Fall fashion: A collection's best accessory? Imagination
EVERY FALL, I sit down with stacks of magazines and look books and flip through them with a pair of scissors in hand, clipping things that jump out at me. I'm thinking about the season for my job, yes, but also for myself. A stylist uses clothes and accessories the way a painter uses paint, blending the season's new ideas into an existing wardrobe. The fun is in learning how to make the trends work for you and maybe even starting a few of your own.

The fall collections are as dark and moody as the economy, and there is a heaviness to much of what was on the runway. Textured lace at Prada, sculpted wool coats at Louis Vuitton, nubby bouclé in deep tones of aubergine, mustard and smoky teal at Carolina Herrera -- all seem better suited to a blustery East Coast autumn than a mild Southern California fall.

But that's part of the challenge. Interpreting the trends for L.A. doesn't mean pairing everything with flip-flops and leggings, but rather adding pieces that work with the way we live. A bouclé suit would look out of place, but wear a bouclé jacket with jeans and a ruffled blouse and it's a natural for the office or a day shopping with friends. A pencil skirt with feather plumes worked into the hem would wind up slammed in a car door, but a dress with a feather collar is Hollywood perfect.

There are other practicalities to consider too. Especially that must-have accessory: money. I've just purchased my first home, and my paycheck priorities have gone from Marni to mortgage in less than a month. It's been jarring -- which is why I'm staying away from over-the-top runway items this season and delving into the middle tier.

Fortunately, it's never looked better. Designers such as Phillip Lim and Tory Burch and brands including A.P.C. and Reiss are hitting trends in a fresh and unexpected way. More than mere runway knockoffs, their reasonably priced pieces ($200 to $850) are stylish unto themselves, so they're fun to wear -- and I can still pay my electric bill. In an economy that's made belt-tightening fashionable, I'm guessing I won't be the only one looking to spend less.

But that doesn't mean scrimping -- especially on imagination. Before you shop for a fall wardrobe -- or pull clothes for a fashion shoot -- you have to dream. There's something about the stripes in the dress Jean Seberg wears in the 1960 film "Breathless" that always put me in the spirit. I picture Seberg, an American in Paris with gamin cropped hair, on the run in Europe with her lover, encountering a new adventure at every turn. That's how I want fall to feel.

Think of a story you love. Designers do it. Derek Lam designed his fall collection in the spirit of writer Isak Dinesen, Peter Som spun eclectic Little Edie from "Grey Gardens" into his, and Michael Kors was clearly watching a lot of "Mad Men" while sketching. You can find your own sense of style by trying on the looks of characters you daydream about. I like to call it "Method dressing."

Of course, you don't want to look like you're in costume, but you can take the greater idea of the season and use clothes to play out your fantasy role, whether it's Ali MacGraw in "Love Story" or Seberg in "Breathless." Weave in pieces to represent your constant style regardless of the season, while capturing some of the designer fantasy. How does it all come together? Take a look at these pages.

For fall, the romance of the clothes brought me to Union Station, a place where it seems time has stood still. It is a perfect setting for escaping reality and traveling back to a more decadent time.

An advertisement I ripped from a current magazine shows Kate Moss in a warm amber light, dressed in jewel tones. She is sitting in a wood chair, in a sparse and quiet setting. You don't know if she's coming or going, waiting for a train or her ride home.

That evocative image became the story of the season for me, and you'll see that mood coloring my take on the key trends for fall. I've interpreted them in a way that I will wear them -- not just this season but forever.

Bold blouse

I loved the mix of hard and soft, graphic stripes and dandy ruffles in the Reiss blouse at left ($230). It's more fierce than pristine, just like the crisp white blouses with an exaggerated bow from Proenza Schouler and Alexander McQueen. Because it is a more casual cotton fabric, it's easy to balance with jeans, such as Genetic Denim's boyfriend style ($198). The jeans make this frilly blouse look modern, and a nubby Tory Burch bouclé jacket with leather trim ($795) adds texture and polish. And the large mustard tote bag from Phillip Lim ($1,500) is just the shock of autumnal color to warm things up and blend with fall's more earthy tones of chocolate brown, purple and cream.

Feathers

Feathers may seem over the top in L.A., but this is Old Hollywood, after all, and who doesn't like to pretend she's a screen siren once in a while? The Monique Lhuillier chartreuse cocktail dress with a peacock feather collar at right ($2,900) is the fantasy piece I have visions of wearing to a red carpet event. It's more special than your typical little black dress but just as timeless because of its rich color and delicate silhouette. The cluster ring from Erickson Beamon ($235) adds a touch of playfulness.

Lace

Prada's fall collection was full of ornate lace, but the weight and conservative shapes made it look more like something my grandmother would wear to church than I would wear out on the town. Phillip Lim's charming lace dress in an unexpected deep blue (on the cover, $625) is lighter and more casual. It can go to work with flats or on a date with spectator heels.

Statement necklace

If you buy one thing this season, the statement necklace is your investment piece. It can instantly bring an outfit to life, making a casual look interesting. The Lanvin "door knocker" necklace at top left ($2,098) is another fantasy item, but is as statement-making as they come. It may look like a red carpet accessory, but the fun is dressing it down. I paired it with dark denim and my own navy and white striped H&M cotton shirt à la Jean Seberg. This is a look I would even wear with white Converse sneakers or Supergas with no socks. Wearing an expensive necklace with $30 sneakers adds wit to an otherwise somber season.

Purple

Purple is a regal color, but it doesn't have to be uptight. The smooth silk of the Catherine Malandrino dress above ($395) really does the plum hue justice, but add a motorcycle jacket from Jenni Kayne ($1,995) and you have an instantly edgy look that takes the dress from the office to a night out.

melissa.magsaysay@latimes.com