NEW YORK, NOV. 2 -- In a week that flitted spasmodically from baby-cake to suburban housewife, it was inevitable that Geoffrey Beene would attempt, on the last day of the American spring collections, to put fashion back on track.
It is not an easy task. An hour after Beene's performance today at the Pierre Hotel, Donna Karan presented a collection that expressed the conundrum of the season: whether to be half ingenue in a ridiculous baby-doll dress or all woman in a curvy suit and high heels. This grasping apparently leads designers to look elsewhere for direction. Karan's fitted denim jackets edged in black satin hinted of Karl Lagerfeld's Chanel, her gold grommet belts of Franco Moschino, her zip-front funnel coats of Claude Montana and her baby-doll dresses of Beene. These signature looks are too conspicuous to cadge without being noticed.
Beene could continue to do the same thing for the next 10 years and he would still be hailed (especially by the fashion press) as a god of modern fashion. "Modern" is a much-abused word these days, applied to Gap T-shirts as easily as Armani pantsuits. But Beene's modernism is unequivocal. It is remote and detached. One has the feeling that his clothes have been recently formed, or formed by a blood-letting process of subtracting unnecessary parts. A long jacket without buttons or sleeves, but belted and worn over a short-sleeve shell, looks space age. And yet figured in manly glen plaid or navy, it is a powerful urban uniform.
Beene said earlier in the week that his collection is all about America, and that can be interpreted in many ways. A black tank dress -- a beautiful skimmer touched with a wedge of silver at the hem and pulled at the waist with a silver cord -- draws on images of women in bathing tunics. Much in this collection is athletic -- the sleek jumpsuits that suggest fencers, the many floating layers of chiffon skirts that call ballerinas to mind.
His florals come from an American garden too. Bouquets of summer hydrangeas, lilacs and pansies in clumps of orange and yellow spill over A-line dresses built on floating foundations of netting. The idea of creating an illusion of suspension is peculiar to Beene. Looking at a black lace slip dress with an overlay of black crepe affixed discreetly at the side, one has the sensation that the top component is dependent on gravity alone. It's modern magic.
Karan's accomplishment is draping soft fabrics over the body in an effortless way. This season, however, she's more into construction. Her "scuba" jackets in double-faced wool zip for a snug fit over minis, which are uncompromisingly short. Like Lagerfeld (and Isaac Mizrahi last season), she minimizes the risk of indecency by making a stretch "coverup" skirt to wear over black leggings. It's little more than a flap of cloth that, when worn as a suit, actually looks like an extension of the jacket.
Unfortunately, Karan strayed into the land of experiments with natural burlap blazers and chemises. Her see-through black raffia numbers address a current theme, but they won't survive in a modern world.