All-American soft-porn sweats with a twist

The Juicy Couture tracksuit is the height of haute in L.A., a uniform for starlet and wealthy wannabe alike.

Published January 14, 2003 8:33PM (EST)

On a recent episode of "MTV Cribs," Hugh Hefner and one of his numerous bottle-blond live-in girlfriends (Hef: "I'm in my platinum period ... like Picasso's blue period") walked the cameras through the Playboy Mansion's closets. Hef's boasted a climate-controlled glass chamber just for his smoking-jacket collection. This Playmate's matching cabinet, however, was filled entirely with pink velour Juicy Couture tracksuits. In fact, she wore one -- paired with a sequined bra -- as she conducted her tour; it was her uniform for clubbing, lounging, partying, working out.

The Juicy Couture tracksuit materialized in Los Angeles at some point early last year; by the fall, it was de rigueur attire for every trendy starlet, socialite, stripper, waitress and fashionista wannabe in town. Those with deep pockets (or, in the case of Hef's girlfriend, proximity to deep pockets) don't own just one: Tori Spelling reportedly has one in every color. Nelly Furtado and Jennifer Lopez have worn them in music videos; Lopez loves hers so much that her J.Lo line knocked them off, as did Banana Republic and Old Navy.

The item is, for all intents and purposes, a sweat suit, unless the intent and purpose is to wear it in Los Angeles. Here the best-dressed wear warm-weather casual, appearing as if fresh from a sunny afternoon at the beach. But there are rules: The flip-flops should be Stuart Weitzman ($200), the slouchy patchwork shoulder bag made by Hogan ($795), and the kicky khaki military jacket thrown over the shoulder designed by Marc Jacobs ($650). (Local fashion police also require hair highlights to get that natural sun-bleached look, routine pedicures for those exposed toes, and, of course, pricey skin peels to rid the visage of the acne from all that smog.) In other words, West Coast low maintenance was never so high maintenance, and the Juicy Couture tracksuit is a perfect example of how the comfy casual can go so very wrong under the influence of fashion consciousness.

Without pretense, accessories or certain custom enhancements, the Juicy tracksuit is a fantastic piece of clothing: A two-piece velour sweat suit set, with a zip-front hoodie and drawstring pants, it is soft and fuzzy, and it comes in a variety of colors. For the patriotic, it could also be construed as all-American. But appearances can be deceiving: This is not your typical sweat suit. No indeed. The Juicy line is cut for the body of a 14-year-old supermodel (or, say, Lara Flynn Boyle). The hood is cropped and cut snug, so that there's not much room to wear anything underneath except maybe a La Perla bra. As for the drawstring bottoms, they hang low on the hips, so low, in fact, that one can often tell whether the wearer of said bottoms has shaved her pubis and left her Cosabella thong at home. Expect to see approximately four inches of skin between bottom and top on the Juicy Couture gal, and be assured that she is not wearing a T-shirt underneath (there's no room). Those without jutting hipbones and concave bellies need not apply.

The item is also off-limits to those on a budget. A velour version of the tracksuit costs roughly $200, while the more coveted cashmere version goes for $400. Although this may seem cheap compared with the latest off-the-rack Prada, keep in mind that this is a sweat suit. For an additional fee, one can get it customized (as in, the boyfriend's name embroidered across the chest); this being L.A., the most popular option is to simply flaunt the label. Juicy tracks are often emblazoned with the word "Juicy" across the rear end, thereby enabling the wearer to be both a label whore and a cock tease at the same time.

Despite its seemingly prohibitive cost, the Juicy tracksuit line occupies an entire room of the Fred Segal boutique, a local mecca for up-to-the-minute shoppers, and the store can barely stay ahead of demand. It's become a status label as coveted as Marc Jacobs or Miu Miu -- which perhaps explains why its devotees often accessorize their jumpsuits as if they were heading for a catwalk. The traditional purpose of the tracksuit (i.e., as casual athletic wear) is somewhat negated when it is worn with Manolo Blahnik stilettos and Gucci shades, and it looks particularly silly when its owner is headed to breakfast at the local diner.

In New York, a velour sweat suit might be considered the nadir of fashion -- not to mention supremely impractical for inclement weather -- but in L.A., where a gym card is valued as highly as a Screen Actors Guild membership, the Juicy tracksuit ultimately serves as a badge of honor, a kind of Angeleno uniform that conveys laid-back starlet living. "Because of celebrities' lifestyles, it's the perfect thing to wear between their trailer and filming," Juicy co-owner Gela Taylor (wife of Duran Duran's John Taylor) recently told USA Today. "It's the perfect downtime thing to wear."

The key words in Taylor's description are, of course, "celebrity," "trailer" and "filming." The beauty is that one can wear the tracksuit even if one doesn't happen to have a part in Steven Spielberg's next movie. One can, with the right velour and heels, look fresh from the gym (and therefore in possession of great abs) and on the way to the set. Or, in Juicy Couture as a "downtime thing," one can convey the impression that one is between jobs, sipping lattes and waiting for Harvey Weinstein to call.

Now, I know -- we all know -- there is nothing inherently wrong with wearing an overpriced sweat suit, even if by doing so one demonstrates a complete lack of originality and also, very possibly, runaway pretension. (One could say the same thing about Seven jeans, and hey, I wear them.) My mother's objection would be that it is unseemly to wear a cross between lingerie, pajamas and workout clothes in public. But Taylor would probably remind her that times have changed -- sweats work as dress-up clothes. Or do they? When Playboy Playmates are accessorizing their sweats with $400 heels and spangled bras to go out dancing, perhaps it's a sign that too many fashion boundaries have been crossed, and it's time to reconsider the circle pin and no white shoes after Labor Day.

Until then, however, Juicy jumpsuits serve as kind of homage to -- or, perhaps, unintentional parody of -- American fashion. What is more American than a sweat suit, the customary outfit of stay-at-home moms, fresh-faced athletes, dads hard at work in the yard? Put a expensive label on it, sell it at Bloomingdale's, and presto: high fashion. This is, after all, the country that gave the world Yohji Yamamoto tennis shoes and $2,000 collectible vintage Levi's; it's no surprise that our latest contribution to haute couture is a cashmere sweat suit with embroidery on the butt.

Personally, I'm holding out for a black-tie-optional terry-cloth robe.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Janelle Brown

Related Topics ------------------------------------------