Geoffrey Beene got a standing ovation for his spring collection, presented today at The Hotel Pierre. That's particularly noteworthy, because the buyers first to their feet to cheer the designer had been through four weeks of fashion shows in Milan, London, Paris and New York.
The clothes they've seen have ranged from tight and tart-y dresses to spare and simple sportswear, but the Beene designs are a cut apart. He does short, body-conscious clothes with the comfort and ease of sportswear and in the prettiest fabrics around. In one dress he combines matte jersey -- hugging the sides and back of the body -- with georgette pleats for a fluid front and skirt. In another he mixes a matte jersey torso with a short organza skirt to give it movement -- or, as Beene says, "freedom."
"The man is brilliant," said an enthusiastic Ellin Saltzman, executive vice president of Saks Fifth Avenue, after the show. "He manages to do it all -- the cut, the fabrics, the proportion." She wrestled verbally with her Saks colleague, Helen O'Hagan, to see who would get the long navy-blue crepe dress and who the short black lace.
"He manages to make clothes loose and full and at the same time fitted and soft," said Lynn Manulis of Martha's, the New York and Palm Beach specialty store chain. "He uses colors, but they are so subtle. He's a great artist at the peak of his craft."
Beene's spring clothes are more disciplined, more fitted than they have been in recent years. (He said he used matte jersey as a way of bringing clothes close to the body "because I hate bust darts.") One blue heavy-silk T-shirt dress looks like the simplest style around, until you see how the cut makes it drape under the arm. He uses the same construction in a two-piece pink heavy-silk crepe dinner gown -- the last dress he designed for the collection and one of his favorites -- cut to curve to the body.
"I can't wait to see the clothes a second time," said Saltzman, intimating that once was sometimes too often with other designers. "One needs to see his fabrics up close."
It's true. Beene found the Fragonard-style floral print cottons in an upholstery department and had other prints made from the wrapping on gifts he received in Japan and from the pattern inside a Japanese paper box.
His color choices are subtler than most this season. Spruce green and a pale lavender are his new neutrals, but he is also deft at handling brights. A poppy-red belted linen top was paired with a black skirt at the beginning of his show and with a sari-silk skirt for the finale.
"Why shouldn't a woman be able to roll up a skirt and put it in her bag with a pair of sandals to change into when she goes out to dinner?" Beene asked. When the rest of the fashion crowd shifted to long skirts, he insisted on short skirts for daytime. "Women don't want skirts to slow them down during the day. Evening is another matter," he said. "We're going to the year 2,000. I can't see women wearing long skirts during the day. That's a step backwards."
While some of the background music was grand opera, "Around the World in Eighty Days" was one of the more familiar themes used. After the show Beene flipped through the racks and explained why: "Roman stripes, Spanish lace, Viennese gold buttons, colonial India jackets. It's a melting of all the cultures," he said.
The day before, Calvin Klein cast his vote for conservative, clean fashion with his collection presented to buyers and press in his showroom. "All I wanted was for the clothes to be very clean and pure," he said after the show, echoing what many buyers had applauded. While some buyers, affirmatively off the record, expressed concern that there were no new items to attract customers' dollars, others had no problem listing the things they believed women would find irresistible.
"There are wonderful new short, cropped, cotton polo sweaters, short black cashmere sweater dresses, a yellow silk wrap blazer and organza shirts, among other things," said Sonja Caproni, I. Magnin's fashion director, who praised Klein for "being true to himself."
One had to look hard to find the subtle changes in the easy, soft silhouette that Klein has favored for several seasons. Other than a few short sweater dresses, the skirts are all long, often in linen with a high-rise, belted waistline.
He showed linen walking shorts for day, worn with linen shirts and jackets and obviously meant to be worn to the office. "It is far preferable and more decent to wear shorts like these than some of the short skirts around," said Val Cook of Saks-Jandel.
Klein cuts his shirts for spring with considerable roominess, as in a camp shirt or a long shirt-shaped tunic over pants. His linen jackets and blazers are also cut with ease, with perhaps a shade less padding and thus more slope to the shoulder. The duster coats in linen for day, organza for evening, followed the same silhouette.
Avoiding the bright, harsh palette seen in many of the collections, he showed soft shades of blush and banana, along with white, gray and navy. His patterns are borrowed from menswear, particularly the pin dots and argyles.
Klein barely shifts gears for evening. The long, high-rise skirt looks freshest in black jersey, worn with shirts and blouses in black or white organza. The models seemed to wear no underwear under the white organza, plain-as-possible choir-robe dresses -- a surprise from a designer who has made a mint making cotton briefs.
As he has for several seasons, Klein showed virtually no jewelry, save a few watches ("I just happen to love watches," he said later), very pale makeup and, with few exceptions, very straight hair styles, created for him by Bruno Dessange, who recently opened a salon in Georgetown. All of the clothes were shown with flats, almost always an open-toe slipper by Manola Blahnick in white or black and sometimes in snakeskin. "It is all so much more effortless that way," said Klein.
"I'm not trying to make a political statement," the designer said after he confidently walked the length of the runway to kiss his models after the show. "The conservatism in clothes that started in the first half of the 1980s will continue in the rest of the 1980s," he predicted, making "vulgarity in clothes and sensationalism in fashion" totally out of place. "I prefer secure women who can handle clothes that are understated for every occasion," he said, "women who don't need to make a grand entrance."
Secure or not, it's the way a lot of women will want to look.