Bergdorf Goodman and Intermix. (“They did very well, considering the economy,” she noted, of fall sales.) “I find myself wearing them all the time.”
Kathy Gross, divisional merchandise manager at Anthropologie, a dearly beloved standby for upper-middle-class Manhattan women, called wraps “something we really believe in. They’ve been great for us.” Wrap and cape sweaters of various size are offered there from $68 to $128. Ms. Gross’s current favorite is the so-called Capacious cardigan, a “double-layered wrap cardigan,” she explained. “It has a button, but if you open it, it has a beautiful draped neckline, it sits in a beautiful way on you. I have it in purple. I have to keep buying them because I just keep wearing them. My husband’s like, ‘That again?’”
She attributed consumers’ enthusiasm for the style at least in part to the recession. “They’re really picking up right now because it’s great to have options in your wardrobe in this economy,” she said. A wrap, after all, can be worn several different ways in a single week: sedating a dress or giving a certain sloppy flair to jeans and a tank top.
Inhabit designer Susie Cho recently wore one over a full-length ball gown to a New Year’s Eve party in Dumbo. “I was wearing a fine-gauge wrap cardigan, and then on top of that two more sweaters. It was kind of like dramatic layers,” Ms. Cho said. “But those exact sweaters, the next day I’m throwing on a pair of pants and they still totally work. I have quite a few of them.” She designed several brown and neutral oversized versions with and without belts for fall (available for around $200 at Scoop).
Ms. Wilkis Wilson, of Gilt Groupe, claimed that these larger, chunkier sweaters are actually more flattering. “Sometimes, the thin ones, when you wrap them up tightly, might actually expose a bulge or a line you aren’t meaning to expose,” she said. The thick variety, like one she got from Ralph Lauren two years ago, convey the same comfort-clothing punch as Uggs. “When I received it as a gift, I thought it was a blanket,” she said, “and I put it on and I just never want to take it off!”
INDEED, the current sweater’s strong resemblance to a blanket may constitute the crux of its appeal. It’s hard to get out of bed in the winter. It’s harder to return to the grindstone after a holiday break. These sweaters just make things easier, allowing, as they do, a woman to essentially bring her comforter with her—to be warm and cozy and not have to worry about sucking in her stomach.
Which is perhaps why the new sweater blanket received its ultimate endorsement in November, when Oprah Winfrey guest-starred on 30 Rock, appearing in a hallucination of protagonist Liz Lemon’s to discuss her “favorite things” of the year. “Sweater capes” were the first thing she mentioned, and Liz donned a mom-ish gray version later in the episode in homage. A look-alike can be found at Banana Republic for $46.99.
Meanwhile, at Club Monaco on Broadway one recent afternoon, a row of elegant gray and off-white cashmere wrap sweaters ($169) were hanging on a prominently displayed rack with thicker, black ribbed versions, the arms of which had been tied into demure knots on their hangers, as if to say “Brrrr!”
At Bloomingdale’s nearby, in the third-floor women’s department, chunky, shapeless algae-green wrap sweaters by the trendy label Vince hung with oversize, knee-length purple wool cape sweaters (very vampire chic). In lieu of buttons, they each had a single large safety pin. Even ultra-feminine Diane von Furstenberg was, to survey her sweater selection, readying her customers for an extended Afghan donkey procession; one neutral-colored, chunky, oversize camel wrap had elbow-length sleeves and tortoise buttons (all for $395). And drapey wrap sweaters by Theory were chunky, soft and gray, mostly thick cotton-wool blends, and cost $335. One version on the 40-percent-off rack was adorned with a fur-lined hood and toggles: A blanket disguised as a sweater disguised as a coat.
But the wrap sweaters require less frequent dry cleaning than coats and can be packed easily for traveling. They also offer a welcome counterpunch to fall 2008’s return to tailoring. Faced with the prospect of revealing their waists in snug pencil skirts, many women not surprisingly reached for their blankies.
“Everything is tending to get very extreme,” said Ms. Cho, who often wears her sweaters with nothing but cashmere leggings. “Whether it’s these very figure-conscious tight things or the opposite extreme, these enormous, huge-scale sweaters.”
She’s already designed several more for fall 2009: “these huge shawls that then become hoods, and re-positioning the belt loop so it almost has the idea of a kimono. I would have to say they’re just getting bigger.”
Ms. Gross of Anthropologie is also clinging tightly to the trend.
“I think this one has some longevity, I really do,” she said. “You don’t have any fit issues. You can hide all things and still look really attractive.”
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