Not since the psychedelic '60s have legs been wrapped so outrageously. Princess Diana has tights with tiny bows at the heels (and owns others with large blobs), and Princess Caroline has been spotted in black polka dot stockings. Designers as diverse as Christian Dior, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Liz Claiborne are all raising profits by lowering their sights. "It's a change of focus that's long overdue," says Shelly Wills, owner of Fogal in Beverly Hills, a pricey hosiery boutique that caters to celebs such as Farrah Fawcett and Barbra Streisand. "A woman used to buy a designer dress and that would be it. Now there's more attention to dressing the whole body." Adds designer Claire Barrat: "Patterned hosiery can be a wink, a bit of humor."
The manufacturers are certainly smiling, with pantyhose sales for the first half of this year reaching nearly $50 million. (Patterned hose average $12.) With women once again snubbing pants in favor of skirts and dresses, their business shows no sign of sagging. "Women who get into the habit of patterns and colors aren't going to be happy going back to transparent beige," says Callans. Textured styles are especially big with the under-25 set. "Young kids with no money can't afford clothes but can afford tights," says London's John Richmond, who, with partner Maria Cornejo, designed $23 Elizabethan print tights that are a smash in England.
The latest look isn't for every leg. "It probably helps to be slender," concedes Richmond, and Barrat warns: "A woman can have the most beautiful legs in the world, but you put a checkered pattern on them and they look like fence posts." But if zigs and zags aren't your thing, take heart. The top sellers at Fogal—where stockings can run as high as $185 a pair—are still simple, nude sheer and basic black.
Women love them. "The legs are a beautiful part of a woman; they should be emphasized," says French designer Chantal Thomass. Men hate them. "Some of them look like the flock wallpaper you see in Chinese restaurants," complains one male heel. Love 'em or leave 'em, though, bold, brash, hot-selling hosieries are adding a dash of flash to women from Paris to Palm Springs. Suddenly, declares Parisian saleswoman Claire-Anne Callans: "Legs are interesting again."