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Marc Jacobs and Rodarte for spring 2010

The former goes theatrical in a particularly strong collection. The Mulleavy sisters reprise their cobwebby collage dresses, though with rougher edges.


NEW YORK — It was a Boudoir Bazaar at Marc Jacobs on Monday night, an explosion of underwear as outerwear, ruffles and pearls that was a bid to move on from the aggressive clothes currently in stores and return to femininity.

Jacobs was at the height of his powers. It was as if he took a bunch of cultural touchstones and global references -- Pierrot the clown, Japanese geishas, the gender-bending Commes des Garcons fashion house and Madonna, who was sitting front row at the show -- and put them in a blender, which is his genius. The result was beautiful and inspiring, an eyeful of pale colors and silvery metallics.

Delicate chiffon dresses with harlequin-shaped cutouts dripped pearls, and a glossy white lattice-cut coat topped a wisp of white Pierrot frills outlined in black, a dress that brought to mind a pen-and-ink drawing. The ever-present playsuit, done here in peach and blue plaid, was ruched and ruffled and dotted with pearls. Skirts were either restricting columns of brocade that made the models hobble, or carefree prairie styles. And all the models wore variations of the flat geta sandal, trimmed in glitter and stones.

In the more salable category were pinstripe blazers and trousers edged in ruffles, button-front shirts cinched with satin bustiers and cardigans trimmed in frills.

It was theatrical all right, down to the white face paint. Not only was Jacobs playing the role of the clown, distracting us for a moment from the industry's woes, he was also reminding us why we love fashion -- because it's a chance to play dress-up.

The Mulleavys, Kate and Laura, know a little something about playing dress-up. The Pasadena sisters with a penchant for horror flicks have been on a roll lately with their label Rodarte, scoring the women's wear designer of the year award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America in June, announcing an upcoming line for Target soon after that, then signing with William Morris Endeavor over the summer. (The agency will help them develop collaborations and publishing products.)

So it's natural that they would want to revisit the tried-and-true. For spring, they reprised their cobwebby collage dresses, this time with more rough and raw materials, such as burned plaid and cheesecloth, sandpapered silk, feathers and a plastic laminate fabric that was developed to resemble a bird's skin.

They must have had a dedicated sewing coven to put together these dark masterpieces. Elaborately draped, painted and crocheted in pretty/ugly hues of orange, black, brick and brown, the dresses almost looked as if they had been tattooed on. When it came to the macrame and crochet fringe tops, sometimes you couldn't tell where models' tribal-looking body makeup ended and their clothes began.

Scaly rocker pants with zippers and cutouts over the legs are sure to become cult fashion items. The sisters also showed cage-like cropped jackets and skirts with burnt silk underlays -- the closest thing to real-world wearable that you got here.

Though there is certainly a place in fashion for collections that are about fantasy and hype, the question is: How long can they last -- especially in this climate -- if there are no fragrance or accessories sales to support them? (On every seat at Jacobs' show was a bottle of his new perfume, Lola.)

The Rodarte designers have proved their technical prowess and their fantastical imaginations, but it's still unclear how they are going to go from being a cult favorite to a blockbuster brand, or even if they want to.


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