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Spring Collections, Floating on Air

By Robin Givhan
Friday, October 22, 2004; Page C02

During the spring 2005 runway presentations, which ended last week, designers offered consumers a challenging proposition. The dominant trend emerging from the catwalks was the whimsical manipulation of proportions. Designers mixed long, flouncy skirts with slouchy tank tops. They paired oversize trousers with voluminous blouses. Sundresses, two sizes too big, exhibited only a passing acquaintance with the body. Skirts floated around the torso, creating the illusion of full, round hips. A trim bodice exploded into a spray of tulle or fine cotton.

In almost every case, the reason for injecting air into traditional silhouettes has been to create a soft, feminine sensibility. In the fashion vernacular, slim and angular shapes are used to evoke power, strength and speed. Full and fluid ones speak of gentleness and calm. Spring 2005 pays homage to contemplative femininity and the hourglass figure. Fashion tropes such as the sexpot, the femme fatale and the power broker were nowhere to be seen.

Alber Elbaz had the best examples of flowing skirts. (Emmanuel Fradin - Reuters)

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The results of such a playful approach to size and fit have been mixed, as one might expect. The best examples were on the runway at Lanvin, where designer Alber Elbaz delivered a collection of skirts and dresses that seemed to float around the body, enveloping it in the serenity of silk and ribbons. Designer Nicolas Ghesquiere showed one of his best collections for Balenciaga, drawing inspiration from the house's archives and creating a collection of girlish dresses -- the sort that sing "swish, swish, swish" as one walks across a quiet room. And at Marni, tentlike dresses were controlled with rough-hewn belts and breezy skirts were topped with loose-fitting jackets.

The hourglass shape was on display in collections by Donna Karan and Alexander McQueen. Karan laced the torso into a corset. McQueen buttoned it into a tiny embroidered jacket. Both designers allowed skirts to fan around the hips in gathers or to poof out like a balloon. The point was the contrast: the emphasis on the bustline, the delineation of the waist, the fullness of the hips. Stefano Pilati focused on that same silhouette in his first collection for Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche. He relied on a wide belt to accentuate the model's waistline. But he was so focused on proportions, he failed to examine the ways in which sex appeal and sophistication can be lost in the minute tucks and twists of an ill-placed ruffle or bustle.

So much of what separated the enticing collections from those that disappointed can be discerned in the details. The difference between a pair of sexy oversize trousers and those that are simply sloppy is a matter of inches. There is a magical point when the crotch suddenly seems to be hanging too low and all sex appeal -- and dignity -- is lost.

The difference between a full skirt that makes a woman feel like Grace Kelly and one that makes her look as though she should be in an oompah band is a matter of degrees. Does that skirt flare sharply from the waist, making a woman look short and squat? Or does it angle out slowly and gently along the hips like one of Dries Van Noten's skirts, lengthening a woman's torso and giving her an elegant silhouette?

The spring 2005 collections, like those this fall, indulge in sequins and paillettes that dazzle the eyes. Who can resist them? And designers use color and prints generously. But no longer are designers relying solely on logos and gewgaws to lure customers. Proportion is more important.

For spring, designers are focused on a sophisticated approach to fashion that demands finesse and technique. It is more challenging to cut a dress so it balloons around the hips in a flattering manner than it is to attach a few gemstones to a cardigan. This shift in emphasis also requires that the consumer develop a more discerning eye. Everyone's figure is complemented by rhinestones and tweed. It takes more work and patience to determine whether one has the right shape for a long Gypsy skirt, oversize pants or a white shirt that slouches around the torso.

The fashion industry is asking women to exert a significant amount of effort when they shop for spring. But designers have also challenged themselves to make clothes that are worth the trouble.

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