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A stunning simplicity

Ralph Lauren's quiet elegance brings New York Fashion Week to a strong close. And you'd better have a jacket for spring.

September 21, 2008|Booth Moore | Times Fashion Critic

NEW YORK — FOR THE last few years in fashion, the most feather-flocked and embroidery-encrusted creations have grabbed the spotlight -- coats designed like antique Chinese landscape paintings, sweaters laden with a maharajah's jewels. Artwork for the privileged body, with price tags to match. But during this New York runway season, set against a gathering economic storm, it was the most stunningly simple look, No. 30 on Ralph Lauren's runway, that stole the shows.

No woman could go wrong in this pantsuit, with its sand-colored silk canvas jacket and matching trousers creased just so in front, the fabric with the slightest sheen. Worn with a simple white blouse tied at the neck, it wasn't just a look for now, it was a look for forever. And it was emblematic of a new, quieter elegance.

Intentional or not, the collection felt like a tribute to Yves Saint Laurent with its Moroccan theme, safari and tuxedo dressing. Saint Laurent died earlier this year, and it's no wonder women still wear things they bought from him long ago. His genius was in designing clothes to solve wardrobe problems, instead of just to decorate the body. And in this new, sobering reality, when more women are shopping at resale shops -- or not shopping at all -- there is no better investment.

Lauren's classics were breathtakingly beautiful -- a versatile olive silk cargo jacket worn over a sweater dress, a barely there gown in neutral champagne silk with pleats like rippling desert sand, a tuxedo jacket with the surprise of a sexy cowl back.

It was a strong ending to a week that was all over the map, belonging equally to Lauren the classicist, Marc Jacobs the stylist and Calvin Klein's Francisco Costa, the modernist. There was a jumpsuit and a pair of harem pants on nearly every runway (including Lauren's), but most compelling for spring is the jacket, the most versatile and confidence-building piece. Some of the best were the most affordable, done in electric hues at Alexander Wang or with Spanish ruffles at Phillip Lim, designers whose clothes are priced to move in the $150 to $1,000 range.

Where Lauren looked back, Costa looked forward, showing a collection at Calvin Klein that was nothing short of a breakthrough. Reaching for the future of fashion, Costa attempted to reinvent clothes the way Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry are reinventing architecture, by deconstructing and reconstructing the bones.

His silvery white silk-wool shift dresses and sleeveless tops were like sculpture in motion -- 3-D forms created through elaborate folding. One dress had cubic sleeves, another had cup-like forms like an egg carton. The pieces were so light, one could imagine them packing flat, then springing into action like kites in the air. These were value-added clothes built for today's global lifestyle.

It was an impressive technical achievement, the way Issey Miyake's Pleats Please collection was in the 1990s. Best of all, you got the feeling that Costa was really thinking about the needs of women, pushing the envelope, even if he didn't always consider how that envelope would interact with the curves of the female form.

Just about the only thing Donna Karan considered was the female form, rehashing her curve-clinging, draped jersey gowns in a collection titled "Liquid Assets." With plunging necklines and thigh-high slits, these va-va-voom pieces should get a lot of love from the red carpet set once Karan opens her new store in L.A. next month. But what about the rest of us? With power dressing in the news, it would have been a great time for Karan to put her seven essential pieces back on the runway -- the ones designed for women who work, not just work out.

Ralph Rucci addressed women's needs by playing with cutouts and transparency to sensual effect, and actually improving the appearance of the body. In his Chado Ralph Rucci line, a white pantsuit whittled the waist with triangular cutouts, while a wool crepe dress and coat with ornamental strips on a foundation of silk tulle made the wearer appear light as a feather. A black mohair tuxedo had a sheer rectangular cutout across the back, that universally attractive erogenous zone.

L.A. designer JC Obando's New York runway debut had all the drama of a major league show -- the fingernails-on-a-chalkboard music, the accelerated pace of the models, the Vogue editors in the front row -- but not the ideas. It seems as if he got so caught up in his newest technique -- hand-pleating chiffon and working it onto sculptural white bustiers that resembled chiseled marble or wet toilet paper, depending on how you looked at them -- that he forgot to show off his considerable other talents, particularly sensual draping.

Now in her fifth season, celebrity stylist-turned-designer L'Wren Scott showed a more complete collection than ever before, with skinny-girl essentials such as stovepipe jeans with studs climbing the legs like seams on a pair of fishnets, and a slinky black day dress with a white satin schoolgirl collar, accessorized with the same rough-cut diamonds Scott put Nicole Kidman in for the Oscars this year.

Scott has also started to develop signatures, such as capelets, done in feathers and slung across the body like a beauty queen's prize ribbon, or sheer organza tied over a T-shirt. And she even ended with the traditional wedding gown, with a white lace fishtail trimmed in marabou, perfect for a rocker bride.

Sarah Jessica Parker looked pleased, as did Scott's longtime beau, Mick Jagger, who recorded two killer songs exclusively for the runway show, "You Run Run Run Me Ragged" and "Fly, Oh My Sweet Angel."

Forget the diamonds, that's love.


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