NEW YORK — The 92 designers who previewed their fall collections during this week's Designers' Collective have at least one thing in common: They are all incurable romantics. But whether they are looking back to the age of Charles Dickens, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ozzie Nelson or "Star Trek's" Capt. Kirk for fashion inspirations, they are using fabrics most men have never worn before.
Supple wool crepe, jersey and rayon--traditionally saved for women--are now the stuff of men's English-tailored '40s-style suits, cardigan sport jackets from the '20s and waistcoats from the turn of the century.
One designer, Bill Robinson, terms the hybrid "contemporary retro." He is showing '40s silhouette suits with broad shoulders and peaked lapels in conservative gray and blue tweeds. Their familiar shapes are meant to soften the surprise of the light and fluid wool crepe fabric Robinson prefers.
Like several designers showing here, he contends that most men are willing to accept fashion changes, but only one at a time. And, he finds, "the hardest thing for men to deal with is a rearranged proportion." In Los Angeles, Fred Segal carries his suits; Bullock's carries his shirts.
Robinson was among the more inventive designers who took over three floors of New York's Omni Park Central Hotel for the three-day trade show.
One appealing feature of the event was that the designers themselves, not just their sales representatives, were required to be present to meet with store buyers and the press. For the most part, the Collective attracts smaller, younger companies that find more attention is garnered as part of a group than on their own.
Elyse Kroll, of E.N.K. Productions in New York, founded the semiannual "minimarket" in 1979. She screens new members with the help of retailers and fashion editors, who judge applicants on the basis of quality craftsmanship and exceptional styling, Kroll said. Those selected pay fees from $2,500 to $3,300, based on the size of their companies.
This season, the Collective is comprised of an international group, including Los Angeles firms Nancy Heller, Michele Lamy, Axis and L.A. Eyeworks. The star attractions, however, were London-based Katharine Hamnett and New York's Stephen Sprouse. Hamnett took over the flocked and gilded Oriental Room on the hotel's top floor, where she was interviewed under klieg lights for MTV while pre-Raphaelite-
looking sales representatives attended to members of the press and buyers from stores, among them the Maxfield boutique in Los Angeles and Chanin's in Westwood.
To explain her black frock coats and bronze-colored cravats, chocolate-brown tweed waistcoats and extra-wide-leg, pleated pants, she said: "Men should look like paintings of English country gentlemen. We're all sick to death of everything high tech."
Hamnett's 19th-Century fashion shapes were inspired by Beatrix Potter's illustrated stories from the Edwardian Era. In particular, Benjamin Bunny's debonair father, whom Hamnett came across while reading to her 6-year-old child.
Last summer's stock market crash also affected her latest styles, she said. To her, news coverage of the event was an ongoing Wall Street fashion show. "Single-breasted suits started looking awfully sexy after that," she said.
New York's Stephen Sprouse has built his reputation by recasting '60s styles. In keeping with that, his fall collection features velour turtleneck tops and narrow, stovepipe denim pants in psychedelic shades of orange, green and gold.
He designed his fabric prints, giving them the hand-stamped look of Andy Warhol's pop art silk-screens from the '60s. One, called "bullet," shows violet bullets on a yellow-gold fleece fabric. It is from his lower-priced ($25 to $200) "S" line. Another fabric print, "staples," from Sprouse's more expensive collection--a label that carries his full name--is a herringbone tweed of black staples lined up on green flannel.
Like Hamnett, Sprouse seems drawn to romantic turn-of- the-century styles, with velvet-collar coats, waistcoats and a tall, silk hat included in his collection. Macy's San Francisco carries his line.
Sprouse and other designers redecorated the hotel suites in which they were exhibiting, the better to complement the mood of their collections. Sprouse covered his room--floors, walls and ceiling--with a plastic, aquamarine material used to line empty swimming pools in the off-season.
Robert Stock, whose new collection features English- tailored sportswear, wrapped the walls of his suite with the same gray flannel he used for trousers. "The whole English tradition," he said, to explain the roots of his tweedy collection, which is sold at Nordstrom in Los Angeles.
He is showing shirts made of corduroy, dark paisley or black denim. And he is among several designers featuring cardigan sweaters. His have contrast- colored patterns worked into the sleeves.