Radical Reboot

High on the list of things we’ve always felt sure we’d never see, right up there with a Jen and Brad reunion, a Red Sox–Yankees peace treaty, and hell freezing over, was an ’80s fashion revival. Quite simply, it seemed impossible. It’s not the sexy Mad Men ’60s or the breezy, free-spirited ’70s; it’s the garishly loud, over-the-top, impossibly overdone ’80s. The shoulder pads, the neon, the fringe — who in their right mind would ever go there again? And yet, as you read this, probably curled up in your leggings or boyfriend jeans, you already know … they’re baaaack.

But how exactly did we get here? Whispers of a revival trace all the way back to the fall 2003 collections, when Michael Kors (along with a few other designers) nodded to the era with studded motorcycle jackets, fringed leather skirts, and oversized denim jackets. At the time it made only a ripple, but the seed was sown. Three years later, Anna Sui and Marc Jacobs paraded legions of leggings down their runways, and just like that, the ’80s staple was once again ubiquitous (even prompting a Lindsay Lohan collection complete with — wait for it — knee pads). It was another two years before the movement experienced its shot heard ’round the world, as Katie Holmes stepped out in front of swarms of paparazzi in those unforgettable (and, some would say, unforgivable) pegged boyfriend jeans in the summer of 2008. The world collectively gasped. Then laughed. Then dismissed her as crazy. Yet it was something of a Sherlock move by Holmes: weeks later, designers showed spring 2009 collections full of shoulder pads, zippers, and high-waisted leggings.

Amazingly, that was still only the beginning. A mania for ’80s style has been exploding full force ever since, with no bigger moment than the present. An ’80s influence was seen on the spring 2010 runways of nearly every designer — from harem pants at 3.1 Phillip Lim to flashy mini-dresses at Versace, from biker shorts at Comme des Garcons to jumpsuits at Charlotte Ronson. So do these fashion innovators see something we don’t? How can they take what is arguably the worst decade in fashion history and embrace it so completely?

But they are innovators, after all, and they’ve thus revised, reimagined, and remade iconic ’80s shapes into something that nods to the past while also looking forward. “This time around everything is more subdued,” says Leila Moore, co-owner of South Boston clothing boutique Habit. “The colors are more muted, and if there’s a pop, if there’s some fluorescence, it’s a little bit — not the entire outfit and then plastic bangles on top of it.” Dava Muramatsu, owner of Newbury Street’s Matsu, points to the way colors are being used together as another distinction: “In the ’80s, there were a lot of primary colors used in different combinations. This spring, we’re seeing lots of tonal colors mixed together — the corals, reds. and pinks — and that’s much more sophisticated.”

Perhaps the most crucial element of the evolution is the shift in shape. Remember the oversized bordering-on-paper-bag silhouettes seen on pants, tops, and jackets? (We wouldn’t blame you if you blocked them out.) Well, this year’s approach is decidedly different. “Designers are paying much more attention to shape,” explains Moore. “Back then, you were basically wearing boys’ clothes. Now you have these tunics that are blousy on top but fitted through the waist. It’s much more feminine.” Modern fabrics help too, says Betty Riaz, owner of Chestnut Hill boutique Stil. “Everything today has more contouring, and part of that is the innovative fabrics being used, such as Lycra in clothing and jeans.”

Not only are the shapes themselves more structured and body-conscious, but they’re meant to be worn in a more streamlined way — something Riaz refers to as “opposing forces.” She explains, “The idea is to wear your boyfriend jacket with tight jeans, or if you’re wearing something loose on the bottom, go tight on top to keep it figure-flattering.” Another tenet of the trend? “Keep the ’80s vibe isolated,” says Riaz. “Wear one embellishment at a time and pair it with something modern.”

Certainly the goal is to achieve a look that is considered stylish by today’s standards, not those that existed decades ago. Which begs the question — why? Why go back and seek aesthetic inspiration from that particular period at all? Jay Calderin, director of creative marketing at the School of Fashion Design in Boston and founder and director of Boston Fashion Week, has an idea. “Take the strong shoulder,” he says. “In fashion history, that started in World War II as the military silhouette. Then in the ’80s, it came back, but it was a whole different kind of power that people wanted in terms of money and the economy. I think we sort of want that again now. We’re all feeling a little vulnerable, and that shape is empowering.”

