NEW YORK, NOV. 29 -- Quite simply, it was a party for the '90s. The cause was AIDS. The people were the fashion plates, nabobs and overachievers who make up society. And the price tags on the clothes they were buying tonight at the Seventh on Sale benefit were, for these recessionary times, respectably cheap.

"I see hair," gushed a party groupie, craning her neck toward the entrance of the 69th Regiment Armory. "That must be Pat Buckley. It is! Look!" And indeed Buckley's frosted head came into view, mere inches above Bill Blass, who set off another round of flashbulbs.

Event chairmen Anna Wintour and designer Donna Karan, looking like a twin set in silver sequins, obliged the roving paparazzi by posing in sunglasses. "There may be no February issue of Vogue," laughed Wintour, its editor in chief. She has been at the armory on and off all week, or since party whiz kid Robert Isabel started draping the place in 12,000 yards of white voile and 3,000 yards of rigging. And then, if that weren't enough, he trucked in a few dozen white birch trees from New Jersey. Of course, he had a little help from Ian Schrager, the hotelier.

But then, Seventh on Sale, which opens to the public Friday and will run through the weekend, has been an impressive undertaking. Ralph Lauren brought in his formidable retailing clout, as evidenced by the rows of cash registers lined up supermarket-style at the door. Carolyne Roehm, as president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, pressed fellow designers into action. Nearly 100 designers set up booths of samples, overruns and runway castoffs at discount prices. And more than 3,000 volunteers signed on to help raise money for the New York City AIDS Fund.

The 800 or so people who paid $1,000 a ticket for the dinner did their part too.

"I bought a coat, a skirt that's far too short and a bodysuit. All for $600," announced Buckley, wife of writer William F. Buckley, as she left Donna Karan's booth. She sounded doubtful, though, about squeezing into the tinier samples. "All these New York ladies can wear a size 4. I can't." She shrugged. "Now I'm going to Bill's booth."

Blass, holding court with a cold and a cigarette, had already sold eight pieces in the first 30 minutes. Iris Love, the archaeologist, was trying on one of his white sequin blazers with her tartan kilt. "Iris," scolded Blass, "you can't try on that with that kilt." She did anyway, then shimmied into a black lace skirt. Blass raised an eyebrow. "Iris, you don't have anything on under that kilt." Blaine Trump, sister-in-law of Ivana, came by, wearing one of Blass's spring samples, a black silk dress with pearl straps. "I'm trying to find Judith Leiber bags," she said enthusiastically. Her husband, Robert, looked resilient.

"If it's here, Blaine will find it," he said.

Corporate raider Saul Steinberg was expansive as he stood outside Oscar de la Renta's booth. "My motto for the '90s is that money is for lending, not spending," he said to anyone who would listen. Then, grabbing someone else's arm: "Hey, Oscar's having a sale!" But de la Renta was posing with Iman, the model, and her escort, David Bowie, whose pompadour was two inches shorter than Iman's.

Isaac Mizrahi's booth was also under siege. "We know we've sold a coat and a suit so far," announced the designer, who's leaving today for a fashion show in Tokyo. He had just won one of the prizes in the raffle. "How much do I need a day at Elizabeth Arden?" he said, waving his raffle ticket. "Let me tell you, after this, I do." Later on, he posed, looking not at all the worse for wear, with models Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell, who wore a bubble-size Afro wig.

Karl Lagerfeld was a conspicuous European face in the Seventh Avenue crowd. Aside from his customary ponytail, he was wearing a button on his lapel with the photo of his friend Anna Wintour. "I flew in just for the party and I'm going back to Paris tomorrow," said Lagerfeld. "It's a cheap one-night stand, like a rock star." He grinned.

Jean-Paul Gaultier also came over just for the party. "I think it was very important to come to this," he said. "We should do something like this in Europe." Later on, the designer was seen posing with a peroxided blond in a sequined tutu.

Shortly before the lights went down to announce dinner -- coq au vin, mashed potatoes and green beans -- Joan Rivers was making her way, goods in hands, through the air-kissing crowd. "I bought a scarf at Calvin," she said, her white satin jacket and blond hair shining in the darkness. "And now they're turning the lights off. This is a shopper's nightmare!"

Around 10 p.m., another crowd -- the cheap dates -- descended on the armory for dessert and more shopping. Predictably, there were one or two after-dinner fashion fights, the most noteworthy occurring between social fixture Nan Kempner and an unidentified Japanese woman. With Snap's "I've Got the Power" thumping in the background, the two women waged a tug of war over a $35 hat after Kempner had snatched it off the other woman's head. "It's mine!" they shouted; "I saw it first." In the end, Kempner won. So to speak.