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Going Places

So often on the runways here, the overwhelming message is fear. Designers don't want to step too far outside their area of comfort. They don't want to risk trying to be too artsy or avant-garde or European because this is New York, and sportswear -- simple and practical -- dominates. When designers here are at their best, there is nothing wrong with that. Great sportswear has the capacity to delight the soul. Bad sportswear is like Ambien.

Michael Kors

Michael Kors is, perhaps, the one American designer who understands the pleasure in simple clothes. He put both his men's and women's collections on the runway Wednesday afternoon. Typically, it's his women's line that's so filled with life and the men's just seems to plod along -- nice but forgettable. For spring, however, the women's collection came on in a blast of giant polka dots and strident combinations of cobalt blue, black and white. There were big skirts and bold sheaths and unsubtle jackets. It was all about volume rather than charm.

But the menswear was a joy. It was filled with mirth and frivolity, and you started wondering how difficult it would be to have those pop flower-print cropped trousers tailored for a woman's figure. The jackets were wholly unserious in bold red plaids. And every time one of the men walked the runway, it was impossible not to wonder: How did these pleasant gents get stuck with these loudmouth ladies?

Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta

Donna Karan draws her inspiration from New York, from women, from Zen-ness. The collection she showed Friday afternoon was filled with sexily draped dresses that seemed to be held up with an elaborate infrastructure of straps and, quite possibly, pulleys. They were in shades of khaki and olive and a peculiar color that could best be described as soap scum but that is perfectly attractive if one happens to be a 6-foot-tall, blond 16-year old with skin that appears to be lit from within.

Oscar de la Renta is not one to stray far from his world of women with deep pockets who want to look pretty. His show Wednesday afternoon attracted celebrities such as Barbara Walters and Jennifer Lopez, who now that she is the mother of twins seems to have shifted into a more demure fashion gear. Not saying it's right, just saying it's so. The collection was a tutorial in elegance and chic, with a steady stream of sheath dresses and evening gowns that could have the most serious, orthopedic-shoe-wearing super feminist squealing like a 13-year-old girl.

Narciso Rodriguez, Derek Lam

Narciso Rodriguez continues to make dresses that caress the body instead of putting it into a stranglehold. The collection he showed Tuesday night was filled with more decorated pieces than usual, from dresses studded with jet beads to those cut from fabric with a restrained abstract print.

In the mix of dresses with their peek-a-boo cutouts, Rodriguez also included those rare birds in the fashion zoo: suits. His are almost austere, with their uncomplicated lines and lack of frills. But that reserve allows the tailoring to shine. They are sharp without being severe, respectful of curves without overemphasizing them. The runways have for so long been inundated with dresses, dresses -- and really, how many dresses can a woman stuff into her closet? Perhaps that's why Rodriguez's pants seemed such a welcome change of pace.

Perhaps that's also why, despite a nagging desire for a certain degree of practicality in fashion, the jumpsuits from Derek Lam are enticing even though a woman would practically have to disrobe in order to use the bathroom. They are not another dress. They are fluid and sexy in a Marlene Dietrich kind of way. And maybe since he calls them "trouser gowns" instead of jumpsuits, they do not automatically set off alarms: Fad alert! Do not invest your hard-earned money here!

Vera Wang, Rodarte

But who, other than Lauren and Costa, was audacious? Vera Wang's ready-to-wear for spring was an almost restrained version of her brainy, artsy, how-many-layers-can-you-wear-at-one-time style. But her jewelry was oversized, sparkling and daring. There were link necklaces of chunky rhinestones, bracelets that encased the wrist like a cast made of rhinestones and bibs made of hunks of citrine-colored stones.

Kate and Laura Mulleavy offered tantalizing ideas in their Rodarte collection, which they presented Tuesday morning in the West Chelsea neighborhood of art galleries. Their models teetered on viciously high heels down a ramp and through a busted-out wall wearing beige dresses with pleated skirts and mesh bodices with strategically placed swirls of fabric. All the beige fabric matched the mostly beige models and so the mesh disappeared, creating the illusion of partial nudity.

Their knits were as dilapidated and beaten up as they were for fall -- and so they were equally as compelling and mournful. There were more patently wearable clothes in this collection -- including a black bomber jacket with wonderfully snarling attitude -- as opposed to the utterly unwearable aesthetic experiments that so often dominate their runway. The designers, who are sisters, are slowly bringing their rarefied sensibility and their desire to dazzle the eye down to earth and are creating artful clothes that one can envision outside of a gallery and on the street.

Thom Browne

Thom Browne is another audacious designer. He also crossed a line in his presentation Tuesday night. He is the menswear designer known for his ankle-grazing trousers, his little-boy blazers and his impeccable tailoring. And when he puts his work on the runway, he does so with an eye toward titillation, provocation and theatrics. In the past, no matter how far he was willing to push the boundaries of menswear, it was always accompanied by an obvious thoughtfulness. His men didn't walk out in codpieces and wedding gowns just for the joke. If his audience came with an open mind and the willingness to use a bit of brainpower, they were rewarded with an interesting commentary on gender, tradition and style.

This season he was inspired by tennis. And there were wonderful examples of his polo shirts, tennis sweaters, blazers and trousers that have been reimagined with new proportions, in surprising fabrics and with a nod toward contemporary popular culture that has young men allowing their trousers to sag to their hips to reveal their boxers.

But then there were the tutus and crinolines. A coat was lined with a thick white crinoline. Another crinoline poked from beneath a jacket. The finale had a male bride making his way down the sod-covered runway wearing one. Browne has played with the idea of gender before, but this time all that tulle seemed removed from any statement about traditional male and female roles. It wasn't especially attractive; the jackets just looked lumpy. And because he has used it before, the shock value was muted -- except on the security guard in the corner who, despite his best attempt to maintain a professional visage, couldn't help but roll his eyes in dismay. And confusion. Should he be trying to keep interlopers out? Or maybe he should be trying to keep the world safe from this madness.

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