While the psychology behind the ’80s resurgence might be complicated at times, the trend itself is anything but. “The ’80s were bright, sometimes silly, sometimes experimental,” says Calderin. “That spirit is coming back, along with the idea that everything doesn’t have to be so perfect-looking.” That sense of fun and whimsy is what local store owners are hoping you’ll embrace about the trend. Walk down Newbury, and you’ll see an array of ’80s-inspired jackets, from an ultra-luxe Balmain sequined motorcycle jacket at Riccardi to Vanessa Bruno’s ultra-wearable denim peaked-shoulder version at Dress. Also expect to see mini-dresses, zipper-adorned denim, harem pants, and even tutus. Accessories are the easiest (and often most affordable) way to try the trend, with studded bags, funky flats, bold belts, and layered chains available everywhere from H&M to posh boutiques like Matsu, where owner Dava Muramatsu’s new line of jewelry, Nymph, features bracelets that are designed to be stacked, à la the black rubber O-rings of the ’80s.

The ’80s revival is all-encompassing enough to offer something for everyone, and yet there are some styles that should be worn by absolutely no one. Acid-wash jeans, for instance, are neither modern nor wearable. Other looks to skip? Overalls, nude stockings, and excessively exaggerated shoulders (anything that appears borrowed from the Patriots defensive line and/or Lady Gaga would qualify). And lastly, doubling up on any trend is never a good idea. “As with any strong piece in a look, it’s important to maintain a balance,” says Martha Hilfinger, co-owner of Newbury Street’s Dress. “For example, if you want to wear the peaked-shoulder look on top, avoid pairing it with another strong trend on the bottom, like harem pants.”

Women may be delighting in the fun of wearing their boyfriends’ jeans and blazers, but ’80s-inspired fashion isn’t limited to the fairer sex. The trend is translating to the men’s market, too, as evidenced by the close-cut pants and bold patterns on the spring runways at Moschino and the distressed and embellished denim at Dolce&Gabbana. “Some designers we carry, like Dior Homme, Vivienne Westwood, Neil Barrett, and John Galliano, are doing the ’80s thing for men really well,” says Riccardo Dallai Jr., owner of prestigious Newbury Street boutique Riccardi. “We’re seeing drop-crotch pants, a lot of leather, deconstructed drapery, and even the revival of seersucker.”

So what does it all mean? The ’80s are indisputably everywhere, but do they have staying power? According to Moore, ’80s mania may be around for a while. “With the economy, people are being savvier, and I actually think trends are lasting longer,” she says. Consider that permission to ‘80s-ify your spring/summer wardrobe, starting with these must-have essentials.

Assad Mounser necklace at Serenella

Ultimate ’80s Wardrobe Checklist

Find them at Habit (703 East Broadway, South Boston, 617.269.1998) and Serenella (134 Newbury Street, Boston, 617.262.5568).
Layer a few for instant ’80s street cred (and an extremely easy way to perk up a basic jeans-and-tee combo).

Find them at American Apparel (330 Newbury Street, Boston, 617.236.1636) and The Tannery (11A Brattle Street, Cambridge, 617.491.0810).
Maybe to some people's dismay, these puppies aren't going anywhere; wear them under a mini-dress or a long tunic. If you're feeling funky, try a pair with stirrups (yes, we said stirrups).

Find one at Riccardi (116 Newbury Street, Boston, 617.266.3158) or Stil (The Mall at Chestnut Hill, 199 Boylston Street, Chestnut Hill, 617.527.7845).
You can skip the shoulder pads, but a peak or pouf at the shoulder is sophisticated (and also a flattering way to balance curves).

Find them at any of the shops featured in our Style column.
Choose neon or any of spring's other super-brights on a watch, a belt, or shoes for an energetic accent.

Find them at Flock (274 Shawmut Avenue, Boston, 617.391.0222) and BCBG at Lord & Taylor (The Shops at Prudential Center, 760 Boylston Street, Boston, 617.262.6000).
Show off your legs and stay comfortable by wearing a tight skirt with an oversized blouse.

Find them at Ku De Ta (663 East Broadway, South Boston, 617.269.0008) and Matsu (259 Newbury Street, Boston, 617.266.9707).
Try colorful cuffs or beaded versions — then pile ’em on.