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Billowing fog, nymphettes strewing rose petals and men wearing only silk pajama pants were just some of the props in Bonnie Strauss' theatrical ode to beauty and seduction last weekend at the California Collections fashion shows.

The Los Angeles designer's dresses were fit for a Harlequin Romance cover. Corselets, bustiers, aprons, long full skirts and peasant-style blouses evoked maidens ripe for abduction. And in a Cinderella fantasy sequence, the "before" frock consisted of layers of organdy rags and the "after" ball gown looked like something for the woman who has never gotten the fairy-princess look out of her system.

Strauss wasn't the only designer who played with fantasy themes. At one point last month, the event itself appeared to be the stuff of dreams. But the financially troubled California Mart's new owner, Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States, didn't squelch the two days of tent shows and awards gala that had been in the making for nine months. After a four-year hiatus, the fashion fest featuring mostly Southern California designers returned to the streets of Downtown Los Angeles. And Maurice (Corky) Newman, the Mart's president, has promised to make it a twice-yearly event.

Even better news was delivered on the runways. The best spring and summer collections for '95 were exquisite; the worst were at least interesting.

Van Buren, Pamela Barish, Jessica McClintock and Strauss all heard the call of the new femininity and responded with designs that nipped at the waists and rounded the curves.

Maggie Barry and Ty Moore, the Van Buren team known for Lycra club clothes, showed they can also do daytime dresses and swimwear. They mixed Peter Pan-collar, floral-print shirtwaist dresses with patent leather corselets. Bustiers done in a happy daisy print and laced down the sides topped narrow skirts decorously hemmed just above the knee.

Van Buren showed its swimwear, as many designers did, with sportswear, combining brightly colored bikini bottoms with T-shirts. Other entries included Anne Klein's resort duo of pink gingham shorts and bikini top, Sirena's mechanic-shop calendar-girl combo of patent leather jacket and bikini bottom, and Mossimo's SoCal semiformal look of long black mesh dress over black bikini.

Barish, a California Mart Rising Star nominee, showed a collection rivaling those seen on the avant-garde Paris runways. Ankle-length dresses of rough douppioni or slippery smooth silk charmeuse were cut away or unbuttoned to reveal metallic organza pants and slips. Knee-length jackets were sliced open to also reveal translucent under-layers.

Barish was also in on the Capri deal. Above-the-ankle, tight-fitting, tailored trousers and cropped sleeveless tops showed up all over. Fortunately, loose-fitting, drawstring-waist pants were also easy to find.

Many designers stuck with the very casual, boxy, touch-me-not, clothes of seasons past. David Dart, who won the California Designer of the Year award, and Johnathon Hoenscheidt, who captured the Rising Star award, showed such collections, which play well in mainstream department stores. But the audience seemed more enamored of the designs by McClintock and Strauss, two perennial romantics who made a big leap from pretty clothes to poetic creations.

McClintock offered modern evening gowns that traded on the past. She topped heavy white satin bustiers with single-layer douppioni overskirts cut short in the front, long in the back. They wafted around the models' legs like lightweight clouds. Some skirts had bustles, others added ruffled edges and still others had long trains, yet each held its shape without petticoats.

Strauss' steamy production and McClintock's graceful one drove home the allure of the turn toward feminine dressing, especially such pieces as bustiers, corselets and full skirts. Baby-doll dresses in the Natalie "D" collection--with smocking, puffed sleeves and in pristine white, as favored by rock singer Courtney Love--were in that hyper-estrogen group too.

These fantasy clothes meld old-fashion values--Donna Reed-inspired clothes, kimonos and first-communion dresses--with dominatrix themes of bustiers, hot pants and stiletto heels.

Moments of brilliance during the shows also included Elizabetta Rogiani's one-sleeved sweaters with a separate arm piece resembling an opera-length glove; A.K.A.'s nubby ivory fabrics, linen or terry cloth, mixed with slick silver Lurex and satin; Poleci's white skirts and shorts with cropped jackets made of soccer jersey fabric and edged in patent leather; Joy Perreras for Rialto's big white linen shirts with fagoting, and Tina Hagan's silver-on-ivory sari fabric.

For those who track fashion stats, it's orange and silver as the predominant colors, stiletto heels as the dominant shoe, and cleavage--store-bought, home-grown or implanted--as the preferred accessory.

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