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THE FALL COLLECTIONS / NEW YORK : Good Riddance, Retro Gals


NEW YORK — Driving into the city from JFK, even in a stinky Yellow Cab, the fashion world reaches out to touch those who have come to appraise or buy American designers' fall '95 collections. It's an oddly dissonant trio: the ever-robust Bijan! followed by Calvin Klein's meditative poster children. Then Nicole Miller's confident black signature on stark white.

Believe in me. Trust me. Buy me . . . please.

Clothes, or fashion, are the raison d'etre of the official market week that began here Sunday. But the setting is irresistible to folks hawking arguably related commodities. Former New York magazine writer Michael Gross is available to anyone who cares to interview him about his just published expose of the modeling business. French gourmet chocolate manufacturer Richart dispenses gloriously decorated tidbits of ecstasy to cranky fashion mavens.

Absolut vodka, the New York Times, Town & Country magazine, Cadillac, Clairol, Hush Puppies and Evian are a few of the companies that saw Fashion Week as a publicist's dream and signed on as corporate sponsors.

But what about the clothes?

They seem almost secondary as retailers and designers grapple with the problem of reaching shoppers at the end of the 20th Century. Happily, their suffering is turning out to be our salvation. So far at least, American designers have cut the tricks and the gimmicks. Tailored, minimalist clothes are taking us mercifully away from all that '40s retro of spring. (Now, if they can see their way to cutting the prices, a fair fall season lies ahead.)

Donna Karan returned to her urban tough-girl roots in a DKNY collection Sunday night whose aim was true. To the thundering rumble of industrial rock, packs of black-leather-clad men and women stormed the runway. Karan may have toyed with the idea of a sweetly dressed retro gal last season, but who was she fooling? As she walked/galloped out at the end of the show, she opened her sweater and mockingly showed off her abundant, and apparently untethered, bosom, just as the models do. Well, sort of.

She's taken the kookmeister ideas of the Europeans--bustles, cross-dressing, satin cowboys, fishnet stockings, punk hair, leopard prints--and honed them to a fine point. Across the runway, men gazed on with wide smiles. These were sexy, self-assured women who could stride just fine in mid-calf boots and tight skirts, if the slits were deep enough. And they were.

Karl Lagerfeld might have played with the idea of dressing lipstick lesbians, but Karan took the idea to its playful extreme, dressing the wonderfully androgynous models in mod, gray flannel suits or morning coats and ascots. On their arms were voluptuous models in sexy leopard-skin vests under their gray flannel suits. See, you can have it all!

Mark Eisen likes long and skinny skirts too. And he slits them up the back and pairs them with boxy, short jackets and the sexiest streamlined high-heeled ankle boots around. Long looks constrictive, though, in any fabric that doesn't give. Rubber and a black-and-blue stretch leopard print were the only hope that this proportion will make it from the runway to the street.

Isaac Mizrahi decided to show his collection in a more intimate setting than the official Bryant Park tents, which brought the fashion world under one roof starting four seasons ago. Adrienne Vittadini, too, elected to skip the enormous pressure of a tent show. But it was an impending cross-country tour for her fragrance that prompted the designer to show a portion of her fall knitwear collection over cocktails in the cozy setting of the about-to-open Match restaurant.

People got to touch the clothes and talk to the models. An iridescent blue-and-black metallic-shot sweater that looked as if it would be stiff to the touch was as soft as mohair. A model who marches down runways with a famous glower was as sweet as honey.

Vittadini, a striking blonde who fled Hungary after that country's revolution, said she had pared her clothes down this season, and it showed: There wasn't a matronly looking set in the group. But she does have a tendency to dream up fake-fur-trimmed looks that would make a California woman pass out on an Indian Summer day.

Byron Lars, who skipped last season because of late fabric deliveries, set his show against an over-the-top, cartoony dialogue among girlfriends, complete with dialogue bubbles. When it was good, it was very, very good. Cinched corsets with fake fur, gun-metal gray leather jackets with matching narrow skirts, argyle-front zipped jumpers with ribbed knit sleeves looked sassy and wearable.

But they didn't make rap impresario Russell Simmons' jaw drop open like the temptress ensemble strutted by a blond-ponytailed Beverly Peele. Her skintight turtleneck body stocking and long slit-to-the-crotch skirt wasn't fashion. But it sure was effective.

And explain to us again why a perfectly good tiny-checked wool plaid suit needs shiny quilted insets at the elbow and hip? All we could think of were those grocery store toaster covers--hold the crumbs.

* Next: Ralph Lauren, Anna Sui, Bill Blass, Calvin Klein and the debut of Anne Klein's new designer.

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