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Style & Culture | SPRING 2004 COLLECTIONS

Bursting at the seams

The New York shows end on a high note of vibrant color, exuberant femininity and optimism.

September 22, 2003|Booth Moore | Times Staff Writer

New York — New York

It was difficult not to come away from the collections here with a spring in one's step. The runway shows that ended Friday were the most upbeat since before 9/11, and there was a sense that despite the trials of war, terrorism and a fluctuating stock market, American design is back, better than ever.

The clothes were alive with color and often puffed up with an air of optimism, as designers explored subtleties in volume and movement rather than indulging in faddish folly.

There was a return to the classic sportswear the fashion world has traditionally expected from this country, with the track pants, hoodies and surf looks that evoke Southern California style sprinkled throughout the collections. And a strong current of exuberant femininity was exemplified by Zac Posen's sea nymph gowns and the Art Deco sequin chiffon flapper dresses at Proenza Schouler.

"Anything too sexy or serious just didn't look right," said Michael Fink, Saks Fifth Avenue's senior fashion market director.

New York Fashion Week was also marked by a changing of the guard, with Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren keeping up but hardly serving as the pace-setters they once were. Calvin Klein, the third pillar of America's design triumvirate over the last two decades, did not design at all but instead watched the debut of his successor, Francisco Costa. Carolina Herrera's collection was livelier than ever, having been designed with the help of her youngest daughter, Patricia Lansing. And Oscar de la Renta took a runway bow with his entire design team, including several new faces. Even Marc Jacobs and Narciso Rodriguez seemed like elder statesmen compared to the crop of up-and-coming talent that shined here last week.

"It was amazing seeing Calvin standing against the wall watching," said Natalie Masseret, the founder of Net-a-Porter, a Web site that sells designer clothing. "We really are witnessing a new generation. It's definitely a shift."

Reaching into the sports pages for inspiration with mixed results, Lauren stretched a cable knit tennis sweater into a clever dress and used the kind of chain metal found on a fencing mask for shoulder insets on a chic white Lycra sweater. The shrunken polo shirts that debuted in stores this spring, and were reportedly dreamed up by the designer's twentysomething daughter Dylan, looked right. But piped linen cricket jackets boasting RL logos on the breast pockets and preppy, color-soaked separates layered on top of one another (lavender gabardine cuffed trousers worn with a fuchsia buttoned-down shirt and a kiwi green sweater) were too Buffy, too stuffy.

One of the few designers not high on Crayola brights, Karan worked in a sun-scorched palette of desert browns and terra cottas, turning out some wonderful blousy, paper-thin leather jackets with wide shoulders and ample sleeves cinched at the wrists. A hooded anorak in an opalescent bronze parachute silk caught wind as the model walked.

But asymmetrical silk jersey dresses and a nut-colored silk tweed suit landed with a thud, upstaged by the week's more vibrant fare. Featherweight gowns woven from strips of silk chiffon that fluttered in the breeze evoked the ancient Greek sculpture "Winged Victory of Samothrace" but looked almost too fragile to wear anywhere but in a dream.

One couldn't help but be romanced by Michael Kors' self-titled "Crazy in Caprese" collection. Bathing suits in citrus orange and yellow with buckle details, leather mesh totes and cabana-stripe jersey dresses with cutouts at the waist transported show-goers to a seaside resort. An orange suede trench coat, a luxe geometric cobalt blue silk print caftan, sand-colored suede track pants and an azure blue beaded halter dress with the glint of sun-speckled ocean waves were just a few of many pieces that enthused even the most hardened fashionistas.

But the week really belonged to designers like Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler. After a successful debut last season, the recent Parsons School of Design grads, both 25, nabbed the Council of Fashion Designers of America's Perry Ellis Award for new talent. Last week, they signed a deal to design mega-Italian brand Max Mara and had one fabulous show.

Their collection was full of witty combinations -- an electric blue bathing suit worn with cream velvet jogging shorts and a linen blazer -- and inventive details, including a red seersucker buttoned-down with a black sequin collar and a hooded rain slicker re-imagined in yellow sequins. A silver chiffon V-neck dress with sequins sewn in a chevron pattern around the waist brought to mind the Chrysler building, and the delightful print on a white cotton coat resembled a handful of pixie sticks dropped on a canvas.

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