During the past decade, the way style becomes fashion has changed beyond recognition. After World War II, elite designers typically looked to Paris to figure out what clothes they should be producing. Twice a year, designers displayed their offerings on runways. Those clothes were bought by upscale boutiques, copied by mall retailers and worn by women from Park Avenue to Main Street. Consumers moved in lockstep with the fashion industry, giving rise to universal trends such as platform shoes in the 1970s, power suits in the 1980s and all-black minimalism of the 1990s.

The narrow parameters of what was being produced made planning a breeze. Mixing and matching was near impossible. Powerful brands like Liz Claiborne often required retailers to buy packaged combinations of clothes-such as two skirts or pants for every jacket-and Limited Inc.ís Express stores sold a book titled "How to Dress Like a French Women," written by industry consultant Veronique Vienne.

By the 1990s the hegemony of elite designers started to break down as Calvin Klein and Gap brought fashion to the masses. But style still trickled down the fashion hierarchy and designers remained definitive arbiters of what was "in" and "out." Logos became the ultimate security blanket for fashion lovers, with the coolest dressers the first to own bags such as the $800 Fendi "baguette."

 

Over the past several years, however, fashionís code of conduct has eroded more profoundly as the number of places consumers can find inspiration has multiplied. Computer-aided design has also made it a cinch for fast-fashion specialists, such as Inditex SAís Zara and Polo Ralph Lauren Corp.ís Club Monaco, to produce affordable designer knockoffs that often beat the designer originals to stores.

A recent issue of Star, a celebrity-obsessed weekly magazine published by American Media Inc., pictured singer Ashanti and actress Misha Barton in skimpy orange cocktail dresses made by two top Italian designers. Alongside, the magazine gave its readers a budget alternative: a $98 ruffled cocktail dress with matching jeweled sandals for $85.

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