J.Lo Beneath the Bling

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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 13, 2005

NEW YORK

There were a lot of things on the runway Friday night when entertainer Jennifer Lopez presented the clothing collection that bears her name. It is unclear whether fashion was one of them. To her credit, there were probably more models of color than on most of the catwalks this season. And while there were any number of television crews and celebrity hunters roaming between the aisles and ambush-interviewing anyone with a familiar face, there was little chaos -- just the unavoidable foot stomping, bumping and accidental hair-pulling that occurs when media and celebrities are thrown into the same three-ring circus. There was high-wattage synergy and audacious me-ism on display. Lopez may very well have set a new standard for branding in the fashion industry. The fashion show will be the subject of an MTV documentary scheduled to air later this month. The gift bags were stuffed with bottles of Lopez's fragrance Miami Glow as well as her latest CD, "Rebirth." And the runway was awash with a parade of mini-me's as models were done up to resemble the various versions of Lopez that have been etched into the pop culture record.

The show was a lesson on how to dress like Lopez on the cheap -- without the stylists, the loaner clothes and the many, many carats of diamonds both borrowed and bought. Is that fashion? Or just an elaborate fan club come-on in an era when admirers demand more than just an autographed picture and a T-shirt, and stars willingly oblige?

Lopez presented her collection -- the one in which she has very loudly gotten "more involved" -- under the tent in Bryant Park. It was the last show of fashion week during which designers have presented their fall 2005 collections. The tent had been transformed from its usual configuration of a U-shaped runway into a grid of walkways that allowed the models to meander through much of the audience trailed by an MTV cameraman circling around them like a buzzard with a battery pack.

The show was called "The J-Lo Story" and was organized into three parts. The opening segment celebrated the up-from-the-Bronx portion of Lopez's life. There was a lot of cropped denim, hot pants, tiny jackets and hoop earrings. Apparently Lopez did not own a coat during this portion of her life and spent much of the winter dressed in miniskirts. Part 2 of the story coincides with Lopez's success as a singer. This is the period of dating Puff Daddy, avoiding gunplay and pleading with her fans not to be "fooled by the rocks that I got, I'm still Jenny from the block." In this portion, fur is introduced into Lopez's wardrobe as well as oversize sweaters that fall off the shoulder, fuzzy sweats and hooded ponchos. The final third of the show, with even more fur -- including one flying-saucer-size fur hat worn by the model Naomi Campbell -- reflects the entertainer's arrival as a star in music, movies and tabloids. This is the era of Cris Judd, Bennifer and Marc Anthony. Overall, the collection recalls a host of her more famous looks, although there are no references to the infamous green floral Versace gown that plunged to her navel. After all, the collection is mostly aimed at the teen set.

The look of the collection is young and lively and between the tight jeans and the ruffled miniskirts there is plenty that might capture the attention of a teenage girl or even a young woman. But the essence of fashion -- good fashion, at least -- is that it looks forward. Even when it finds inspiration in the past, it looks for ways to make the 1940s or the 1950s seem fresh and relevant. The two collections on the runway -- J-Lo by Jennifer Lopez and the more expensive Sweetface -- look like a scrapbook of styles from the Lopez closet. It is a rolling rack of castoffs.

Celebrity is a kind of embalmment. And celebrity designers operate on the principle that consumers will want to purchase knockoffs of their past glories.

Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan

The most intoxicating aspect of design is that change is expected. It is demanded. So it seems unfair to say that Ralph Lauren's collection on Friday morning was lovely and that Donna Karan's signature collection, shown later that afternoon, was terrible. But that is the truth. And yet, it is also true to say that there is value and honor in daring to experiment, and that is precisely what Karan did and what Lauren did not.

Much of Lauren's work was inspired by his collection of vintage cars and so it was epitomized by its elegant lines, its uncluttered silhouettes and its timelessness. In shades ranging from nickel gray to black, the collection was focused on trim skirts with fitted jackets with their collars sometimes lined in fur. Elegant evening gowns with luxurious pleating draped softly along the body's curves, the stark black interrupted by deep purple. Each garment was quietly and cautiously rendered. So cautiously that there is no adrenaline rush of desire, no naughty disregard for one's dutifully organized budget. One wonders if Lauren is ever tempted to drive one of his fine sports cars beyond the speed limit, if he ever lets his tires screech for the sheer pleasure of being reckless. If so, none of that aggression, that lawlessness, comes through in the collection.

