Ask Bill Blass and he'll tell you that his customers, for the most part, want to wear short skirts.
Ask Norma Kamali and she'll report that her following is definitely partial to long skirts.
Both designers are among the American talent showing their fall collections here this week and last, the final stop on a trek that has taken store buyers from Paris to London to Milan and, for a few, to Du sseldorf. And their stands on hemlines reflect the diversity showing up on the runways.
Most of Blass' daytime hems are at the knee, often worn under long coats, but he also offers long, lean skirts that flare at the hem, sometimes paired with flyaway jackets. For evening there are knee-length dresses, often in panne velvet.
Both Blass and Kamali focus on the suit for day. The Blass version is sleek in double-faced wool, the jacket and skirt usually unmatched. Turtleneck jersey blouses underneath enhance the modern, uncluttered look.
While Blass looks ahead, Kamali -- whose customers are far younger than Blass fans -- has retreated to a look anchored in about 1945, showing long black suits with peplum jackets. The Blass woman gave this look up to the thrift shop years ago, but Kamali revives it with stretch-lace bodysuits and thigh-high stockings worn with anklets. Her unlined black denim suit is a variation on the Levi's jacket and 501 jeans.
Those unmatched suits may be the strongest part of the Blass collection, but there are other good-looking and wearable clothes for women -- including Nancy Kissinger, Pat Buckley, Brooke Hayward Duchin and Nancy Dickerson, who were in the audience at the first of his three shows at the Pierre Hotel yesterday.
Blass shows gray and caramel, two old favorites of his, navy and a lot of black for fall. He has also injected more color than he has in a while, most effectively with a dark jungle green called, appropriately for this crowd, Rolls-Royce green.
An important design detail that recurs through the collection is smocking -- on the back of the jacket in an unmatched cashmere suit, and detailing the back of a pale green cashmere coat. The smocked sweater and skirt for evening is likely to be a Blass hit in Washington this fall.
His best use of fur is as lining in a raincoat. And if you can afford one of his fur trims, the sable looks better than the Persian lamb.
Before the show, Blass was concerned that women might be confused by his offering more than one hem length. "I hope it doesn't look like I'm insecure," he said. "More than ever I think women need alternatives." Unlike past seasons, when both long and short hemlines have been options, there is little difference in the shape of the clothes -- virtually all the skirt and dress silhouettes are lean.
While it is clear from his collection that Blass likes short cocktail dresses -- "I think they have to be short and snappy," he said -- some of his best evening styles are to the floor, with the same spareness that distinguishes his suits. Among the highlights are a long, lean black wool dress embroidered on the pockets and at the cuffs of the long, narrow sleeves, and a spare black Lurex turtleneck dress detailed only with a touch of shirring at the sides.
"In California the women want long skirts during the day. And in Paris I've been told the chic women wear their skirts long, too. But a New York woman wants to wear her skirts short," Blass said.
Apparently Washington women do, too. "Just about every woman works today," said Dickerson after the show. "No one I know wants to be held back by wearing a long skirt."