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Designers in Short Pants

Some Newcomers Show Precocious Ability. Others Obviously Have a Lot to Learn.

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 8, 2005; Page C01

NEW YORK, Feb. 7

The first days of New York fashion week typically are filled with designers whose reputations extend no further than their small circle of friends. They can count the number of collections they have created on one hand -- sometimes on one finger. They are at the beginning of their careers, without famous lineage, licensing deals, celebrity clients, a fragrance or buzz. Occasionally they are without a clue.

These new designers are almost always the unassuming ones in the room. They are determined to make a case for their collection if only through a strong handshake and well-practiced eye contact. They are so polite: Thank you so much for coming!

Thakoon Panichgul's collection celebrates a kind of prettiness that in years past might have been defined as weakness or fragility. (Maria Valentino - For The Washington Post)

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Their more famous peers usually present their collections under the tents in Bryant Park. Others, so confident in their ability to draw a crowd, show farther afield -- and their rooms are always full. The big designers can commandeer the best models from the top agencies and are careful not to step on each other's toes. Oscar de la Renta would never present his collection at the same time as Carolina Herrera. Donna Karan would not elbow out Narciso Rodriguez.

The little guys make do. Their models are so-so, and they are often paid in clothes. The show location is whatever happens to be free or cheap. If they can choose a space, it will be a stone's throw from the site of a major show. The little guys are not too proud to take the spillover crowd.

Come to see a new designer's collection and it is unlikely that one will be met at the door with surly attitude or a velvet rope. There will be no thick-necked gym rat barely containing his 'roid rage moonlighting as a security guard. (My brother, it is only a fashion show. Relax the jugular. The editors are not packing heat.) There might be a young woman at the door with a guest list attached to a clipboard, but not to worry. If people arrive who are not on her list, she has a pen. And just like that, names are added.

And then you're inside the show space. On Friday, the first day of fashion week, it happens to be an abandoned firehouse on the Lower East Side for a line called Dick by Richard. Who would not be giddy at the thought of the naughty possibilities? You are told that the firehouse has neither bathrooms nor heat. So how could you possibly relax and enjoy a plastic cup of the prosecco that has been so graciously offered? You listen to the thudding soundtrack and pray that it won't contain any flowing water sounds because then you'll have to go to the bathroom. And you are obsessed with the fact that there isn't one.

On Saturday afternoon, you go through the metal detectors at the Polish consulate and figure that even if the Tomer collection is awful, at least you've gotten a peek inside a secure building.

On Sunday afternoon, you arrive at a loft space where the west side of Manhattan meets the Hudson River for a show by Tess Giberson. You wait and you wait and you realize that all those empty chairs will never be filled and you feel a pang of disappointment for her.

In the past, it seemed like the designers who show in the dark corners of New York always offered a somber, angry, disheveled vision. From their point of view, women looked like streetwalking urchins and the men resembled surly, drug-addled thugs who wandered off the set of "The Wire."

But for fall 2005, the unknowns are presenting clothes that are neat, understated and polished. Some of them are informed by ethnic costumes, others are entranced by the rigors of formal tailoring. Some of these designers are so good that it is startling, and one is reassured that the creative juices of New York still flow. Other collections are bad -- bad for reasons that passeth all understanding.

Perhaps the most famous unknowns of the week are the designers from the Bravo series "Project Runway." They have been vying for a $100,000 prize and a Banana Republic mentorship. The show taped its finale Friday morning, with four designers presenting collections. One designer was a red herring; there are only three finalists. An educated guess would have Jay McCarroll, Kara Saun and Wendy Pepper in the runway showdown. One must assume that Austin Scarlett will be eliminated, unless the judges decide that dressing women like a drag version of Mae West is a commercially viable idea.

Pepper, for those who have been following the dressmaking drama, continues to struggle with a dowdy sensibility. Saun's work, inspired by "The Aviator," is remarkably detailed but often too self-conscious. McCarroll mixes musical inspiration into a pastiche of colors and textures to create the strongest blend of originality, salesmanship and aesthetic coherence. It is also hard not to find perverse amusement in the fact that McCarroll worked for about two years in the porn industry, an experience that seems to have given him a unique advantage in stirring up the kind of sexual provocation on which the fashion industry thrives.

The mention of porn leads to Dick.

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