In contrast, Karan's collection was nothing but recklessness, daring and a foolhardy disregard for practicality. The designer who has always been so intent on facilitating the fast-paced lifestyle of powerful women created skirts that coiled around the body and ended with a large origami flower positioned almost directly and awkwardly over the crotch. Sharply pleated dresses had jagged ridges rising along the shoulder seam. Jacket collars stood up so high they nearly engulfed the entire head -- as if a giant clam shell was about to snap shut on one's noggin. And evening gowns seemed to be little more than a crush of taffeta attached to wide elastic bands that fit so tightly around the model's torso that the millimeter of flesh around her waist was squeezed into the tiniest of love handles.

It was a collection that one could admire intellectually -- its darkness, its blend of amorphous shapes with taunting angles, its attempt to apply draping techniques to tailored suits. But the idea failed to produce clothes that work in either the mundane lives of working women or the more rarified lives of the well-to-do.

The designer Behnaz Sarafpour also showed a disappointing collection, not because of audacious experimentation but because of timidity. Her collection was dusted with Middle Eastern inspiration but it was filled with hesitant brush strokes and incomplete gestures. A black dress had a tassel trim that looked like an afterthought. A silver velvet dress had a hemline trimmed in coins, but they were used so sparingly that it would have been better not to have used them at all. Peter Som showed a collection that was inspired by the film "Picnic at Hanging Rock." It is the same film that inspired designer Alexander McQueen for spring 2005 and one can't recall anything in that collection that should have sent another designer to his local Blockbuster. Som's collection suffered from a dour sensibility with too many high-neck blouses and jackets and an ivory cape that was so matronly one could almost smell the mothballs, talcum powder and lavender.

Derek Lam, who most famously created the ensemble that presidential daughter Barbara Bush wore to the swearing-in ceremony last month, presented a collection that showed off his talent with effortless ease and buoyancy. He was inspired by the lifestyle of young women who have bicoastal and transatlantic lives, women who are constantly juggling chilly London with sunny Los Angeles. The result was a mix of exquisite layers. Beaded camisoles topping satin skirts under nonchalant jackets. His satin dresses were hemmed in sequins. A blanket wool wrap was embellished with an enormous jeweled cross. Floral skirts were painted in matte sequins. A pleated evening gown was topped with a mink pullover -- luxury's version of a sweatshirt slipped over a sleeveless dress after the sun goes down.

This was a collection in which everything blended together seamlessly. Each piece was intriguing and made even more tempting when it was mixed and matched in the way that it might be when a woman is dressing from a suitcase. Who hasn't become slightly more adventurous, even eccentric, with their layers when they realize they've arrived in a city without clothes that are warm enough or formal enough? Lam makes one believe that with a single suitcase filled with his clothes -- and of course that mink pullover -- a certain kind of on-the-go chic is assured.

His grid coats used geometry, instead of adornment, to give them panache. He made judicious use of patent leather's sheen, acknowledging fashion's current interest in sparkle but never indulging in it and forgetting the house's commitment to restraint. It was a collection that was more tailored than in the past, more attuned to the body and a woman's needs, rather than some esoteric expression of the fabric's character.

In a collision of celebrity hooha and design sincerity, Zac Posen presented his collection Thursday night. From the beginning, Posen has attracted outsize attention, in part because he is talented, but also because of impressive connections in the world of filmmaking and art. His fashion shows have now become full-blown extravaganzas. His recent business partnership with Sean Combs has only thrown more fuel on the celebrity firestorm. His fall show brought out bold face names such as Claire Danes, Jay-Z, Russell Simmons and Combs. The three gentlemen sat in a row -- like foxes in a henhouse -- watching the models glide by in tight-fitting skirts with swags of fabric hanging from the hips, billowing gowns and short ruffled skirts that wiggled flirtatiously. Oh how the gentlemen smiled from ear to ear. Combs applauded in the broad top-to-bottom manner of a seal. Jay-Z sipped champagne -- no matter that average folks were barred from bringing a Styrofoam cup of lukewarm coffee into the venue. Simmons leaned forward in his chair with schoolboy enthusiasm. Could it be that they were licking their chops or was that just a problem of chapped lips?

Gentlemen, it is the clothes that are ostensibly for sale, not the models. And this was a disappointing collection. One wishes that Posen could retreat to a more subdued environment and focus on his craft, work out the mistakes, and make clothes meant to be worn through the day rather than for a grand entrance. Posen has enough reckless daring for most of Seventh Avenue. He could give lessons in marketing and synergy. Now he needs to remember that fashion without restraint quickly becomes costume.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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