NEW YORK -- Last November, when designer Bill Blass was in Washington for a benefit dinner, he stopped in at the National Gallery to see the "Matisse in Nice" show. The minute he got back to New York, he called in representatives of the company that makes embroideries for him in India and said he wanted to make dresses incorporating the spirit of the Matisse paintings.
Yesterday, almost a year later, 10 dresses and jackets, with glittery embroidery obviously spun from the paintings of Matisse, made a gala finale to Blass' spring collection before a jampacked house at the Parsons School of Design.
This is the other New York marathon, the final week of designer presentations that started in Milan more than a month ago, moved on to London and then Paris, and winds down here Friday. (Actually, even more shows will be held next month in Japan but American buyers and press will skip those, not only from exhaustion, but because they have seen the major designers at their showings in other cities.)
Designers find their inspiration everywhere. While Blass' was Matisse, Carolyne Roehm's spare, welt-seamed styles appeared suggested by Andre' Courre`ges and the stripes and slim dresses of Norman Norell.
But the cross Blass and Roehm both seem to bear this season is the influence of Christian Lacroix, the "sugar daddy of bonbon chic," whose short and bare, little-girl styles have been the talk of tout Paris. And anyone who missed the photos or videos from there could see the dresses at a gala party here given by Bergdorf Goodman last week. And if they missed that, the dresses are in all the Fifth Avenue windows at Bergdorf's.
"I suppose the fantasy element was dead until Lacroix came along," said Blass before his show. "I didn't have the guts to do it without someone else making the stir. Because of Lacroix you add another layer of lace, another layer of tulle, a little more stiffening. You no longer feel inhibited."
Other designers agree. "Let's face it. He goosed the fashion world," said Donna Karan. "He brought into fashion a new irreverence. He could be the best costume designer in the world," said Oscar de la Renta.
Even Anne Klein designer Louis Dell'Olio admits, "I have a little Lacroix in my soul. Before, I had a little Norell in my soul; now it's Lacroix."
At 3 Blass, the influence shows up in the ribbon dresses, best in black and white with a dropped waistline, and in all the poufs and bows, bustles and ruffles, sometimes used all at once. At Roehm, it shows in the very same bright and bold floral print that Lacroix used.
Actually both Blass and Roehm do their best when they follow their own good instincts. Roehm makes wonderful body-conscious clothing, and her simple sheath dresses, under jackets for day or in pink or red sequins for evening, are excellent. She uses a wavy inlaid panel in white on black dresses and sometimes in the same solid color or in sheer that works effectively.
She is hardly the first to use sheer inserts strategically embroidered to be sufficiently decorous, but prospective buyers at the show such as Ivana Trump and Ann Bass will no doubt choose Roehm's interpretation. Her "wedding dress," a white flower-embroidered coat over a black pailletted feather dress, is likely to see far more parties than wedding receptions.
Blass, too, is at his best when he sticks to streamlined tailored shapes for day, which he does in beautiful fabrics, and the tent-shaped coats like the copper satin version lined in menswear glen plaid and worn over a plaid suit. He uses vests handily in place of blouses. And when he uses lace with control, as in a black lace dress with a satin band above the waist, he can't be beat.
With hems well above the knees in most of the collections in New York so far as well as in Europe, Blass provides some welcome alternatives. Pants with a bellboy jacket are a worthy replacement for a short skirt, and Blass' lean and long (to the floor) dresses for evening make a lot more sense for most women than the supershort, full-skirted dresses around.
"This is really good vintage Blass," said Bonwit Teller's vice chairman of merchandising, William Ruben, who admitted thoughtfully to being worried about the economy's effect on sales. "This doesn't appear to be a frivolous time," said Garfinckel's Chairman Neal Fox after the Carolyne Roehm show. "But I think women will respond to clothes that are beautiful. And Roehm knows the way young-minded women want to look and dress."