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Robin Givhan on Tom Ford's beautiful -- if secret -- new line

By Robin Givhan
Sunday, September 19, 2010; E10

NEW YORK

The best and worst thing about Tom Ford's premiere collection of womenswear -- the first under his own label -- was that the designer released no pictures.

The decision is frustrating because words alone can't fully convey just how beautifully the tailored pieces fit his celebrity models and how seductively the silk-fringed gowns moved around hourglass figures. It would have been nice to have a picture capturing the pleasure on the faces of audience members who listened as the designer narrated his own show like a dashing, tongue-in-cheek lounge impresario. It would have been a delight to have an image of Beyoncé Knowles reveling in her own rear view.

But in these days of Internet immediacy and inappropriate leaks, it's also refreshing to know that everything about the collection wasn't made plain right away.

We are a culture that has forgotten how to wait -- for something as basic as the morning newspaper or as complicated as Wall Street reform. We'll happily take our facts unvetted if we can have them right now. And we are quick to declare a new administration a failure if it doesn't produce magic overnight.

In some small way, Ford struck a blow for patience. One hopes that no runway images emerge between now and their formal release in the winter. Patience breeds maturity.

Ford, the former creative director at Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, is one of the few designers who could make this industry wait. Indeed, people have been holding their breath for six years. After Ford left those two legacy brands, he launched a menswear line under his own name and directed his first film. Still, folks hung around, tapping their well-shod toes in expectation. Where are the women's clothes?

In preparation for the show on Sunday evening at his Madison Avenue boutique, Ford didn't go so far as to ask his guests, about 100 editors, friends and a few retailers to sign non-disclosure forms. But he politely requested that they put away their cellphones and any recording devices. Whether it was out of respect for the designer, or out of fear of being embarrassed if a security wrangler appeared to wrestle their iPhone away, people seemed to comply.

The show unfolded over two small salons with Ford -- dressed in a tuxedo -- introducing each model with a flourish and a Cary Grant accent. The women wearing the clothes ranged from the elegant swans who worked closely with him during his time at Gucci, to today's most popular and graceful mannequins. His friends Rita Wilson and Lisa Eisner modeled for him, as did actress Julianne Moore, who starred in Ford's film "A Single Man." And Beyoncé, who has never walked the runway during New York fashion week for her own label -- House of Deréon -- did so for Ford.

The variety of women served as a declaration of Ford's intended customer base. He recognizes that the women who will be able to afford his new line -- with prices sure to induce vertigo -- are not a bunch of gangly teenagers.

The clothes themselves were a joy -- collectively the most glamorous, sexy and desirable garments shown on the runways here for spring 2011. Ford has always known how to woo a woman -- and a man, too, for that matter. His secret? He inherently understands that people fall in love with those who make them feel good about themselves. And Ford, with his sure hand for tailoring, his teasing eye for nudity and provocation, and his ability to make a pair of legs look like they go on forever, knows how to make a woman feel very, very good about herself.

While his cocktail dresses and evening gowns are sure to get plenty of red carpet time, it's the suits -- the tush-loving trousers and the blazers with broad lapels -- that were the real works of art. A leopard-spotted one in black and white, worn by model Amber Valletta, exuded audaciousness and confidence. A black tuxedo was sexier than the most form-fitting evening gown ever could be.

Beyoncé wore a gold-embroidered cocktail dress that hugged every curve, and as she walked among the guests seated on cushioned chairs, she coyly turned her derriere to the group and glanced over her shoulder with a smile as if to say, "Yes, it is magnificent, isn't it?" Indeed, it was.

But Ford also knows that it's the unexpected aspects of a woman's body that titillate far more than a down-to-there neckline. Model Carolyn Murphy wore a little black dress with an open back punctuated by an extravagant bow, and Farida Khelfa wore a white caftan-style gown that slipped seductively off one shoulder and then plunged in the back to reveal a black lace corset. From age 21 to retirement, any woman would look exquisite in that dress.

By allowing no pictures, Ford is the best kind of flirt; he leaves much to the imagination. Days later, there were Web sites with links to other Web sites, which linked to blogs, all of which proclaimed to have bootleg images from the show. And what they had was really . . . nothing. At best, there were blurry cellphone photographs of the models in the crowded post-show afterglow. If it's a dark, out-of-focus image of the side of Beyoncé's face that you want -- have at it.

In a fashion culture obsessed with speed -- tweet it, blog it, over-expose it -- Ford, with a single request, slowed things down. And people acquiesced to his wishes almost with a sigh of relief, it seemed. For once, they did not have to be first. They could catch their breath. They could think and enjoy.

Eventually, the photos will come. But when they do, we will not be sick of the images. Eisner's feather headdress will not have been knocked off in time for Halloween flapper costumes. The smile of contentment on Wilson's face will be fresh and sweet.

Wang, Altuzarra, Teng deliver

Ford was the ultimate contrarian in a season when designers are desperately trying to be ever more immediate. They are running themselves ragged trying to capture the attention of consumers and get the clothes to them before they lose interest and move on to something else.

Alexander Wang showed one of his best collections -- or maybe it only seemed exceptional because it was white instead of black and one could actually make out some of his engaging experiments with texture. He also live-streamed it on the Web. By the time anyone could figure out the meaning of the giant white, translucent larvae floating like a blimp about his runway, the show had been seen, consumed, and the clothes felt like yesterday's news.

Designer Joseph Altuzarra put the full range of his talents on display with his sheath dresses fronted with panels of python resembling prehistoric exoskeletons. As his models paraded past, one wished they could slow down. What is the fabric of that dress? What is that pattern? Is it well made?

That's what fashion is fast becoming: an entertaining blur.

Perhaps that's all it can be in a culture so unwilling to wait for anything to come into full focus. Every designer, after all, can't be Ford -- who can now play by his own rules and more often than not have others follow.

But maybe there's yet another way. Yeohlee Teng doesn't wield Fordian clout, and you might think she would be jumping, flailing and screaming to garner attention. Instead she does the opposite: Her whispers make people listen.

Teng presented her spring collection on a private penthouse balcony overlooking Central Park. From 21 floors up, the rush of the city vanished. She explained that her collection was trying to capture the shape of sound, which is a bit like trying to transform a feeling into silk and cotton. One sees what one wants to see.

Her lantern-shaped skirts were filled with whimsy and her ruched red checked coat was like something out of a fairy tale. Her collection was neither sexy nor glamorous. Instead, it was thoughtful.

And high above the city, with nothing but the lush canopy of trees and blue sky in the background and the gentle hiccups and squeaks of a mesmerizing musical soundtrack, Teng gave her audience time to think.

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