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Hard times reflected in scaled-back New York shows

But a museum exhibit of Valentina reveals that restrictions can breed invention. Donna Karan, Diane Von Furstenberg, Carolina Herrera and Victoria Beckham unveil their fall lines.


NEW YORK — It's amazing how often in fashion that a moment from the past brings into focus what's happening in the present. Such was the case over the weekend at New York Fashion Week. Signs of the recession are everywhere here -- the missing faces in the front row, including Saks Fifth Avenue fashion director Michael Fink, who was laid off last month; the empty storefronts on Madison Avenue; the scaled-back shows.

But restriction can breed invention, which I saw when I visited an exhibit about Valentina at the Museum of the City of New York on Sunday ("Valentina: American Couture and the Cult of Celebrity" runs through May 17). That's also why the collections that have been the most restrained, versatile and minimalist -- from DKNY and Victoria Beckham, if you can believe it -- are what is resonating so far for fall.

A Ukrainian immigrant who came to New York in the 1920s with little more than the clothes on her back, the self-invented Valentina (born Valentina Sanina Schlee) may have been the first celebrity fashion designer, dressing socialites Millicent Rogers and Millicent Hearst, actresses Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo, and living among them.

At the height of her business in the 1940s, she had 2,000 clients who ordered her handmade clothes, the closest thing we had to haute couture in the U.S. Her clients may have been rich women, but her ideas trickled down, and store buyers described more accessible versions of her clothes as "a poor man's Valentina."

Valentina had to work with the fabric restrictions of wartime, and her style was rooted in functional minimalism, which looks so right for right now. Her "pleated trouser leg skirt," which had the illusion of fullness without the extra fabric, won a Fashion Critics' Award in 1942.

She incorporated elements of traditional peasant dressing into her finery, creating a system of modular dressing that involved chiffon aprons that could be layered over organza evening skirts, boleros that could be switched out and so on.

In a video in the exhibit, Valentina demonstrates her day-to-evening "convertible dress" to Edward R. Murrow, pulling the collar down around her shoulders, peeling back a full top skirt and tying it into a bustle, and revealing a sleek pencil underskirt.

It's that kind of invention that fashion needs more of. Perhaps the recession will force the issue.

Dress for success

Donna Karan launched her business on a similar idea of seven easy pieces, and there is often a modular aspect to her collections. In her fall DKNY line, she built on the foundations of a black turtleneck and tights with separates that seemed to be about helping women dress for success -- whether they actually have jobs or not. (Too bad Diane Von Furstenberg, who can usually be counted on for go-to clothes, chose to go eclectic instead for fall, piling on the kind of dowdy Mongolian tapestry cloaks and plaid blanket coats you'd expect to find for sale at a craft fair.)

At DKNY, Karan proposed a new kind of business suit -- slightly retro and ladylike, with below-the-knee houndstooth pencil skirts and matching short-sleeve jackets. Wool jersey wrap dresses, capelets, pegged pants and shearling bomber jackets (bombers are an emerging trend for fall) rounded out the functional, affordable collection in black, camel, red and Kelly green. These clothes work for you; you don't work for them.

What stood out the most was the new below-the-knee pencil skirt. I also saw the length at Carolina Herrera and in Beckham's beautiful dress collection. In fact, I wonder if Beckham, whose clothes are modeled by Madonna in the March issue of W magazine, is helping to popularize this fresh-looking length with her personal style. She's been wearing it for some time.

Beckham's line

Beckham is already a celebrity, and she's working hard at being a high-fashion designer. She's been doing jeans for a while, but her new, 16-piece collection, produced in London, is dominated by body-hugging stretch wool dresses with exposed zippers and curve-tracing seams, or with flirty peplums (prices start at about $1,275). A deep purple gazar capelet with a bow at the collar was great looking, as was a purple gazar dress with a sculpted "crumb catcher" neckline.

The line goes up to a size 10. Beckham sells corsets to suck it all in, and claims they are comfortable enough to wear "while chasing after the children." Right.

"I really thought about how something was going to look when it's photographed from the front, the back and the sides," said Beckham, explaining the logic of a vertical black felt panel on the back of a gold tinsel houndstooth dress. (Yes, the texture was as yummy as you imagine.) A red crepe gown with long sleeves and subtle shoulder pads was also outstanding, and so very red carpet.

After all, it's the simplest designs that photograph the best. Surely Valentina knew that, and Beckham does too. Now, if only some of that stardust could trickle down to the rest of us.


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