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Happy Days Are Almost Here Again

Designers embrace an upbeat, lively look for next year


NEW YORK — Whether fashion trends are about seduction, satire, drama or adventure, they're always fascinating for the way they reflect a kind of group role playing. One season we're wealthy bohemians borrowing peasant garb, and the next we're aggressive punk gothics in leather. As the spring 2003 previews finished here Monday, women's wear designers turned to traditional notions of femininity and cast them in a sunny light.

Fashion is happy again. It just won't look that way until February or March, when the lively new spring clothes begin to replace the bleak and black autumn styles that reflected our lingering despair. As many designers looked ahead to spring, they imagined sadness giving way to optimism, aggression fading into sweetness and innocence trading places with raunch. Instead of scoffing at clothes that once represented unsophisticated taste--prints, lively colors and even slips under sheer fabrics--designers have embraced them as the new signature of cool. By the time the tulips bloom, women will have a chance to revel in ruffles, look pretty in pink and enjoy being a girl--except for the part about suffering in high-heeled sandals.

The shift has resulted in some extraordinary collections that signal a yearning for simpler times--and more realistic clothes. That's not to say that these new silky dresses and casual jackets aren't without complications and contradictions. Some of the most beautiful clothing to come out of Seventh Avenue strolled through Donna Karan's showroom Friday. Though her program notes were titled "To Suit a Woman," Karan departed from the promise of a professional wardrobe and focused mainly on sultry, satiny 1930s chanteuse gowns, Adrian's 1940s Hollywood glamour and 1950s happy hostesses.

Karan's timeless interpretations brilliantly captured the essence of those eras while avoiding the costumey trappings. Even with the well-padded shoulders, appliqued swirls and matching-fabric platform shoes, Karan created sophisticated wrap coats and ruffled jackets that would be credible work wear. For special occasions, she offered amusing polka-dot or cherry-shaped sequins and lively Monet florals or Schiaparelli-esque prints featuring symbols of celebration or music. "I wanted to celebrate America, celebrate the glamour of America," Karan said after the show.

Miguel Adrover staged a remarkable comeback collection that was glamorous but also full of empathy, anger and hope. In 54 masterfully tailored ensembles, the Spanish-born designer, who faded from view after his stunning debut two years ago, re-created the events and the emotions of the first year post-Sept. 11. This "Citizen of the World" collection incorporated details that have become familiar scenery--guard uniforms, the tall-building skylines of major cities and even the dark-and-light vertical stripes that evoked the World Trade Center. He represented the many supporting players in the crisis--with a priest's collar; a United Nations diplomat's suit; a Hasidic Jew's prayer shawl; an Afghan's caftan; and the New York homeboy's (and rescue worker's) do-rag, 122 of which he wove into a floor-length gown. Adrover created an eerily beautiful symbol of the new reality with an ink-black skirt and jacket quilted in white stitches to resemble a large fingerprint.

Inspiring clothes don't have to be beautiful to be memorable, but Calvin Klein showed that not all pretty clothes make a strong impression. As he moved closer to becoming a bland Giorgio Armani, Klein's restrained palette of pale gray, cream, white or black luxury fabrics belonged neither to day nor night. The darts and pintucks on delicate silks were lovely, but their subdued sexuality rendered them anonymous. He emphasized simple two-piece, ultra-lightweight ensembles that were shown on an overwhelming majority of flat-chested blonds. He must have been trying to impress his guest, Gwyneth Paltrow.

Whereas Klein's tailoring nearly neutralized sexuality (odd for the man who sells perfume with crotch shots), Narciso Rodriguez used graphic blocks of color and simple-but-tailored shapes to emphasize a woman's curves. A loose-fitting satin bra top worn over a tank dress was modest, but as it moved slightly across the bust, alluring. Rodriguez showed a sure hand and, barring any financial disaster, the potential for longevity.

Refined sensuality is flattering to women of any age, a lesson veteran Geoffrey Beene learned long ago. Like Rodriguez, Beene worked with the same kimono silhouettes and realigned proportions to direct the eye to unexpected erogenous zones. While the rest of Seventh Avenue is focused on waists and bare shoulders, Beene made a dignified black dress sizzle with a few inches of sheer fabric stripped along the underside of the bosom just the thing to make a Park Avenue husband forgive a shopping spree.

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