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The Fall Collections / New York

Getting Comfy

With Loose Silhouettes and, Thick, Fuzzy Fabrics, These Are Clothes to Cozy Up to

April 02, 1998|MIMI AVINS | TIMES FASHION EDITOR

NEW YORK — Spring sprang in New York, just in time for a parade of mohair, felt and angora to appear on runways constructed inside tents in Bryant Park. As a week of fall fashion presentations by American designers began, the clash of summer-like temperatures and plush, wintry textures sounded like a challenge to the concept of seasonless dressing, which a loosening of fashion rules and new fabric technology have made increasingly possible.

The appearance of thick, fuzzy fabrics was primarily an aesthetic choice by designers, even though one of the reasons we wear clothing is to protect ourselves from the elements. That notion, like the claim that we sleep with other humans to keep warm, only tells part of the story (and not the fun part).

Designers aren't piling quilted fleece vests on alpaca sweaters because they haven't heard about central heating. They are introducing a style that is cozy and comfortable, that relies on lush materials and quiet colors to appeal to the senses and a psychic need for warmth. It is born of emotion more than necessity--in a climate-controlled modern world, a desire to bundle is more atavistic than practical.

A plea to the hungry heart can be hard to resist. Who wouldn't want the succor of a hooded cashmere sweater on a chilly day, even if the thermostat is set at 78? But along with a richness of texture comes an easing of the silhouette that may be as hard to digest as lumpy oatmeal. The nice way to put it is that many of the cozy fall clothes have a kind of inner beauty. A harsher judgment is that they can look heavy and dumpy.

To know them is to love them, but the attraction may not be immediate. Not so the spring clothes now in stores. They are openly flirtatious, commanding attention with appealing colors and feminine details that range from floral prints, lace and beading to ruffles and bows. Sexy little dresses made of squares of chain mail in the fall Versus collection by Donatella Versace were as giddily exhibitionistic as the flimsy slip dresses now on store racks. But everything that preceded the chain mail dresses in the Versus show was boxy, black and layered.

"Women will respond to the idea that they can be both comfortable and in style, but on the hanger a lot of the fall clothes will look somber and thick," said Glamour magazine Fashion Director Cindy Weber Cleary. "Women should overcome their preconceptions and try on the clothes, because there are some great new ideas and proportions out there."

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The DKNY collection was packed with novelty. Donna Karan's popular secondary line had expanded into a number of divisions, resulting in a confusing loss of focus. The ostensibly edgy D collection has been discontinued, and the core collection again offered a cool, coherent vision.

It's a pastoral fantasy. Credit either a scarcity of black (even most dresses are the color of well-worn khakis or sweats) or gentle shapes, but these clothes don't look citified. They will be as at home on urban streets as jeans, but the natural habitat of a charcoal and off-white tweed, hand-knit sweater and a drapey long skirt would be a wind-swept meadow. Therein lies part of the charm. Even if a woman lives in a sterile studio apartment, she can wear a pale wrap coat of double-faced cashmere over a chunky turtleneck and bell-shaped long skirt, and be dressed for the country house of her dreams.

Karan smoothly combined rough and soft elements. Light gray chiffon was lined in fleece, then quilted in chubby squares and made into a hooded, zip-front jacket that resembled a sweatshirt. A deep gray, calf-length, full-skirted velvet dress would probably be worn in the evening, but it could just as naturally brave daylight under a black leather pea coat.

The casualness of such separates dressing is a deceptive art. The BCBG collection by Max Azria played with the sort of clever juxtapositions of pieces that inventive women pioneered before designers gave them permission. The adventurous dresser layers a transparent beaded shell over a sleeveless cashmere turtleneck, then adds a narrow tweed skirt. The more conservative fashion follower waits till Azria suggests a silk chiffon dress be sheltered by a velvet parka.

Part of the strength of Los Angeles-based BCBG is its ability to directly communicate with customers through its stores. Women who don't see tapes of runway shows on television or read about style can walk into a BCBG boutique and get the message. The clothes stand on their own--reasonably priced, well-made basics that can be the backbone of a wardrobe.

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