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THE FALL COLLECTIONS / NEW YORK

Serious Fun

It wasn't all earth tones and drama. Mizrahi and Oldham showed that fall styles can be playful too.

April 09, 1998|MIMI AVINS | TIMES FASHION EDITOR

NEW YORK — The stylish woman who peers out from every mirror looks 35. She's logged enough experiential miles to convincingly carry off spare, sophisticated sportswear, but her youthful energy gives playful evening gowns in Crayola shades a place in her wardrobe too. She is Isaac Mizrahi's muse, but she also haunts the imaginations of several other New York designers.

Let's call her Michelle (as in Pfeiffer). As a week of fall fashion shows ended in New York, she symbolically graced the runways of Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Todd Oldham and Jill Stuart. She has always worn Armani, so her spirit hovered over the Emporio Armani show that closed the New York collections as well. Women in their 20s want to look as polished as Michelle; women old enough to be her mother know if they choose their clothes carefully, they can pass for her sister.

Mizrahi's doing his best to keep her looking happy. Not one to be coy, he titled his collection "Fun and Expensive" and even instructed his models to smile as they walked, or skipped, down the runway. Even without a grinning order in effect, his designs would have prompted a giggle.

Many of the new fall clothes have been extremely monastic and serious. The plain clothes of autumn seem to hide layers of meaning beneath their simple surfaces, but in the way that people of few words appear to be deep in thought when their minds are actually vacant, profundity may be just an illusion. Fashioned of dense cashmere and felted wool, these clothes are thick as a Chasen's sirloin, so one doesn't ask, "Where's the beef?" The more timely question should be, "Where's the wit?"

It's found sanctuary at Mizrahi, where baggy trousers of crinkled turquoise satin stole the spotlight from their companion--a snug, sleeveless cashmere sweater. Classic styles enjoyed a tasteful revival--there was nothing tricky in the presentation of a lean camel's hair suit with a calf-length skirt. But more often the designer would prefer to have some fun, striping mohair sweaters in all the colors of the rainbow or putting a baby on board, strapped into a satin sling to match her gorgeous momma's coral ball gown.

By not mimicking the dominant trends of a season, free-spirited talents like Mizrahi give women a lot of rope. If he can offer shocking pink strapless dance dresses, a black tank dress covered in make-believe diamonds, or a dress knitted of tangerine mohair, then the message is clear: Wear what you please, and what will please your audience.

Oldham has always followed that philosophy. He treated his audience to an 11-minute film instead of a show.

"After doing 16 big runway shows, one after another, I wanted to do something different this time," Oldham explained.

He recently signed with Creative Artists Agency and will be directing a film next year. The short that showcased some of his fall designs, titled "Chandra's Dream," was a kitschy romp featuring curvy model Chandra North.

"It's about a beautiful girl and her journey from waking in the morning to getting out of the house, with a few psychedelic daydreams interrupting," Oldham said. Eight gowns from his collection were modeled before and after the movie.

A lime-and-chocolate beaded cashmere tank top, paired with a long brown-and-lilac sequined lace skirt, and a beaded, striped cashmere cardigan were representative of the collection that will be in Oldham's Beverly Boulevard boutique in the fall.

"I think you should be able to eat from a plate on your lap in evening clothes, if a dinner is served buffet style," he said. "Just because they have beads and sequins on them doesn't mean these are clothes that should be saved for special occasions. I never got that way of thinking."

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Donna Karan and Calvin Klein don't pursue fun as Oldham and Mizrahi do. They are more likely to create cohesive collections that express a mood. In Karan's case, she communicatedserenity by presenting uncomplicated silhouettes in luxurious fabrics. And she included just enough complexity to add freshness to the brew.

Hand-knitted shrugs were a new addition. A shrug, which covers the arms and shoulders and forms a narrow path across the upper back, is like a fragment of a sweater. Added to a strapless dress or sleeveless top, it attractively alters the architecture of a design.

The shape of things was very much on Karan's mind. She inserted padding in strapless shells and curving long skirts. In the skirts, it functioned as a crinoline would, making the fabric stand away from the body.

The cult of Jil Sander has long rhapsodized about the sensual experience of wearing her unfussy clothes. Similar qualities distinguished Karan's collection. Calm tones of gray, ivory and black replaced any real color, and it was obviously created with comfort in mind. Models wore flat felt slippers, and neither buttons nor lapels corrupted the purity of a jacket or coat. But the negative aspects of Sander's work were evident as well.

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