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Sugar Overload

On Runways of New York, Candy Apple Creations

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 16, 2004; Page C01

NEW YORK, Sept. 15

Not much has changed on the runway since last season. There are still short, perky jackets with three-quarter sleeves, a rainbow of bright colors, plenty of sparkling adornments and an emphasis on skirts -- form-fitting versions and swinging A-line styles. There is so much syrupy sweetness on the catwalks it is as though the industry has been glazed in sugar like one big candy apple.

One longs for something tart and bracing. Isn't there at least one designer willing to be the sarcastic contrarian?

A new, looser silhouette from Narciso Rodriguez. (Maria Valentino For The Washington Post)

_____From Robin Givhan_____
Spring Bling (The Washington Post, Sep 13, 2004)
Try This On For Size (The Washington Post, Sep 11, 2004)
Politics Heads Down the Runway (The Washington Post, Sep 10, 2004)
The Look Is Red, White and Blah (The Washington Post, Sep 3, 2004)
The Return of Modesty (The Washington Post, Aug 27, 2004)
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Donna Karan tried. Her color palette seemed to have been inspired by a construction site, loaded with steel gray and cement. No explosion of pink, yellow and lilac! How refreshing. Her models emerged from a tunnel of stainless steel and marched around a stark white warehouse. They wore urbane jackets and dresses with athletic mesh inserts and tight corset lacing along the back. But often the dresses looked like a parachute in which the models had become entangled. The clothes were too complicated, too aggressively artful. A dress with a swirling, sensual neckline had harsh lacing in the back. A sexy boardroom suit had a bubble hemline. Each garment tried to do so much, but in the end most managed to do very little.

So many designers have begun to draw inspiration from Narciso Rodriguez that there is no doubt that he has created a unique fashion aesthetic. He cuts his dresses close to the body, following every curve with a seam. He uses corsetry to enhance a woman's figure rather than contain it. He draws flattering attention to a woman's bust line but never puts her breasts on unnerving display. And he makes a strong case for the beauty of hips.

He has loosened his silhouette for spring, raising the waist, keeping the bust line fitted and allowing fabric to caress the hips rather than hug them. Rodriguez keeps up an interesting dialogue in his work without ever changing the subject from the clothes. There are no esoteric references. He doesn't return from vacation and treat his collection like a picture book of his travels. He can say more in the positioning of seams on the body than most designers who must share the entire contents of their summer vacation to explain why a dress is blue.

Michael Kors is still visiting the world's resorts to find inspiration for his collection, but he always comes back with sophisticated souvenirs. He turned to Greece this time and made it look much more enticing than two weeks of Olympic Games managed to do. He offered an enticing collection of embroidered jackets and skirts in Mediterranean blue and shimmering yellow. His brown jersey tunic dress had a neckline embellished with beads. And his sharply pleated skirts stayed close to the body for a flattering fit.

But his menswear and its styling -- python blazers, neckerchiefs and Greek fisherman hats -- still make one think of gentlemen with names like Buck Wild and Dirk Diggler.

Francisco Costa, the designer at Calvin Klein, stubbornly insists that sad sack silhouettes somehow capture the label's history of minimalist sophistication. For spring, Costa believes in slouchy dresses in gray jersey that are so unflattering that one wonders whether he has ever met a woman, let alone considered the female shape.

Ralph Rucci continues to create such exquisitely wrought garments that one wishes that he would give lessons in technique to some of his colleagues. Rucci closed the spring 2005 shows Wednesday afternoon with a presentation of perfectly constructed swing coats in shades of raspberry and copper, gowns stitched from alligator and satin, coats woven out of leather and chiffon shifts strewn with flowers. Nothing is left to chance in Rucci's Chado collection. Every angle has been predetermined, every curve considered for the way in which it will launch a hemline outward or pull a neckline away from the body. Control is evident in every stitch.

It is tempting to describe Rucci's designs as "art." They certainly inspire one to ponder their form, to reflect upon their references, to study the creative use of patent leather, wood and feathers. But they lack any emotional pull.

Their beauty comes from the fabric, the decoration, the technique -- the way in which alligator is manipulated as easily as if it were chiffon. The clothes impose a shape on the woman. And this, one supposes, is a fine thing if a woman is not so terribly fond of her own figure. But that also means the clothes have a sterile quality to them. They discourage an embrace as unmistakably as a dark-suited man with an earpiece and a scowl.

Ordinarily, this would be considered a flaw. But with so many other designers slathering on perkiness and eagerness this season, one couldn't help but admire a designer whose clothes essentially said: Get away from me. I'm thinking.

Virtues such as elegance and restraint are in danger of being undervalued in the fashion industry. One worries that the beauty in Ralph Lauren's collection, inspired by the old-fashioned glamour of women such as Linda Porter -- wife of Cole Porter -- will go unheralded. His pale blue linen suit with a mermaid skirt shimmered softly. His ivory charmeuse evening dress was accessorized with glimmering dress clips. And his trim white pencil skirt with its high waist was paired with a powder blue cardigan in fuzzy angora.

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