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slips

Just six months ago, Solissa Welden was a shoe store manager who happened to design dresses in her spare time.

Now, the 42-year-old Venice resident heads her own clothing company, Solissa, which supplies thousands of dresses to scores of trendy boutiques and department stores nationwide and is finishing up its first major order for export abroad, to a large Japanese department store chain.

And to what does Welden owe her mid-life career change and newfound fortune?

In a word, underwear.

Welden purchases high-quality vintage slips, camisoles and half-slips, then tie-dyes the garments in unusual color combinations subtle washes of baby blue, lime green and brown. The lacy undergarments are then sold as outerwear, retailing for between $65 and $120.

And she can’t produce them fast enough.

“There’s something kind of fun about wearing your underwear on the outside,” says Welden, who still does most of the dyeing herself, often working 16 hours in a single stretch. “It’s like you’re getting away with something.”

If that’s the case, then an undeniable outlaw spirit appears to have gripped young American women this summer.

“We’ve had a slip-dress summer, no doubt about it,” says Sylvana Kessel, co-owner of the Studio 10 showroom at the New Mart, and a sales representative for 10 small designers, including Welden. Slip dresses, she says, have accounted for about 25 percent of the showroom’s sales to boutiques and department stores this summer.

In fact, almost all the major design houses are pushing a line of lingerie-inspired outerwear. The items have been selling briskly in the girls’ and women’s departments of most major retailers and are available at almost all price points from $29 at The Limited to more than $300 at Barney’s.

Why are the undergarments so popular now? That’s one of those ineffable questions that makes the apparel trade so frustrating as well as so potentially profitable.

There’s nothing exactly new about women wearing their underwear as outerwear. Pop star Madonna has been carrying on in her undergarments for more than a decade. More recently, grunge icon Courtney Love wore a tattered slip to suggest a kind of debauched debutante look a look that has been energetically copied by younger, trendier women for several years now.

The slip-dress got a more significant boost last fall, when Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy wore a slinky, lingerie-inspired number to her wedding to John Kennedy Jr. It was a sign of things to come.

Whatever the reason, this summer marks the first time the underwear-as-outerwear look has been met with anything approaching mainstream acceptance.

“They feel very feminine,” says sales rep Betsee Isenberg, owner of the 10 Eleven showroom at the New Mart and a longtime slip-wearer herself. “Girls are acting like girls these days. They’re wearing very girly clothes.”

And it’s not just the girls. L.A. designer Barbara Lesser, who makes clothes for “more sophisticated” women aged 25 to 60, created a line of slip dresses this season. The items did so well, she is expanding the entire collection for next spring and summer.

“It’s a fun look, and it’s an important look for us,” says Lesser, whose patterned slip dresses retail for about $120 each at upscale boutiques and department stores nationwide. “It’s something my customer is just about ready for. We’re definitely moving forward with it.”

Designers maintain that the slinky slip dress does not require a waif-like figure to be successful. The garments which originally were intended to contour a woman’s body beneath her dress or skirt actually make women of most sizes look better, they say.

“I see it being worn by everybody,” says Janice Levin-Krok, president of Poleci, a women’s clothing company in downtown L.A. that has seen a 20 percent jump in slip-dress sales this summer. “It’s become an important part of a wardrobe.”

Although the slip dress has been a summer phenomenon, don’t expect the look to go away just because the warm season is drawing to a close.

Many slip aficionados have begun wearing two or three slips of different lengths at a time, which produces a trendy “layered” look and which also provides greater protection against the elements.

Lesser, for her part, has designed a black, floor-length slip-inspired evening dress this winter. And Welden has begun dyeing silk long johns to be worn beneath her slinky slip dresses.

Designers say the garments will be even more popular next spring and summer. But by at least one measure of mainstream acceptance, they still have a ways to go.

“I was kicked out of Disneyland for wearing a slip,” says Sarah Stinson, a 21-year-old saleswoman at a Melrose Avenue used clothing store. “They stopped me and said I had to leave because I was wearing an undergarment. I thought it was pretty ridiculous.”

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