Layering it on American designers roll out waves of fabric for spring fashions while trying to pull a fast one on Europe

September 19, 1998|By Mary Corey

NEW YORK -- Spring, with its sweet promise of chiffon skirts, strappy dresses and sunflower hues, arrived here this week as some of the city's most influential designers unveiled their sexy, feminine visions for the season.

But it was really just a hint of things to come since the American-based fashion pack recently broke apart, leaving some designers showing this week and many others saving their runway events for the traditional November fashion week.

While the season is still a work in progress, some key trends emerged. Luxurious fabrics that billow or drape -- including organza, taffeta and crepe de chine -- turned up in many collections. Shapes were often oversized and easy, with layering essential. And color -- even that fashion pariah, pink -- was everywhere.

Helmut Lang, who created an uproar (and many followers) by announcing he was showing in mid-September ahead of the Europeans, had the most anticipated show of the week. The master minimalist created an edgy, original and sometimes mystifying collection filled with biker pants, holster bags slung around the waist and sheer layered tops that wrapped so elaborately the models began to look a bit like mummies.

In contrast, Donna Karan's collection was serene, sensual and had an almost girlish exuberance to it. Skirts, shredded like ribbons, revealed lots of leg, strapless dresses emphasized form, and the palette of sage, sky, petal and eucalyptus was distinctly un-Donna Karan-like. At the end of the show, the designer herself came out in shocking pink.

Barbie's favorite hue may well be the color of the season -- or at least the one that gets fashion types talking. Lang even sent his models out in pink hose.

Baltimore native William Calvert, who was part of a group show featuring young stars, strayed from his traditional black and gray, introducing red, turquoise and electric blue to his elegant evening wear.

"It's not Calico Corners, but for me it was a big step," said the 29-year-old designer whose line is carried at Neiman Marcus and Barney's.

Come spring, it may be tough for the fashionable woman to get away with a simple top and bottom. The tank-over-tank style, so strong last spring, was just the beginning of the layered look. A pair of pants topped with an apron skirt, as shown by Jussara Lee, was a signature style of the week.

Many collections featured sheer dress atop dress, undertanks with overtanks, and tunics over pants. Isaac Franco and Ken Kaufman of Anne Klein have made it easy for women by creating single garments out of multiple pieces.

Exactly how much layering women want to do in the warmer months remains to be seen. But this much is certain: Getting dressed should never be as much work as BCBG Max Azria's quilted vest, cashmere sweater, lingerie leggings and drawstring trousers made it look.

The award for come-hither clothes goes to the British line Violet, which showed transparent fabrics, leather dresses and crocheted halters. The models' babydoll pink cheeks reinforced the sex-kitten style.

Lingerie designer Shoshanna Lonstein was a close second. As part of the show for young talent, Jerry Seinfeld's ex-girlfriend previewed her thongs, halters and gingham dresses. It was further proof that not everyone can be a designer. Afterward, Calvert, whose clothes were in the same show, searched for diplomatic things to say: "It was fun, kicky. ... Umm, the girls looked cute."

As for what women will actually wear, Ron Leal seemed in tune with that. His showroom was filled with mannequins wearing long, pleated skirts, chic twinsets and easy jackets. "A lot of women don't want to get on a plane in an Armani suit," he said. "I believe in four pieces, three days, two pairs of shoes."

While some designers held bona-fide shows, others opted to get their message out in less conventional ways. cK, Calvin Klein's casual line, was presented at a cocktail party during which models posed in the middle of the room while retailers and the press circled, gazing at the relaxed, understated clothes while drinking martinis and eating lobster salad.

BCBG Max Azria offered a museum-style preview, handing guests headphones and tapes that guided them around mannequin scenes. The company, which recently opened a store in Georgetown, created some innovative designs, such as the prim-meets- glam union of a herringbone skirt with cropped shirt and beaded apron top. Embroidery also was significant, but it wasn't a dainty embellishment so much as a bold, ethnic statement.

Mistakes? There were a few.

Some of Karan's skirts were so impossibly full they made lithe models look like they had mushroom clouds over their hips. BCBG's black embroidered halter over a pink cashmere sweater was a reminder of why some pieces aren't seen together -- and shouldn't be. And the abundance of high heels suggests designers are finished with the flats they were just promoting for this fall. But judging from all the teetering the models were doing, these ultra-high heels may be a hard sell.

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