Lisa Birnbach talks about ‘True Prep,’ the official update

Lisa Birnbach talks about ‘True Prep,’ the official update

PHILADELPHIA _ Since Lisa Birnbach wrote “The Official Preppy Handbook” 30 years ago, hip-hop transformed the pink polo from a cornball staple into a high-fashion perennial. Labels grew from tiny, tasteful characters (the little interlocking Gucci G’s) into ostentatious symbols (the big interlocking Gucci G’s). And Mummy ditched her embroidered corduroys (thank God) for a formfitting black stretch jersey dress.

With such preppy turmoil it was time to update, hence Birnbach’s latest tongue-in-cheek 248-page tome, cowritten with fellow prep Chip Kidd, called “True Prep _ It’s a Whole New Old World” (Alfred A. Knopf, $19.95).

Certainly 30 years has not been enough time to break through the members-only barriers of some preppy pastimes (still sacred are private school, a second home on the beach, even the three-martini happy hour), but the door to prep fashion is now open to the masses. What once were elitist department store-only brands _ Lacoste, Coach, and Lilly Pulitzer _ now have their own mall stores (not to mention their own Facebook and Twitter pages). And anyone can masquerade as a preppy, thanks to H&M and Wal-Mart, the modern-day go-to stores for polo-style shirts and khakis.

So much for exclusivity.

But preppy’s evolution isn’t so pink and green. If anyone can dress like a prep, can’t anyone be a prep? I caught up with Birnbach, 54, last week at King of Prussia, Pa.’s Lilly Pulitzer store _ the preppy’s haute home base _ to learn how to parse the privileged from the pitiful faker. Against a backdrop of cupcakes and bubbly, New York native Birnbach, dressed in her own Lilly sheath, dished about everything from Carrie Bradshaw’s evil ways to the love of Tory Burch.

Q: Does the preppy look still have the same panache as it had 30 years ago?

A: It does. The prep look is still aspirational. But what makes it cool this time around is that it’s almost cooler to get your prep on a budget. … Preppies can shop vintage now, and what’s not new is more preppy. Let’s say you found a fantastically striped polo at a vintage store, but the collar is fraying. For a true preppy, this is a cause for celebration.

Q: How has hip-hop influenced preppy, and how has preppy influenced hip-hop?

A: Hip-hop borrowed this aesthetic in a big way. They went big and bullish with preppy. It was preppy with a twist. … What happened is it got to be too much. The logos were too big. Tommy Hilfiger had to ratchet it back a bit because he found it corrupted his mission.

Q: You write in “True Prep” that the new preppy likes trunk shows, giving a few examples, including Irving & Fine. But how does the preppy woman feel about sitting front row at New York Fashion Week?

A: She’d probably like it. She’d look at it as an anthropological experiment. She’d say, “Look at all these strange people wearing these strange things. I don’t think I could wear that, but it’s interesting.”

Q: Sperry Top-Siders seem like the only brand you’ve mentioned in the Preppy Handbook that hasn’t enjoyed a major comeback. Is that on the horizon?

A: It’s back already. … They are really big with hipsters now. But how they wear them is ironic. It’s like people are saying, “I’m going to take these messy paint-splattered pants and these long shirts that I pulled out of the lost-and-found bin and pair them with my Sperrys, and I’ll be making a statement about nautical life.” (Sounds to me like that’s not preppy.)

Q: One of the main rules of the “Preppy Handbook” is that everything must match, but in “True Prep” you say bags and shoes don’t have to. Did Carrie Bradshaw have any influence on the new prep?

A: Carrie Bradshaw has had an effect on everything. (But) Carrie Bradshaw has been very bad for the prep. She introduced things to people that were out of their reach but probably should have stayed out of their reach. She “fetishized” expensive stuff. She influenced those who had no business having Manolos and maybe should be, I don’t know, paying rent, paying back their graduate school loans. They got off track.

I mean, I have two pairs of Manolos, but I call them “shoes.”

Q: In the “Preppy Handbook,” you wrote that only women older than 30 should have a Little Black Dress, but in “True Prep” you lowered the LBD age to 15 and said that by age 21 she should have several in the rotation. Why the change?

A: Well, I was 21 when I wrote the book. I didn’t have a Little Black Dress then. … but now I have a daughter who’s 17 and she knows now what I didn’t know then: Black is slimming.

Also, at the time I was looking ahead, and 30 seemed just, well, grown to me.

Q: In the “Preppy Handbook,” you lamented the end of Abercrombie & Fitch. Now 30 years _ and more than a few salacious advertisements _ later, the brand is back. Is it still a true prep favorite?

A: Alas, Abercrombie & Fitch is not preppy anymore. … There is nothing preppy about it. I’m thinking of lobbying the local legislator to ban the fragrance.

Q: How do preppies feel about Main Line-bred Tory Burch? I would assume those flats would be right up their alley.

A: They admire her. She’s like preppy exotic. We may not take that trip to India, but wearing a Tory Burch tunic with all the trim and details, we can feel like we have.

Q: The preppy woman of the 1980s was nearly androgynous. Can the preppy woman be more feminine now?

A: Yes. Mummy is now slim and trim. She has a trainer, she does Pilates, she does yoga. She spins. She has an eating disorder. Or all of the above. She doesn’t wear pleated pants. She’s into dresses and showing off her figure, and she loves stretch. She likes to think the (toned) body underneath all that stretch is hers.

Q: How do preppies feel about the evolution of pink and green? Can we attribute its new heyday to Kanye West?

A: Nope. Pink and green is still exclusively for preppies, and it’s all thanks to Lilly Pulitzer. I’m not just saying this because I’m here at Lilly. But Lilly is 100 percent about its pink and green, and so is a true preppy.


(c) 2010, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Visit Philadelphia Online, the Inquirer’s World Wide Web site, at

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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Lisa Birnbach talks about ‘True Prep,’ the official update