For a while it looked as if you had to be tied up like a Christmas gift to be in fashion this season. Poufs and bows, ruffles and tiers. The binge of tassels and other trimmings, turned on by Christian Lacroix, has been a turnoff to many younger designers who like clothes lean, clean and mean.
Actually the lean and clean gang is not all that young. Calvin Klein is the granddaddy of them all. His remarkably spare separates established the theme for American sportswear and gained respect for American fashion worldwide. Klein still designs a portion of his collection within this scheme, but he also dips into a world that is often dressier and fussier than his earlier, easy-to-wear, spare styles.
No matter. There are lots of others opting for unfancy fashion and doing it well. Michael Kors, for example, trims his collection down to a lean, untricky line with short skirts and long shorts with easy-fitting, blazer-cut shirts. Cathy Hardwick shortcuts intricate tailoring with fabrics that stretch into the shape of the wearer. Marc Jacobs, David Cameron and Stephen Sprouse are others in this less-is-more modern school.
At the head of the class this season, however, is Ronaldus Shamask, whose pared-down style is a natural development of the architectural clothes that first gave him recognition. In the past year he has started manufacturing in Italy, a natural progression, as he points out, since he has been importing fabric from Italy for some time. "I used to have to compensate for the lack of quality manufacturing by making the design more complicated. If something simple is not made perfectly, it shows," says Shamask. "You see the puckers in gabardine and the bad stitching. With enough froufrou you can hide it. Fortunately, I don't have to do that anymore."
In fact, his collection for spring is quite the opposite. "My clothes have never been more simple, never more to the body," says Shamask, 42, whose clothes are available locally at Saks-Jandel and Saks Fifth Avenue. He achieves the lean silhouette in a most sensible and comfortable way, for example, with a wedge of elastic in the high-rise waistband of a skirt.
"Elastic in the fabric is very practical," says the designer. "It not only affects the fit but also makes it more comfortable for the wearer."
Using stretch has made the cut simpler as well. "There are fewer darts and seams. That makes it a much simpler and more modern way to make clothes," says the Dutch-born designer, who moved with his family to Australia after World War II, when there was a shortage of work in Europe. At 18, he moved to London and sold fashion illustrations to the Observer and the Sunday Times.
In 1970, along with composer-conductor Lukas Foss and artist Larry Hiller, he was invited to become part of a group of artists-in-residence in Buffalo, an attempt by a multimedia company to make Buffalo a cultural center. But after several years of unfocused work there, he left for New York City. "I wasn't sure if my field was architecture or what. I needed to do something definite with my life."
In New York, he saw the extraordinary designs of the late Charles James, who constructed gowns with the intricacy and complicated arrangements of an architect. And he discovered the works of the Russian constructivists who were creating for Popova and others. "To me that was the true art of designing for the masses. I was not interested in trends. I thought that this was for me."
Fortunately his timing was right. "It was the time of architectural fashion, of self-conscious fashion. I got it all out of my system." Now, he says, fashion is much more relaxed, more like sportswear. "If a woman looks self-conscious, or tries too hard, she looks wrong," says Shamask. "Now I can concentrate on clothing versus design. It is a new step for me."
He has applied this same sensibility to menswear -- and these designs have won him an honor from his peers, the Council of Fashion Designers Award, to be presented in January. "It is great. I can put the clothes on and I can see if it makes me look powerful, taller, sexy, businesslike or whatever it is supposed to do. I can get the emotional reaction that I see from women in my clothes."
The women's line, he says, "is like children's building blocks. There are a limited number of pieces and you can create anything you want with them." He uses the same dark colors -- purple, green, brown -- in both the men's and women's lines. "Other designers have poufs and fantasy. My fantasy is in color and shape."
There is not a pouf or a bow anywhere in the collection. "I don't do that," says Shamask. "Only so many people want to dress up like Marie Antoinette's milkmaid."