Age Of Youth

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 10, 2008

NEW YORK, Sept. 9

Launching a fashion label can often feel like being at the mercy of the wind. One day, the young designer Thakoon Panichgul was blown into the spotlight because Michelle Obama had worn one of his dresses. A few weeks later, his spring 2009 fashion presentation was endangered because Diesel -- a large, attention-grabbing denim company -- had chosen to unveil its collection at precisely the same time.

Panichgul's show, which started almost an hour late but ultimately with a full house, unfolded in a similarly unpredictable manner. One moment a model was strolling along in a darkly romantic floral printed dress or a sexy ivory and black sheath with a corsetlike bodice. But then along would come an unlucky model -- was she being punished for being late to her fitting? -- wearing a frowzy dress in a dour shade of purple. The collection was a guessing game, with the audience watching the designer struggle to clarify his vision. Is it girly or womanly? Sexy or reserved? And is there one frock in that spring line that might catch the eye of some high-profile woman? Even in the best collections, the odds are against that happening.

Yet designers are willing to risk everything on a gut feeling. The trend-forecasters, fabric mills and color experts can offer all the advice in the world. It's still little more than a crapshoot when a designer says: Jumpsuits! A lot of them have been saying that over the past few days. Apparently that's what we're all supposed to want come spring. And if Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler are right, we'll want jumpsuits to be silver and sparkly and worn with just a frisson of dominatrix attitude.

The spring 2009 shows began over the weekend with the old guard mostly presenting their shows under the tents in Bryant Park and lesser-known designers showing in the galleries and studios on the far western edge of Chelsea, where the streets are often perfumed with the bracing brew of urine, motor oil and the nearby Hudson River. A host of aesthetics have already been on the runways, including DKNY's pink and yellow rompers, Tracy Reese's new Black Label collection of frothy party dresses fit for debutantes, Nicole Miller's glorious voodoo prints, and the spectacular physique of Olympic swimming medalist Dara Torres, who made the spindly models sharing the runway with her at the Charles Nolan show look like implements she might use to floss her teeth. Sorry, Mr. Nolan, there's only a faint memory of an ocher linen dress and a bright pink swing coat. You can't put the queen of the Amazons on your runway and expect anyone to remember what the mannequins wore.

So far this season, the youngsters are the stars of the industry. Not just because folks like Panichgul have been swept into the mainstream consciousness, but also because many of them have begun to speak with audacious self-assurance. Their antics are fresher. Their tardiness and their missteps are more forgivable. And their clothes are tantalizing.

Carolina Herrera, Marc Jacobs

It is still possible, of course, to respect the classy sensibility of Carolina Herrera and her feathered society gowns. The ones she showed Monday morning were especially fine. But enough of favorite client Renée Zellweger being escorted backstage by a phalanx of black-suited oxen.

Marc Jacobs continues to dazzle the eye and leave his audience second-guessing their own opinions. Did I like that mishmash of bustled skirts, Eliza Doolittle hats, grunge plaids, mod stripes, schoolgirl satchels, glitter, glamour and Minnie Pearl tackiness he showed Monday night? Or did someone slip something into my water? More than anything else, Jacobs put energy onto his hall-of-mirrors-style runway. He knows how to whip his audience into a frenzy, whether by keeping them waiting or telling them the show is about to start as folks are still flowing into the venue. He thrives on creative tension -- or panic. But he is moving swiftly toward the danger zone, the point at which tales of his dating habits and workout routine compete with his aesthetic point of view for attention.

Diane von Furstenberg, Peter Som, Alexander Wang

Veteran designer Diane von Furstenberg presented one of her best collections Sunday evening, filling her runway with layered floral prints in airy, translucent silks, mosaic-printed knit sheaths and sparkling tunics all worn by models with silk flowers and ribbons woven through their hair. No one could be bored with such joy.

The collection vibrated with youthful exuberance and optimism and made even a few of the newcomers look like old farts. Why so stuffy, Peter Som? His collection was filled with strong color combinations such as cantaloupe and raspberry or fuchsia and peach, and his models showed plenty of leg. But the collection had a safeness and primness to it. You just wanted to muss up his models a bit -- or send them off to the same late-night grotto that seemed to have inspired the collection of Alexander Wang.

