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Fashion Week wrap-up: Fresh talent has clearly joined the ranks of the old guard

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 18, 2010; C01

NEW YORK

The garments on the spring 2011 runway did not provide much fodder for animated conversation or debates over aesthetics, but the cultural shifts they represented were significant.

The collections ended here Thursday evening with designers delivering a season's worth of clothes that could at best be summed up as "nice." With loose-fitting pantsuits, fluid dresses that reach to mid-calf and a palette of neutrals punctuated by shades of raspberry, marigold and lettuce green, designers offered little to lure women into stores with credit cards in hand.

But the mere presence of this mighty industry -- with it big brands and idealistic entrepreneurs -- newly settled in the heart of the city's cultural community at Lincoln Center was a statement of its maturity and growth. The industry no longer needed to be nestled next to the Garment District, with its grungy charm, double-parked delivery vans and safe familiarity.

Farther uptown, fashion's doyennes -- with their outlandish heels and bags stuffed with invitations -- mingled with the Juilliard artists, Fordham law students, stroller-pushing mothers, white-collar straphangers and the rest of this city's flotsam and jetsam. Geographically, the move might have been a matter of 20 blocks, but psychically it signaled an industry that was looking toward its future with no small amount of energy.

A new, more diverse group of designers now dominates the runways. They come from all over the country, even the world. They are adept at new media, fearless about cheap fashion and make no distinction between dressing a 20-something recent graduate and her 40-something mother.

These designers are Asian American, Indian, Latino, Turkish and so on. Oddly, however, few of those stirring the waters are African American. Where are the independent black designers who will follow elder statesman Stephen Burrows, who showed whimsically printed day dresses in his signature jersey, and the solidly established Tracy Reese, who is a master at swing coats and feminine dresses with vintage-inspired frills?

Despite the tattered economy, new designers sense an opening. They are arriving with meager funds, abundant chutzpah, talent and a solid business plan. (One young designer collected donations on the Web for her show.) They are being helped along by an assortment of industry initiatives. And as a result, the runways here have been upended.

Names like Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta, Narciso Rodriguez and Michael Kors still matter -- if only because of the sheer size of some of the businesses. But another group of brands has become equally essential viewing: Jason Wu, Proenza Schouler, Rodarte and Derek Lam.

There's a certain undeniable scale and luxuriousness to Karan's show. She has the clout and the finances to a mount a production in her own Greenwich Street space. There's something about being in a designer's own world -- even if it is just a large, darkened room -- that makes for a more intimate and personal experience. Karan's collection was filled with earth tones and her fabrics were rich with texture. The first model emerged on the runway as if from a narrow crevice hewn out of a rock. The jackets were crinkled and crumpled around the models' bodies, and the dresses -- which often looked like sand-colored silk smudged with streaks of mud -- hung seductively from their shoulders.

Calvin Klein's Francisco Costa also shows in his own space, on the ground floor of his Garment District headquarters. Photographers line the congested street, straining against metal barricades as black Town Cars arrive ferrying editors and -- ta-da -- Katie Holmes. The brouhaha creates a sense of urgency and underscores the urbanity of the collection. These clothes, with their aerodynamic simplicity, belong to the city.

Costa's dresses were elongated to mid-calf, the only embellishment a well-placed crease or an elegant fold. As always, neutrals dominated on his runway: ivory, vellum, natural, straw. Each shade was a slightly different hue of beige, and Costa mixed them together in single ensembles so that each look was pristine but not flat.

Later Thursday evening, Costa hosted a small dinner. It was a rainy night. Full of mist and puddles. The room was filled with artists and patrons, editors and friends. The mix was a reminder that fashion flourishes when it's part of the larger creative community, not just inspired by it.

One wonders how often Lauren gets out. Not how often he goes to the theater or to Jamaica, but how often he steps outside of his cloistered world -- away from his close friends and relatives -- to really witness how mere worker bees live.

When his wife, Ricky, arrived for his Thursday morning show wearing a sand-colored suede fringed jacket, it did not bode well. The lovely Mrs. Lauren can wear whatever she might like, and she wore her fringe with aplomb. But suede fringe is not something the average non-cowboy -- or non-Lauren -- can pull off without stirring furtive giggles, and the designer built his entire spring collection around an idea that bordered on laughable.

The collection was filled with fringed leather jackets, oversize Western belts adorned with silver steer heads, doilylike lace dresses and jackets with puffed sleeves. The eye searched in vain for individual pieces that could be mixed and matched with jeans, say, or a simple pencil skirt. This collection was a series of costumes -- a fantasy made real. One half-expected the designer to clip-clop out for his bows atop a horse.

