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The Fall Collections / New York

Runways Swathed in Cashmere

April 03, 1998|MIMI AVINS | TIMES FASHION EDITOR

NEW YORK — No one appointed Ralph Lauren America's image custodian. He earned the job. In a career spanning 30 years, he has held up a magical mirror in which we have seen ourselves as romantic heroines, carefree cowgirls, polished amateur athletes or successful city slickers.

Although he now heads a large public company, he has added the role of teacher to his duties. Or so it seemed at his exciting fall show Wednesday. He delivered a lesson in long skirts, making what many have taken to be threatening and complicated deliciously simple.

The first model marched on the runway wearing an ivory silk shirt and black pinstriped wool pants. She was followed by a near look-alike in an ivory silk shirt and a long black pinstriped wool trouser skirt. Again and again, Lauren made the point: a loden sweater and skirt preceded a loden sweater and cargo pant, a charcoal cashmere turtleneck appeared with a flannel skirt, then with slacks. Even the slowest student had to get it. Long skirts, if they're cut properly and worn right--which is to say with a relaxed attitude and a flat shoe--are as easy as a pair of trousers.

Since so many women fear long skirts, seeing them as part of a nefarious plot to make them look short and dumpy, Lauren's demonstration was particularly worthwhile. But it was no big deal, concealed within a show in which the clothes broadcast such self-assurance that they accomplish what Cary Grant did as an actor--make sophistication and charm look easy.

I imagine that there's a Best Slouchy Trouser crown that travels from designer to designer like the Stanley Cup. Ann Demeulemeester owned it first, then Donna Karan. Now it belongs to Lauren, thanks to his brown tweed boy pants, worn under a matching long, narrow coat. That brown tweed showed up paired with black cashmere sweaters, the kind of menswear combination that pleasantly knocks perfection off its center. Wool jackets clung to the body like snug sweaters, and although the runways have been peppered with lumpy wrap skirts, Lauren's, of felted cashmere, was a smooth wonder. Its slender ribbons crisscrossed the hips, becoming a subtle decoration.

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Winter white is a specific color, softer and creamier than the sharp whites of summer. Lauren presented dazzling winter whites, from a long cashmere duffel coat to a cable-knit cashmere dress. Michael Kors, a designer whose clothes project the same air of patrician cool as Lauren's, indulged a love for winter white in his collection too.

Kors has been using double-faced cashmere for a long time, and he hasn't abandoned it now that everyone else has discovered its appealing lightness. One of the most refreshing things about Kors and the way he designs is his confidence. Red is a neutral because he says it is. His fall collection had a varsity theme, with red, white, gray or navy blocks of color bisecting collegiate sweaters. If that motif meant some pullovers looked as if they might have come from the J. Crew catalog, that was no reason to cry foul. The woman inured to Kors' level of luxury wouldn't buy J. Crew any more than a Marc Jacobs' devotee would pick up a thermal T-shirt at Club Monaco.

As a classicist, Kors respects the masters. He presented only two evening looks--a clingy sleeveless dress covered with navy paillettes and a skirt of the same deep brilliants, worn with a white cashmere pullover. He admitted the pieces were inspired by a vintage 1960s Norman Norell gown that Demi Moore wore to the last Emmy Awards. The Kors' Norell homage was spectacular.

It would be tempting to say that someone slipped Vivienne Tam and Anna Sui some goofy juice. While the rest of the design community seems to be guzzling mild, decaffeinated lattes, these women are on spiked raspberry Slurpees. But the explanations for their wild, colorful, fanciful and rather nutty collections are more solid than their choice of beverage. Tam, who was raised in Hong Kong, includes images of Asian art and religion in her work and exercises an abiding appreciation for folkloric details. And Sui has long seen fashion as a costume party at which the goal is to have a very good time.

Both designers begin with complex elements. For Tam it might be corduroy embroidered with flowers or a Fair Isle sweater adorned with beads. Then the pattern mix gets even more complicated. Fur-trimmed brocade jackets and flowered stretch mesh T-shirts blend with plaid skirts. The colors are bright and often clashing. The more outlandish the combinations and the more garish the shades, the more adolescent the outfits looked, as if a rebellious teen were building up to the point when a parent would have to say, "You're going out in that?"

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