Wang's presentation Saturday evening was a perfect convergence of atmosphere, clothes and styling. He held his show in a dimly lit loft with a concrete floor soaked with water thanks to guests' dripping umbrellas and a studious set decorator making sure the puddles gathered just so. The music blaring on the speakers was all drumbeats and slithering vocals. The models stalked out looking like they'd had a long, hard night and had gone to sleep with the taste of liquor and cigarettes still on their lips.

The models wore black leather jackets pieced with denim, blazers paired with bloomer shorts, and gray jersey sweat pants with embroidered tank tops. All you could think was that you wanted to go to wherever they had just been.

Elise Overland, Cushnie et Ochs

Elise Overland presented a focused collection that included sexy cropped leather jackets in mint and ivory, a persimmon pleated dress with ribbon belts, ankle-zip cigarette pants, and rock-and-roll dresses in metallic black. Her clothes exude cool-girl attitude but without any of the mean-girl pretensions.

And the design team of Cushnie et Ochs, recent graduates of Parsons, presented a collection inspired by "American Psycho." Michelle Ochs and Carly Cushnie had a fine debut of slashed dresses and jackets in neons and neutrals. Their vision is futuristic without the Judy Jetson flourishes. And as important as having a point of view, they also displayed a sure hand in construction. A jersey dress with an open back fit smoothly against the body and followed every curve without interruption.

In fashion, everyone is trying to win the lottery. Aesthetics are subjective, after all, and what just could be a perfectly fine collection might be dismissed because it doesn't have the right vibe or buzz. Or perhaps the designer doesn't have enough charisma to make the case for the work. Or maybe it was simply a miserable day and folks were hoping for something spectacular to make slogging through streets flooded by Tropical Storm Hanna worth the effort.

Liz Claiborne, Hess Natur

The unpredictable nature of fashion is what makes it so compelling. It is clear that almost any accomplished graduate of Parsons or FIT can make acceptable trousers and a sensible blazer. Those are just clothes. What pushes a garment into the category of fashion is its ability to evoke emotion -- to agitate or to beguile.

Perhaps it's a good thing, then, that there are so many shows crammed into the New York schedule, one on top of the other. It forces designers to figure out how they're going to stand out, how they'll lure the crowds. It's excellent preparation for when and if their clothes land on the selling floor and they have to capture the attention of department store shoppers as they zip from cosmetics up to housewares.

Established designers can lean -- to a degree -- on their name recognition. So it's no wonder that the middle-of-the-road fashion behemoth Liz Claiborne hired brand-name designer Isaac Mizrahi to helm its women's line. Mizrahi's wit and color expertise were on display at the presentation of his signature line Monday afternoon in a Midtown ballroom. His theme was bugs. Not the creepy-crawly "Arachnophobia" aspects, but rather metamorphosis, the elegance of insects' wings and the iridescence of their bodies.

His models emerged onto a runway lit by yellow lights that drained the clothes of color. His cocoon-shaped dresses and beetle-back jackets looked gray and lifeless -- clothes as pupa. But as the models continued on around the circle, the light changed to white, and like moths turning into butterflies, the colors became visible. A purple bubble dress emerged covered in delicate black cobweb patterns. A white paillette-covered dress twinkled in a rainbow of pastel iridescence. An ivory coat was speckled in ladybug red.

And in the ultimate sweet missive to Mother Nature, Miguel Adrover returned to the New York fashion landscape to design a collection for Hess Natur, a German company that specializes in environmentally friendly fashion. Adrover, who left New York for several years after his signature line failed commercially, constructed an art installation in which hand-painted and -embroidered dresses were displayed on towering mannequins that he had carved from reclaimed wood.

An earth-colored dress embroidered in grass green sprouted from a field of peat moss. A dress constructed from loops of linen was planted in a platform of sand. Another dress woven from ropes of alpaca cast its shadow over an artfully constructed landscape of smooth stones.

Adrover offered proof that sometimes when designers take a risk -- and trust their gut -- they can do more than dress their customers. They can even inspire them.

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