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THE SPRING COLLECTIONS / NEW YORK : Straight Talk : The masters of American design keep it pure and simple. Their staying power depends on subtleties in form, color and fit--and the occasional surprise.


NEW YORK — There is a poignant scene at the beginning of "Unzipped," the knowing documentary that brings audiences into the world of Isaac Mizrahi, when he reads Women's Wear Daily's uncomplimentary review of his collection in the cold light of a SoHo dawn. Unfortunately, he had to relive that moment Friday, the morning after presenting his spring 1996 collection here. But opinions among fashion journalists often differ, just as they do with movie critics. One man's thumbs up is another's debacle. Go figure.

Excellence is expected of the top of the class, and Mizrahi, along with Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Richard Tyler, are the stars of American fashion. The value of their expertise becomes critical when most of the clothes slinking down the runways in a week of American designer shows have been so plain, so understated, at their worst so snoringly simple that only the hand of a master can create the subtle differences in silhouette, color, quality and fit that distinguish one design from another. (There are lots of white pants around, for example. Is Michael Kors the only one smart enough to make them in a good, double-faced crepe so the pocket lining doesn't show through?)

Those who did not champion Mizrahi's polished collection are probably fans of the popular unstudied look. Marc Jacobs, DKNY and others have featured clothes for the woman who doesn't want to appear to be trying too hard. Of course, the irony, and the joke, is that in straining to be artless, the oh-so-cool crowd achieves a look that is everything but nonchalant.

"Unzipped" astutely captured Mizrahi's wit. Because he speaks in pithy sound bites, he could be more the designer as oracle than a real practitioner of his craft. But he neither condescends to the self-consciously hip aesthetic nor lets his personality overwhelm his designs. He has always been an unabashed admirer of American movie stars with great style. At his runway presentation, he stepped confidently into the shadows, and let a gorgeous trio of small-waisted chiffon Grace Kelly dresses revel in the spotlight. His palette relied on gentle earth colors, loam, bark, even a purple he called rhubarb. A navy pantsuit and a pair of dresses with exposed, built-in push-up bras looked as if they had been created by his evil twin, because for the most part, Mizrahi makes very grown-up, elegant clothes.

At one point in his show, the sound track turned Hitchcockian, and the models appeared in carefully mismatched outfits--a navy linen-satin pantsuit with a heather gray cashmere T-shirt, gray cotton herringbone cigarette pants with an oyster jacket and a charcoal shirt. Even without the music cue, the point that Mizrahi's creations display the timeless glamour of Hollywood icons would have been inescapable.

There is something to the quality of the light in the Mediterranean that makes color more vibrant and people exceptionally beautiful. At Ralph Lauren's glorious and otherwise all-American show, it seemed he had captured the incandescence of the French Riviera, flipped a switch and bathed the tent with sunshine on a dark, rainy day. For the first time, the bright colors of the season made sense. Lauren didn't shy from using kelly green or chrome yellow, but he gave women an out; by showing brights with black, they became non-compulsory. A woman who isn't sure about how she'll feel in the new neons could try an orange jacket over the perfect black pants and turtleneck. When she isn't up to orange, she still has wonderful black pieces for her wardrobe, and a jacket she can throw on over a white linen skirt.

Although Lauren said he was inspired by the sleek race cars he collects, there were other sporty influences. Stylish skiers regularly pair black with true colors, as he did, and sculptural stretch knit scuba dresses with colored side panels had an aerodynamic sleekness. Proper dresses were well-represented, including some stunning turtleneck versions cut in to expose a tanned shoulder. Lauren showed the best-looking leather jeans anywhere. The ones in primary colors looked sensational with crisp white shirts tucked in until a black pair came out. They were flat irresistible, proving how difficult it could be to lick a jones for black.

Richard Tyler also understands that color doesn't have to announce itself, proclaiming, "Ta da! Here I am, part of the great color wave of spring 1996." He offered color without the shock--a celadon wrap dress, a soft pistachio zippered car coat, a periwinkle Shantung belted shirtwaist, a shimmering lavender trench coat over an ivory skirt.

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