Lauren remains an enduring figure in American fashion. And as long as there are preps, rappers and Dockers-wearing dads, there will be customers for his polo shirts. Businessmen and -women will be drawn to his elegant suits. But the dynamic influence that Lauren once had on American fashion is disappearing.

Of all of the old guard, Lauren's problems were the most severe. Kors showed a stunning collection. It was filled with easy linen trousers and loose-fitting jackets, finely ribbed knit tank dresses that brushed the ankles, cozy cardigan sweaters and bright-colored dresses in green and fuchsia with a texture that resembled crushed flower petals.

Rodriguez showed off his knife-edge tailoring with crisp charcoal gray sheaths softened with insets of pale pink satin. And a finale gown in pale peach flowed like liquid satin down the runway.

De la Renta remains the master of the ball gown. (See: first ladies Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton.) His party dress with the black taffeta bodice and the white, downy feather skirt practically caused actress Sarah Jessica Parker -- seated in the front row -- to swoon and made the little girl inside every other woman in attendance go giddy with delight.

But with his disappointing daywear, which for so long epitomized uptown glamour, the baton has been passed to Proenza Schouler and Wu. De la Renta's clothes looked old. His tweed suits with square shoulders called to mind stuffy lobbyists and self-infatuated society swells.

Wu has never been shy in discussing his desire to be a new generation's de la Renta. He wants to dress that well-to-do social woman and make her feel cool and contemporary. So while de la Renta showed on Park Avenue, Wu presented his collection in SoHo. Getting to his afternoon presentation meant private cars and yellow cabs snarling into one enormous traffic jam on the narrow downtown streets. And then guests hiked up steep steps in their Manolos and Choos to the wide-open second-floor loft where rows of gilded chairs awaited.

Those modest inconveniences -- magnified with heavy sighs and dramatic gasps from guests -- are part of the adventure, part of the hip factor that makes a woman, who really feels most comfortable in a well-tailored suit, feel like she's on to something fresh and undiscovered.

Wu's is the business that first lady Michelle Obama built. Her patronage -- not just the inaugural gown but all the day dresses that she has worn since then -- has helped to establish Wu as a designer whose work can stand up to the highest social scrutiny. Lady Luck shined upon him, and for spring he responded with strapless sheaths in tweed, sheaths with frayed decorative seams and gowns with extravagant ruffles.

At Proenza Schouler, the little tweed suit was reinvented. It was mixed with fluorescent lace and psychedelic sequins and nubby fabric that looked as though it had been woven, singed, embellished and otherwise magically manipulated. The results were familiar silhouettes but fabrics that were a marvel. These were outstanding clothes that could be worn by a woman of virtually any age.

The same can be said of Lam, who turned to the West for his inspiration and created indigo-blue dresses with a sliver of a V-neck, easy matching coats, wide-leg trousers, smock dresses in watercolor prints and terra-cotta-colored suede skirts paired with a simple black top.

These young designers are far less ageist than some of their older counterparts, who often seemed desperate to relive their youth or so obsessed with dressing a woman of a certain age that they made her look even older than her years.

Kate and Laura Mulleavy, who design the Rodarte collection, have boundless creativity. So much so that they have, upon occasion, gotten into trouble when their imagination took them into controversial waters. Their recent makeup collaboration with MAC cosmetics was, they said, inspired by the women of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, a place of devastating violence. Merging the two worlds left the designers fending off accusations of insensitivity. The makeup line was eventually pulled.

One hopes that the Mulleavy sisters have learned the importance of due diligence when veering so far from the usual sources of inspiration, but one also implores them to continue pushing boundaries. The collection they produced for spring retained their adventurous spirit, with shoulder-bearing blazers, high-waist trousers, Chinese porcelain prints and convergence of textures. But it also was a far more polished collection; its raw edges nicely tamed.

There were no intimidating silhouettes on the runway, no scary embellishments. It's awfully hard to be offended by anything that came sashaying down the runway in the past week.

But more importantly, the industry gave in to its future. The balance of power has shifted to a group of designers with varying ethnic backgrounds. They've brought geographic diversity -- from California to Chicago and, of course, New York. They find their inspiration in a vast array of places. Sometimes that gets them into trouble. But more often than not, their wandering serves them well. This season, the clothes may only be nice. But the changes within the industry are extraordinary.

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