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In N.Y., Thinking Pink

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 18, 1998


    Jean and shirt uniform Helmut Lang brightened the palette and brought feather-light touches. (Photo by Tyler Mallory/The Post)
NEW YORK, Sept. 17—Designers here are not proving their point. This late summer fashion week grew out of a simple desire to show the fashion world that New York-based designers have original ideas. Instead, they have shown their inability to shake the influence of their European muses.

Optimism is looking more and more like desperation. The clothes of spring '99, at least the samples that have been shown so far, are a mix of fragile pastels, joyful pinks and silhouettes that would look utterly ridiculous on any city street, whether in New York or Kansas City.

And no one seems happy about being at these shows.

Only Helmut Lang, the designer who with a single bold scheduling decision created this additional ring of fashion hell, had anything interesting and palatable to say. And only Oprah Winfrey, who appears on the October cover of Vogue, looked as if she was sincerely enjoying this fashion moment.

Winfrey flew into New York Wednesday evening to celebrate her Vogue cover at a cocktail party hosted by editor Anna Wintour. The cover photo, shot by Steven Meisel, features Winfrey lounging seductively in a strapless Ralph Lauren gown. Her arrival at the party, with full entourage including longtime beau Stedman Graham and longtime hairstylist Andre Walker, provided this mini fashion week with its requisite dose of glamour.

Lang provided the fashion news this afternoon. His collection for spring '99 found romance and joy in the somber uniform of the urban dweller – jeans and T-shirts. His poplin pants in creamy white and crisp navy coats in a crinkled texture struck the perfect note of lackadaisical chic. The underlying suggestion is that the wearer is so steeped in self-confidence and utter sophistication that she rises above the need to steam her clothes. Ironing, after all, can be so banal.

But Lang plays with our expectations about what life in the city means. Lang's city is not cold or hard. Instead, he somehow manages to conjure an urban world in which folks comment on a spectacular sunset, notice the chirping of birds and move with an air of grace rather than with a slow, plodding grumpiness. His poplin jeans are paired with sleeveless tulle tanks and ivory tops splashed with a burst of pale pink. The overcoats resemble the soft, downy pelt of a tiny bird. Wisps of white, silken threads flutter from ivory coats; black strands create a shadow around a jet car coat.

From Donna Karan From Donna Karan: Evening gown, or is she throwing in the towel? (Photo by Tyler Mallory/The Post)
This is a girlish collection. His ivory dresses are veiled with sheer, pleated fuchsia tulle. The models wear high-heeled, skimpy sandals. They wear sheer Wolford pantyhose. But the femininity is balanced with signature Lang touches that prevent this collection from evaporating in a cloud of sweetness and light.

The models wear his low-riding utility belts. They march around the vast gallery space with arm bands that function as zippered carrying pouches. The pants have built-in padding at the knees.

At moments, Lang seems to be testing his audience, asking them if they are paying attention, if they are still thinking. He presents ivory denim encrusted with paint or stained brown.

Indeed, there will be those who plunk down a credit card for these worn trousers. But one senses that Lang would be more impressed with the woman who digs her favorite jeans out of the back of her closet and wears them out to dinner with one of his splendid winged coats. That is the woman who truly has absorbed his message of elevating and taking pleasure in the mundane.

The contrast between Lang's sense of optimism and Donna Karan's is striking. Karan presented her signature collection Wednesday evening in her Seventh Avenue showroom. One can almost hear the refrain of the Bobby McFerrin song that turned into a mantra for the '80s: "Don't worry; be happy."

Karan is entranced by every shade of pink, from palest quartz to deep strawberry, but there are a host of other pastels, too. The translucent knits are as fine as cobwebs. And the fabrics are dominated by the slippery satin that often lines a coat or a dress. The hemlines are long, reaching at least to the ankle and sometimes even dragging along the floor.

Groupings of twisted skirts seem to wind around the body in a haphazard manner and end in a romantic puddle around the feet. "Ribbon" skirts look as if they have been slashed and ripped, with long strands of fabric that hang around the body revealing the whole leg as the wearer moves.

Karan attempts to keep the fabric away from the body, allowing its personality to dictate the design. The curves of the feminine form are virtually ignored. The result is that Karan has created a collection of clothes that raises questions and is sure to spark debate – or bewilderment – on the part of shoppers.

After all, many strapless dresses in this line left models looking as if they had just stepped from the shower and wrapped themselves in a very expensive towel.

Karan presented a very personal collection, one that reflects her own search for serenity through clothes. Unfortunately, Karan is the designer at a very public company. These clothes may occupy a dear place in her heart and in her imagination. But they have no place in the real world.

While influential designers were flexing their muscles, small design houses scrambled to ready their collections this week in the hope of luring an audience that wasn't booked solid. For the small design company Jussara, the timing proved beneficial. The collection – pulling inspiration from Miu Miu, Missoni and others – had a youthful, folkloric appeal that is in sync with the mood for spring. There were embroidered aprons that tied over crisp cotton skirts and patterned sundresses with stripes of rickrack in bright red.

Still, as much as the eye finds this girlish sportswear enticing, the mind can't help but struggle with aprons and pinafores when contemporary attire has for so long been inspired by technology, multiculturalism and sexuality. Does a woman, no matter how young, really want to enter the next century wearing a naive, embroidered smock dress?

On Wednesday afternoon, Max Azria of BCBG gave audiences a preview of the line that he will formally present in November. And here, too, there was a fascination with dainty colors and embroidery. He uses mohair, with its sometimes unwieldy texture, to embroider single flowers or bold bouquets on full-length dresses, halter tops and jackets. His edges are often left unfinished and he continues to favor the mixing of heavy sportswear fabrics with more delicate evening looks.

While Azria falls short of his goal of being perceived as a directional designer, he ably translates the mood of a season into clothes that women not only can wear, but also can afford.

The young designers who participated in the Gen Art group show Wednesday night at the Manhattan Center got off to a strong start with the evening dresses of William Calvert. This evening wear designer only has been in business since 1997, but he has a sophisticated eye for fabric and a fondness for architectural shapes that are reminiscent of Balenciaga or Geoffrey Beene.

Indeed, Calvert's short presentation was strong enough that one would have preferred him to have a small, informal show on his own. Those he shared the stage with were not up to his standards. In particular, the collection of baby-doll clothes by Shoshanna (as in Shoshanna Lonstein, former girlfriend of Jerry Seinfeld) was an embarrassment. It was a weak collection of ruffled bikini bottoms and bras and dresses that even Barbie would find demeaning.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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