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The New York Times (April 9, 1989)

Richard Press is piqued. Fashion professionals have trumpeted Milan's rendition of the Yankee sack suit - broad-shouldered, wide-chested, loose-fitting - as the last word in high style. But Press isn't having any of it. ''I find it amusing that Milanese designers are telling hairdressers that the sack suit is now appropriate wear,'' says the vice president of J. Press, the venerable East Coast merchant, ''when members of our business and political establishment never thought it was anything but.'' Press, whose shops in New York, Cambridge, Mass., New Haven and Washington, helped make the sack suit synonymous with Ivy League style, claims that most of his customers have never abandoned the natural-shouldered, straight-hanging coat that is granddaddy to most current incarnations.

At its debut in the early 1900's, the sack suit, with it's all-of-a-piece cut, was a departure. By the 1950's, it had evolved into the classic ''gray flannel suit'' sold by Press, Brooks Brothers and other establishment merchants. Its tubular silhouette and scaled-down shoulders expressed America's then prevailing penchant for dressing down.

The coat's air of patrician understatement isn't lost on Ralph Lauren. This designer, who helped relegate the boxy look to fashion's scrap heap in the early 1970's, when he introduced a brasher, more streamlined silhouette, saw fit to resurrect the sack a little over a year ago. As he recently told a reporter, his interpretation was ''nonfashion fashion, something young guys picked up because it didn't look like current fashion.''

Lauren's sack suit, a cross between the three-button coat favored by politicians in the late 1950's, and the racier two-button model later popularized by John F. Kennedy, hardly created a ripple when it first appeared. Earlier, youthfully irreverent variations by fashion mavericks like Japan's Mitsuhiro Matsuda and France's Jean-Paul Gaultier also failed to cause a stir. And though stylish New Yorkers discovered their sack suits in thrift shops some time ago, it wasn't until influential designers like Giorgio Armani and Romeo Gigli revived the look on Italian runways that the fashion world took note.

It took the Milanese to transform this one-time symbol of upper-crust dressing into a badge of radical chic - a development Americans view with a certain amount of skepticism. But some, like the designer Garrick Anderson, cite precedents. In the 1930's, Anderson points out, the sack suit was worn by college kids as a reaction to the aggressively padded and shaped coats their fathers liked to wear. ''These kids did funny stuff, like taking the shape out of a garment,'' Anderson says. ''When they grew up, their style became Brooks Brothers. In my opinion, it still belongs in school.''

Some fashion makers, determined to offer adult translations of the sack suit, show it in several varieties, including a three-button coat with a lapel that rolls to the center button. Other darted versions, with padded shoulders and draped chests, are sack suits in name only.

Still, a handful of experts look to the straight-lined, slightly overscaled Italian model as a youthful, spirited alternative to wedge-shaped ''power'' suits of the late 1980's. Harold Koda, curator of the costume collection at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, points to the updated sack suit as the first significant shift in men's fashion in a half-dozen years. ''If it takes,'' Koda predicts, ''it will make existing styles look unstylish. Once fashion goes baggy, it's hard to stay sleek without looking uptight.''

GRAPHIC: Romeo Gigli's sack suit takes its cues from 1960's thrift-shop styles (Dan Lecca); the Ivy League sack suit, as revived by Ralph Lauren last fall (Gosta Peterson); in 1960, John F. Kennedy's two-button sack suit was a racy contrast to Richard Nixon's high-chested, three-button model (UPI/Bettmann News Photos)
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