Going Places

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 13, 2008

NEW YORK, Sept. 12

Fashion is neither a battleground nor rocket science and so it would be an overstatement to call the work that several designers sent down their runways here either brave or revolutionary. But it certainly was audacious and gutsy.

The spring 2009 fashion shows ended Friday with veteran designer Ralph Lauren presenting a collection with references to North Africa, India and the Middle East. It takes a lot of nerve for any Western designer to put dhotis and turbans on kids from Kansas, but it takes admirable mettle for a designer who has built his reputation on Mayflower Americana to do so at a time when that part of the world has for many become culturally anathema. Lauren was treading on volatile political ground.

And with his use of high-priced silks and satins and with the patrician looks of some of his Ivory Girl models, the designer risked a collection that at best looked like a costume drama and at worst like an argument for colonialism. In the moments before the show began, one also couldn't help but recall a previous season when Lauren went globe-trotting to Asia and returned with a collection that looked like he'd mugged a family of rice farmers.

But from the first ensemble to the last, Lauren proved himself a supple, smart and sophisticated designer. He created a breathtaking collection that hinted at the traditional styles of dress from those distant regions without caricaturing them. It's unlikely that those dropped-crotch trousers will ever find an audience beyond the fashion bat cave, but he was able to capture the flow and ease of them, which is where their special beauty lies.

So often, when New York designers wander away from traditional American sportswear and open their imagination to the global marketplace, they go wide-eyed and giddy. They stuff their collections with a cacophony of ideas, like tourists showing off their souvenirs. They fret too much about being authentic and respectful and fall under the spell of a style that is not their own. Lauren brought the same sense of luxury, glamour and exceptionalism to this collection that he brings to every other element of his brand. No matter the allusions to Bedouins, the Tuareg, the Sahara or a souk. The collection was foremost Ralph Lauren.

He built his presentation around a color palette that was focused on khaki, ivory and shades of gold. When he wasn't advocating MC Hammer pants or jodhpurs, the cut of his slacks was generous and often cropped. His jackets included classic boardroom styles but also silhouettes reminiscent of safari jackets, bombers and trenches. His evening gowns made one yearn for an invitation to some fantasy Saharan ball. The chiffon versions floated. The silk styles slithered. Mouths watered.

The models wore headdresses that ranged from rustic and spare wraps to sculptural hats and studded turbans that were more Sardi's and Stork Club than desert landscapes.

Lauren was also wise in his choice of models, casting a group that ranged from those with alabaster complexions and platinum hair to those with ebony skin and ink-black locks. Yet they all laid claim to the regal, rich and entitled air that epitomizes the brand in popular culture. At a time when diversity on the runways both here and in Europe has been a point of contention, Lauren -- along with many designers this season -- proved not only that there are a wide range of models up to the task of a showstopping runway turn but also that the mix strengthens a collection.

It's tempting to congratulate Lauren for a collection that managed to stay on the politically correct side of cultural tourism. But that might be a terribly egocentric thing to say. Who knows how this collection might play in Jaipur or Algiers? The incontrovertible truth is that Lauren put beautiful clothes on his runway Friday morning. And he showed that it is possible and powerful to declare oneself enlivened by a worldview without abandoning or even weakening his wholly American sensibility.

Calvin Klein

Calvin Klein designer Francisco Costa showed an extraordinary collection Thursday afternoon. While Lauren's collection was rooted in culture and tradition, Costa's was focused on abstractions, geometry and experimentation. It was inspired by rectangles, cubes and angles. His dresses were constructed with straight lines that all but ignored the curves of a woman's body and yet he was able to create sensuality and seductiveness. The clothes weren't sexy, but they were captivating. How is it possible for a sleeve to be in the shape of a box and yet still hang elegantly on the arm? Costa found a way.

His dresses poked out in odd directions thanks to origami folds and awkward pleating, but they never left one wondering if perhaps the wearer had grown an extra limb. It was an astonishing, magical accomplishment. Costa essentially put a square peg into a round hole and made it look like a perfect, effortless fit.

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