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Bringing the Next Big Thing to Topeka

A plethora of new designers and some televised spring shows make high fashion more accessible.


NEW YORK — Nearly every fashion season, the question is asked: What is the relevance of runway shows in a retail landscape dominated by Target and J. Crew? After all, what use does a homemaker in Topeka, Kan., with 1.5 kids have for $1,000 leather pants and peekaboo sheer blouses when the garments are quickly knocked off weeks later?

But even in Topeka there is a hunger for the next Big Thing, especially if viewers can find it on television. Attendance at the New York shows is tightly restricted to celebrities, buyers and reporters. Designers depend on fashion buzz, and television's increased interest in the shows this season will make them accessible to more people.

The lifeline of fashion is new designers. Now that Calvin, Ralph and Donna have ruled the runways for at least two decades, the search is on for promising new talent. There are more designers than ever before showing their men's and women's spring collections here. More than 100 designers will present collections during the eight-day General Motors Fashion Week, which began here Thursday, and is being televised.

Typically the women's collections dominate the week. One of the most anticipated shows is that of Miguel Adrover, the Spanish designer who rocketed to stardom when he sent deconstructed Burberry trench coats down the runway in February. Whether he'll be able to live up to expectations remains to be seen, but his showroom reports more than 1,000 people have requested tickets to the show, which can only accommodate 400.

Another hot ticket is L.A.'s Imitation of Christ, a line created by Chloe Sevigny's best friend, Tara Sobkoff, 27, and her partner, Matt Damhave, 21. They take apart grimy vintage clothes they find at the Salvation Army and Goodwill and piece them back together into "new" garments. The couple is among groups of renegade designers who love to express their disdain for the fashion machine that keeps power in the hands of the Pradas, Guccis and Donna Karansof this world. Yet, ironically, they are putting themselves in the middle of it at the New York shows. Imitation of Christ's first runway presentation was a guerrilla fashion show held in a Los Angeles Metro station in May.

Menswear designer John Varvatos was scheduled late Thursday to kick off the week with his first show since winning Fashion Group International's Perry Ellis Award earlier this year for best newcomer in menswear. Others menswear designers, including Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, will show over the next few days.

Noticeably missing: mogul/designer Sean "Puffy" Combs, who wowed audiences earlier this year with his fall men's show of luxe fur, leather and diamonds.

The runway shows are pure entertainment--theater, dance and music. Like sports and show business, fashions provides action, glitz and personalities--a gold mine in today's celebrity culture. E! Television began Thursday night the first of its eight-day, two-hour broadcasts of selected shows and parties. Former model Paulina Porizkova is hosting the TV coverage airing on E! Television's cable Style Network, which is available in 10 million homes nationwide, but not widely in Los Angeles.

This is not the first TV foray into fashion. ABC packaged fashion shows in 1998 and 1999 for later prime-time specials hosted by model-actress Isabella Rossellini and Vogue magazine editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley. They received poor reviews and ratings. Fashion has fared better on cable. Elsa Klensch's weekly program titled "Style," which features runway clips and interviews in a sober "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" vein, has been one of CNN's highest rated shows since 1980.

MTV's "House of Style" has brought high fashion to the MTV generation since 1989. Meanwhile, Joan Rivers has been so successful covering the red carpet runways at awards shows for E!, in 1998 the network spun off Style, a channel devoted solely to fashion and lifestyle coverage.

E! President and Chief Executive Mindy Herman is convinced Middle America, where Style is most widely available, will be interested in the New York shows. "Department stores around the country are doing more and more trunk shows where they are bringing the fashion of L.A. and New York to other places," she said. "There is a hunger and a desire to see the latest in fashion."

But will they watch in Topeka?

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