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The New York Times


BYLINE: By Lawrence O'Donnell Jr.; Lawrence O'Donnell Jr. is author of ''Deadly Force,' a book on law-enforcement that is being adapted for television.

When I was 10 years old and for some reason in need of my first suit, my father took me to Brooks Brothers. We selected a three-piece gray flannel. In the next 23 years, virtually everything I wore, from shoes to sunglasses, came from Brooks Brothers. I am perhaps the only American who in the last 20 years never considered wearing blue jeans. Brooks doesn't sell them.

The Brooks system of dress, like geometry, has rules and a unifying logic that I easily grasped. I sometimes felt I understood it better than the store's management. When, for example, they introduced blue dress shirts with white collars and cuffs, I thought they were trying to cater to pimps.

I didn't always oppose adventure. I bought a few pleated slacks that began appearing in 1983. And when I had some Brooks shirts custom-made, I requested a much tighter fit than was available over the counter.

Then one night last spring, my clothes sense colided head-on with a television show. I tuned in to ''Miami Vice'' just to reaffirm my dislike for TV cop shows. Instead of hating it, I was enchanted. The show touched what was left of childlike impressionability in me, and suddenly I was drawn to the program's clothes, of all things.

A few days after watching a second episode, I found myself trying on a suit in a store about 50 blocks south of Brooks Brothers' store in Manhattan. Made in Italy, the suit was a single breasted, lightweight blend of wool and mohair in black. The jacket was ventless. The first person I remember seeing in a ventless jacket was Jerry Lewis. I had thought it was idiotic in the extreme.

Now, here I was doing turns in front of a three-way mirror in a suit that I would have laughed at a fortnight earlier. I had no idea what to look for in the fit of the thing, but, with a saleswoman's assurance that it was perfect, I took it home. On the way out, I grabbed a slate gray raincoat with a black leather collar; a pair of green linen, double pleated, very baggy pants; a gray cotton, single breasted jacket with (ahem) shoulder pads; something that looked like a cross between a sport coat and a safari jacket in green cotton; a casual shirt with massive breast pockets; and four ties that might be acceptable in banking circles . . . Brazilian banking circles.

On my first night out in the new look, I went to a party at a hot new nightclub. About an hour into it, an attractive entourage breezed by, including Don Johnson of ''Miami Vice.'' He was dressed, true to his character, in a gray linen suit and white T-shirt. As the crowd closed in on him, I studied his shoes. Since the show never has close-ups of his feet, I had been adrift on the matter of footwear. He was wearing black Italian loafers that covered less foot than a slipper, and no socks. I found similar shoes on sale on Madison Avenue the next day. I'll be wearing them with socks unless my feet somehow get as tanned as Don's.

I now advocate the conversion from the tried and true to the hip and whimsical for anyone who won't lose his job as a result - say, a salesman for I.B.M. My astonished friends find me woefully inarticulate on the supporting reasons. Either you get it or you don't.

For those dressers who think they might get it, I suggest a trip to the Italian designer section of any major department store. Try on two suits -one single breasted, one double - in dark colors you're accustomed to. You will feel silly or sophisticated. In the former case, stay with Brooks. In the latter, try to resist the temptation to start buying on the spot.

Visit as many stores as possible and flip through some men's fashion magazines to get an idea of how the stuff can be thrown together. Don't be too studious, though; recklessness is part of this game. Avoid advice and shop alone to get the excitement of full reliance on your new, unsteady fashion sensibility. Why not wear stripes with checks? Or even stripes with other stripes? No rules apply.

The gravity that held your old wardrobe in place will be felt no more. You'll hit fashion weightlessness, feel as though you're doing effortless somersaults in thinner air and will occasionally gaze back at those clinging to your old look and wonder why they can't see that your new way is the way.
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