NEW YORK -- Finally, some clothes for real people.
For the past month, we've had showings of clothes that were too tight, too short, too gussied up. But yesterday Ralph Lauren came through with a concise collection of clothes that are pretty, full of fresh ideas and totally within the best Lauren tradition.
"They are not derivative of anyone else. They are simply American design at its best," said Ellin Saltzman, vice president and fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue. Then she added, almost whispering: "Ralph Lauren has saved the week."
He also made it an enjoyable occasion. Rather than herding a huge crowd into the Parsons School of Design auditorium or a television studio as others here have done this week, Lauren presented his collection several times over in his showroom, to the accompaniment of live piano music from the 1930s and '40s.
It made the clothes much easier to see and to consider. And there was a lot to take in. Lauren obviously likes the movement of chiffon, and one way to freshen up last season's plaid jacket is to pair it with a printed chiffon skirt -- and that's just how he opened the showing. Throughout the collection, he paired chiffon skirts with other elements, including cropped sweater sets and wonderfully cut, bare tops.
He took familiar elements of style and made them totally modern: A suede front blouson jacket that looked as if it might have been worn by Carole Lombard is renewed in both color and proportion and paired with a slim, short skirt; the short-sleeved cashmere sweater is revived and worn over a white organdy blouse with ruffles showing through at the neck and sleeve; evening sweaters are paired with satin pants or short, tiered taffeta skirts.
His new blazer has short sleeves (and why not for spring?) and jackets are generally short and close fitting, often anchored with just one button. He uses the one-button jacket in tandem with pants as a feminine rejuvenation of the pantsuit that women will surely want as an alternative to short skirts.
Pants show up for evening wear as well. One nifty combination this spring will be the taffeta shirt Lauren creates in Necco wafer colored pastels worn over black matte jersey pants. "You always expect an elegance from Ralph Lauren, and this season it's there with a certain sexiness added," said Kal Ruttenstein of Bloomingdale's.
Another designer who knows his customers well and designs on target for them is Oscar de la Renta. Many of those customers, including Nancy Kissinger, Marietta Tree, Grace Dudley and Mariella Agnelli, were in the front row of de la Renta's show yesterday at the Parsons auditorium.
In a season in which designers in Italy, England, France and New York are taking their inspiration from Spain, no one is more entitled to it than de la Renta, who was born in the Dominican Republic and worked in Madrid for Cristobal Balenciaga and in Paris with Antonio Castillo. Spain has become fashionable, says de la Renta, "because it is the last country left in Europe which is so fabulously individualistic. People like clothes today that are very individual."
De la Renta's clothes draw heavily on Spanish themes, with toreador bolero jackets on tailored suits for daytime, and embroidered, ruffled dresses borrowed from flamenco for evening. Other touches highlight the Spanish influence, particularly the bright colors -- which alternate with black and white -- the tight fits, the lace and bows, the fabric flowers and the big-brimmed hats. There are even a few mantillas. For the de la Renta customer, these clothes are not theater, but -- minus the dramatic accessories -- the kind of clothes their life styles warrant, the kind of clothes de la Renta always provides.
Ruffles used to be a de la Renta signature -- it's even the name of his fragrance -- but he hadn't done them in years. This year they are back in abundance, lighter and more whimsical, as in a totally ruffled black organza coat over a short white lace sheath. Or, a short, ruffled bolero in black over a long pink silk crepe gown.
De la Renta has always been skilled at making fitted clothes. This season, some are more fitted than ever, thanks to a stretch cloque' fabric he has used in jewel tones that not only lets the short dresses hug the body, but gives a deep texture as well.
This is not a big moment for a change in fashion, de la Renta says. "This is a moment when there is little news but a lot of gimmicks. Short hemlines alone is hardly a new thing, so I've just been reworking existing proportions in amusing ways."