NEW YORK — Knockoff artists should be really worried. They won't have many fresh ideas to copy come fall and they won't even have the artillery of expert tailoring and the kind of ultra fine, luxury materials that can't be matched by the inferior chain-store imitations.
The ideas that closed out a week of fall previews here were a snooze-inducing parade of uninteresting black pantsuits, belted coats (yawn), and asymmetrical cuts and hemlines that raises concerns about New York's status in global fashion. Two years ago, when Austrian Helmut Lang moved to New York and boldly shifted his show ahead of Europe and caused everyone else to follow, American designers lauded the move as a chance to prove that they aren't mere copyists who followed the Europeans. Now that they're first out with the commercialized stuff, their originality seems more questionable.
The mediocrity of this particularly lifeless season washed over the collections as a whole and even blunted the few sharp ideas from experienced designers such as Lang, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein. The absence of younger, proven innovators such as Tuleh and John Bartlett, further pressures fashion to grasp at the few strong moments in individual designers' collections. Moments are hard to market, particularly when many collections already look like a greatest hits reprise.
Designers like to recast these retreats to safety as a return to roots. Sometimes it actually looks pretty good, as was the case for Donna Karan. The scooped-out "cold shoulder" dress that even Hillary Clinton once wore returned in black jersey with more angular cuts now exposing the shoulder. The collection moved quickly away from clean, geometric cuts to irregular, raw edges that gave a tribal feel to her uncut pelts of fur, tattered chiffon skirts and wrap skirts speared with tusk-shaped pins designed by her longtime accessories collaborator, Robert Lee Morris. Perhaps because she's well practiced with odd angles and unusual contrasts, Karan easily bridged the distance between rough and refined, a theme that's been weaving less successfully through other collections here. Karan united such disparate ideas as military jackets and strapless dresses with an overall feminine touch.
When Lang reworked his own signatures, such as androgynous black suits, tuxedo variations and unusual proportions, the effect was compelling. He found unique solutions to the season's troublesome design questions, such as how to update the black suit, or deal with scarves, asymmetry or leggings. Suit lapels trailed into ribbons that fluttered along slim pants, scarves were looped around the neck and belted to become halters, and stretchy sock-like boots pulled high over the knee to graze dress hemlines. Where other designers hack off a sleeve and call it asymmetry, Lang dressed up his single, bared arms with layers of sheer fabric or leather "holsters" that circled the shoulder. His finale of chiffon dresses in whispers of pewter, champagne, white or black looked a bit like togas crossed with gladiator harnesses, while their circular pasties recalled the cone bras of Tom Ford's spring collection. Yet one has only to scan Lang's collections of the past four or five years to see his influence today. The lean tuxedos, streamlined styling and mixed-up multiple layers of sheer and solid fabrics have been his longtime hallmarks.
The unadorned, clean-lined clothes that are reappearing in New York recall the minimalism that was hailed as dead, yet the new versions are duller and plainer. Fortunately, skilled hands can turn plain into stealthy chic, as Klein and Ralph Rucci showed in their collections. Klein downplayed drama with dark suits, coats, dresses and suede bags beaded on the inside. Coats and jackets scrubbed almost clean of their military origins paired with trouser-cut pants in subtle tweeds, twills and leathers in distressed finishes and mineral colors. Klein, also known as Calvin Clean, is the kind of guy distracted by a stray thread, and more so by the uneven hemlines that result from diagonal seams. He spiraled skirts around the body to join the asymmetry trend, but leveled their hems. He also proposed a perplexing type of winter style: Heavy shearling mini-dresses or leather shorts and miniskirts with bare legs and high-heeled boots. Added layers may not be as sexy, but that shearling mini-dress makes a fine tunic on a frosty day.
Rucci, who calls his collection Chado, after a 331-step Japanese tea ceremony ritual, worked his trademark seaming on rich wools, but added sherbet pastels and dappled spatters to a collection of sculpted sportswear. Equal parts fabric research and inspired practicality produced beautiful, water-repellent duchesse satin trench coats, parkas and pants.