NEW YORK - It used to be that designers knocked off only the dead. Fashion's late super stars Madeleine Vionet, Cristobal Balenciaga and Norman Norell are still prime targets today.
But apparently the etiquette is changing. Now, some of the best-known names in New York fashion people who ought to know better are imitating each other.
For their fall 1991 collections, Donna Karan thought of Geoffrey Beene, Louis dell'Olio looked to Christian Lacroix and newcomer Zang Toi did his impressions of Karl Lagerfeld suits.
"The etiquette of copying? There isn't any today," said Lynn Manulis, president of two New York boutiques, Martha and Martha International. One carries top-name designer labels, the other features new talents.
"The competition is so keen, and the economy is in such desperate straits, designers lose sight of the creative aspect of their work."
At least they imitate the best; among Americans, that is Geoffrey Beene.
If fashion reflects society, Beene's fall styles indicate a subdued mood. There were none of the buttercup yellows and ultra-violets he showed for spring.
His fall colors include black, navy blue, charcoal and deep red or green.
The evening styles mostly were short, many shaped like slips or swimmer's tank suits. Lace insets sliced across the bodice or hips of black jersey dresses.
Beene focused on suits for day, with short narrow skirts and belted, elongated jackets cut asymmetrically in front. One bell-shaped green coat was covered with coin-dot sequins left free to flutter and shimmer like raindrops on leaves.
His show, set on the stage of a small Manhattan theater, earned Beene the only standing ovation of any big name.
Last season, Donna Karan shocked fashion critics with a collection so closely related to Karl Lagerfeld's designs for Chanel that it was embarrassing to watch. She has already establish her own style yet, again this season, she looked to someone else for guidance.
Her Beenelike evening dresses were black with slices of gold on the bodice where he might inset lace. And she used sculptural gold jewelry shaped like breast plates, the way Beene has used quilted fabric.
She dared to be Donna for daywear, topping black leather vests with marigold suits for a hip rich-girl image. Elongated man-tailored suit jackets were updates of the "boyfriend" jackets she has shown in past collections. Shawl skirts wrapped around the body, with a cascade of fringe in front. Scarf skirts had a triangle of fabric a scarf point that peeked out from beneath lean undecorated jackets or short coats. Colors at Karan ranged from lipstick red to mint green.
Dell'Olio for Anne Klein has never pretended to be the most original designer in town. But he has been one of the most successful. And by now he has established a pattern "interpreting" top international designers' work for the mass market.
Dell'Olio's stretch velvet "pant boots," with the mid-heel shoe built right in, were a gimmicky idea that didn't make a lot of sense. Do you take them to the cleaners or the cobblers? He showed them with white satin shirts and black velvet turtlenecks for a twist on classic day-to-dinner wear. For night there were jeweled pant boots (shades of Italian designer Gianni Versace) worn with ballet-like scoop neck tops.
The one true fashion scene of the week broke out in a loft on lower Broadway Thursday night, where Isaac Mizrahi showed his collection. Paris designer Claude Montana and filmmaker Spike Lee sat ringside.
Mizrahi's pal, stand-up comic Sandra Bernhardt, wrote and recorded a fashion rap for the show: "He's so hot He's so fresh He's real, girl."
And the cheering section in the audience gave an Indian war cry, instead of applause at the end.