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Spring Into Action : Fashion: For better or worse, American designers in New York greet season with collections representing a variety of visions for dressing the modern working woman.

November 05, 1990|MARY ROURKE | TIMES FASHION EDITOR

NEW YORK — Geoffrey Beene's unique vision of fashion has never been more clearly expressed than in the spring collection he showed Friday.

In the 1990s, other highly rated American designers appeared to be groping for new ways of dressing. Not Beene. He found his way years ago and he knows how to keep it up to date.

Beene's idea of a modern woman's wardrobe consists of equal parts working and weekend wear, an evening outfit that is alluring and not just sexy, and at least one incontestable collector's item for life's most spectacular moments.

For work, his latest idea is a pale gray suit with a fitted, sleeveless jacket over a roll-cuff, narrow-stripe T-shirt. It appeared on the runway like a smart correction of a mistake so many designers here have made for spring. They are showing flimsy sleeveless, unstructured dresses as office wear. The fact is, women don't want to wear bare, fly-away clothes to work any more than men do.

To put things right, Beene showed a version of his sleeveless suit in white with navy piping, without the T-shirt. It was an option most women would choose for outside the office.

Most other designers are showing nothing but color for spring. Beene showed black evening dresses, snug-fitted as swimmers' tank suits, with black lace insets in the most sensual places--on the bodice starting from under the arm and swirling across the midriff, on the back from just above to just below the waistline. These were the most stunning evening clothes seen here this week.

His formal dress with yellow damask skirt, white beaded bodice and floral-beaded bolero jacket was one of several museum-quality outfits in the collection.

This season, Donna Karan and Isaac Mizrahi both tried something new with mixed success.

Karan added unlikely colors like taxicab yellow and lipstick red to her usual black, white, navy and gray. And instead of her typically undecorated style, she carved bold gold zippers into jackets and built gold-chain boleros onto evening dresses.

Ideas that worked best included a body-molded suit jacket with zip front and more zippers on the slash pockets, and a funnel-neck zip-front jacket over a short narrow skirt.

What didn't work for Karan: Shapeless burlap-fabric suits and dresses, and block-print dresses with a thrift-shop feeling.

Jewelry designer Robert Lee Morris, who has collaborated with Karan since she launched her first collection, made the lima bean-shaped zipper pulls on her suits, as well as the elliptical chain-link bolero attached to her navy evening shift.

While Karan toned things up, Mizrahi toned them down. His Pilgrim-themed collection seldom broke through the most conservative boundaries of his fertile imagination. That much said, there were no real disasters.

Innovative evening wear included a white patent-leather baseball jacket over a polka-dot swim suit and silk skirt just sheer enough for the swimsuit bottom to show through.

Mid-calf-length taffeta skirts worn with soft blouses were among the few long skirts seen here for spring. But they were flattering, and fit the romantic spirit of the collections.

Mizrahi's jumpsuits with set-in waistlines were very similar to those Beene showed. But Mizrahi's were two-toned, pink and orange, and worn with baseball jackets for a young, energetic look.

Anne Klein designer Louis Dell'Olio showed '60s-inspired clothes in clean, architectural shapes.

Arnold Scaasi continues to attract both First Lady Barbara Bush and first hostess Barbara Davis of Los Angeles to his label.

Cocktail and evening dresses are his best designs for spring. A white moire ball gown with lilac print, a strapless white lace gown with fitted bodice and A-line skirt, a halter top dress in sky blue with black-and-white ribbon print were among the newest offerings from Scaasi. Short dresses with fitted bodices and A-line skirts worn with short jackets were his leading looks for day.

Bob Mackie opened his show with swimsuits he could have styled for Las Vegas casino shows. One in yellow with cut-out sides had a ruffle-trimmed wrapper to tie over it. A flesh-toned two-piece suit had white Venetian lace dripping over the curves. Another suit was appliqued with tongues of fire.

Mackie's best evening dress was a very short version of the solidly beaded floor-length sheath for which he has long been famous.

This was no championship season for New York fashion. Dresses and coats are a new look. So are generously cut tunics and big shirts worn over mini skirts and shorts. But the real challenge may be to avoid making the same mistakes that many designers here have made.

The worst of all is the baby-doll dress. Its tiny tight bodice and very short full skirt never looked good on anybody over age 10, no matter what designer's name was on the label. Along with that, the baby-doll dress invites unintentional sightings of panties and tops of panty hose, as many models discovered this week.

If baby-dolls are the worst of the evening wear, fly-away shift dresses are the worst for day. The only hope is to find one with some structure to it, and a jacket lightweight enough to leave on in the office.

Some designers found ways to work contemporary shapes into wearable clothes and their collections stand out:

* For minimalists, Michael Kors, Calvin Klein and at a lower price, Rebecca Moses;

* For glamour, Bill Blass;

* For women who see fashion as art, Geoffrey Beene;

* For funky fun at a moderate price, the best collection was by Todd Oldham.

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