One way to stretch your clothing budget: outfits as multifunctional as a Swiss Army knife.

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Calvin Tran was darting around his shop the other day, fiddling with a fan-shaped slice of wool. “You can wear this as a poncho, a dress, a kimono or a hooded cape,” Tran said as he pulled the fabric over his head. With a high-pitched laugh, he added, “See, when you go to Iraq, it becomes a burqa!”

That puckish performance is surely known to viewers of “The Fashion Show” on Bravo, where Tran ( routinely shows off his antic personality. It was certainly familiar to Renita Bernard, a longtime client who stopped at the shop last week to try another of his designs, a swath of hammered silk that mutated, in Tran’s hands, from a knee-length skirt to a maxi, and from a one-shoulder Amazon dress to a lavishly draped Aphrodite gown. Witnessing its transformation, Bernard was charmed. “Four pieces for one,” she exclaimed. “That works for me.”

Tran’s sartorial shape-shifters are finding echoes these days at every level of the marketplace, from the playful variations offered by populist outfitters like American Apparel, Target and Victoria’s Secret to the more rarefied styles of Albert Elbaz of Lanvin (, who unveiled a resort collection last summer highlighted by daytime chemises that reversed for evening to ruffled chiffon or tulle.

Variable as they are, most such looks are short on what merchants call hanger appeal, their multiple personalities tucked away inside mysterious folds. But to those in the know, they function like soft-skinned transformers that can be hitched, tied, buttoned or draped to take on a variety of forms and uses. In a value-driven economy, fashions that can be tweaked to travel from workplace to gym and to cocktails are certainly compelling. And this trend, once perceived as a novelty at best, is attracting a new generation of light-traveling frequent fliers and canny frugalistas.

“If I can wear a dress three ways, I’m like, ‘OK, I just got my money’s worth,’ ” said Jeannie Herlihy, a fan of convertible knitwear from JNBY, the Chinese retail giant with an outpost in downtown Manhattan. What’s more, the clothes are forgiving. “If you’re having a fat day, it covers all the right places,” said Herlihy, who wore a wrap cardigan with adjustable ties throughout her recent pregnancy. “If it doesn’t, you can always turn it upside down.”

JNBY ( introduced multipurpose pieces about five years ago, with a handful of items priced from about $200 to $500. The trend “started as a test for us,” said Michelle Wohlers, the company’s brand manager for the U.S., but proved successful enough to warrant expanding the category by 5 to 10 percent each year.

But practicality is just part of the draw. The appeal of these clothes is “not about money,” Tran said. “People are buying them to play with. They want to push their creativity.” These days, he added, “everybody wants to be a stylist.”

Amen. Their fashion sensibilities shaped by reality shows, aspiring Rachel Zoes are paying $80 for one of Rachel Pally’s five-in-one convertible dresses from Target, which can with a few deft adjustments morph from a halter or swingy skirt to a strapless party frock ( Shoppers have also embraced Alexander Wang’s racy biker jacket with detachable sleeves; Norma Kamali’s Scarvey, a shawl with sleeves that can double as a cardigan; and Rachel Roy’s four-way coat ($189), which zips apart to stand alone as a vest, a sleeveless dress or a cropped jacket.

Donna Karan recently issued a weighty jersey “infinity dress,” which transforms from a cap-sleeve sheath to a halter dress or one-shoulder gown. Within days of its being posted on the company’s website this month, 100 pieces were sold, a spokeswoman said; never mind the $1,000 price (

Aloha Rag in New York sold out of a rugged-looking parka that turns into a dress. Victoria’s Secret will follow its best-selling multiway jersey dress with a wide-leg, disco-era jumpsuit. And come spring, Gary Graham, a designer and merchant with a New York following, will offer a skirt that does double duty as a shirt or culotte, a successor to his best-selling $354 skirt/dress, ruched like an Austrian curtain.

Shades of Edie Beale, for sure. But then, mutable fashions are not exactly groundbreaking, having had precursors on international runways. Multiway styles were paraded by avant-gardists like Junya Watanabe, who designed a beefy sweater that could be worn upside down, and Hussein Chalayan, who made waves more than a decade ago by unveiling a multitiered table that collapsed into a skirt.

Convertible looks have turned up in popular fiction as well. Cayce Pollard, the preternaturally intuitive cool-hunter of William Gibson’s novel “Pattern Recognition,” packs into her carryall a generic tube that can become, as occasion demands, a skirt or steamy evening dress, an item suited to her vagabond life.

Yet in its latest incarnation, the trend seems more timely than ever. “The moment is right,” said Sharon Graubard, a senior executive with Stylesight, a trend-forecasting firm in New York. Consumers have become more daring and self-expressive, she said. “They’re getting comfortable with shifting their clothes around, pinning them to the side, and kind of working them.”

Moreover, multiway fashions have a grassroots appeal. “A lot of our ideas come directly from consumers,” said Marsha Brady, the creative director of American Apparel ( Customers who appear to regard their purchases as modeling clay, generic and malleable enough to take on a life of their own, share their insights on YouTube, twisting and wrapping the company’s jersey wraps and bandeau dresses into configurations their designers never imagined.

That inventiveness is an expression of a DIY mind-set that recently made its way from the world of cosmetics. “We saw it first in young women wearing eye shadow on their lips and blusher on their eyelids,” Graubard said. “These people don’t want to be told what to do.”

Despite its attractions for indies, a mode of dress that requires the adroitness of a chess master still generates skepticism. As Amber Garrett wrote on We Covet (, a shopping blog, “I’ll always be a little bit wary of clothing that requires a how-to video (or an iPhone app).”

Yet the trend is gaining traction on online. Sites like Style Hive (, Trend Spot ( and Refinery 29 ( offer diagrams and photo illustrations that have gone a long way toward demystifying these fashion transformers. And video clips on YouTube and on designers’ websites promise to turn the straightforward act of getting dressed into a kind of participatory sport. On her site and YouTube (, or, Roy offers a video demonstrating how to turn a leather coat into a sleeveless power dress, an implicit invitation to viewers to try out the look on their own.

Four-in-one jackets, two-way trousers and convertible coats have gained a cultlike devotion at Harputs Own (, a San Francisco clothier and online retailer. “Our customers are students and bloggers,” said Gus Harput, who heads this family business. Bloggers, in particular, have done a lot to advance the concept of convertible dressing.

“These people are savvy,” Harput said. “They want the kinds of clothes other people don’t have.”