A caption accompanying a photograph of a thigh-revealing gossamer skirt in yesterday's Style section cited the wrong designer. The skirt was designed by the Wrights, a sister team. (Published 09/15/1999)

The spring 2000 womenswear collections being presented here this week already read like a pop culture thermometer. Latin music is on the rise, and so, too, are flounce skirts with their suggestions of salsa and rumba stylings. Tropical hues such as coral, turquoise, mango and lime dominate runways where once only black was chic. And while body-baring styles are required on the catwalk whatever the season, this week the clothes are sultry rather than examples of discomforting exhibitionism.

The difference between runway sex appeal a few years ago and today is the influx of femininity. There is less stiletto-baring bravado and more knowing display of feminine wiles. And while it would be simplistic to suggest that any culture has an exclusive on such temptations as an hourglass shape draped in a slinky halter dress of orchid pink with multiple tiers of ruffles, such a sight seems more natural when those hips are swinging to the sound of congas than to a snare drum.

The young designers Cesar Galindo and David Rodriguez teamed up to produce a show Sunday that allowed both to present their work on a more modest budget. Rodriguez offered such notions as a yellow silk devore ruffled skirt and a "Carmen" dress that harked back to the days of nightclubs, bossa nova and sloe gin. His slip dresses in lilac or pink, adorned with seashell straps or chokers, had the gentle warmth of a Caribbean seashore at dusk. His "cha-cha" hot pants are for those who are part of the South Beach spectacle, not for voyeurs.

For Galindo, the Latin influence was an echo rather than the dominant theme. He offered hand-painted boleros and full-skirted dresses, for instance, that hinted at Cuba in its spangled heyday.

But he kicked off his show with a veteran model, Lu Cierra, whose old-school style of walking the runway meant selling the clothes with the batting of eyelashes, the sway of hips and a dramatic twirl of a skirt. The current crop of models who dominate the catwalk do what they are told, whether it is to walk briskly toward the cameras and beat a hasty retreat or to stomp stoically with a disconcerting scowl. But such a demeanor transforms the model into a barely animated object rather than a performer. Cierra played cat-and-mouse with the audience, toying with its assumptions as well as allowing herself to be ogled.

At Carolina Herrera's show this morning, the designer was at her best sending out a spirited collection of Moroccan embroidered tops and skirts, slim trousers in shimmering fabrics, and jersey dresses with fluted hems. The collection's strength was not an overt Latin influence, but its blend of glamorous and womanly details and shapes with sexy fabrics and cutouts.

The collection floundered when it borrowed too heavily from a vocabulary popularized by Tom Ford's Gucci. The tight-fitting leather jackets and tops with their U-shaped hemlines were from a more urban, tough-girl sensibility.

Besides, a U-shaped hemline on a blouse reveals the area just below the waist and above the pelvis, not a particularly erogenous zone. It is not an area that can be toned or defined through weight training and exercise. It offers no visual pleasure, unless one counts the satisfying revelation that, even on professional models, this part of the body can be rather pudgy and unattractive.

But then, perhaps revealing these decidedly unglamorous patches of flesh is part of an honest appreciation of the female form. No designers have taken to using voluptuous models, but in the framework of the industry, they have embraced women who are shapely, with curves and breasts. They may not represent the average American woman, but their physiques are a far cry from the boyish figures that have for so long dominated the runway.

As boyishness falls by the wayside, designers such as Donatella Versace in her Versus collection have infused their work with softness. Versace's spring 2000 presentation Sunday was filled with the same rock-and-roll energy that has always defined the collection. She gathered an A-list of guests ranging from director Spike Lee to actress Natasha Richardson. But somehow the evening--complete with a post-show dinner party--did not seem so aggressively fabulous. Indeed, the sight of folks squawking on cell phones rendered them pitiful workaholics rather than the in-demand stars such techno-dependence used to convey.

There were other hints that times are changing. Maybe it was the music, more melodic than cacophonous. And watching the runway show from backstage was Versace playing baby sitter, with her arms around Madonna's toddler, Lourdes. Even the abrasive edge was off much of the collection, which was at its best with pleated and wrapped white eyelet skirts and ruffled tops. There were prepubescent hot pants and a sailor collar on a white day coat. And girlish ruffles adorned a lime-green bib top that hinted at--could it be?--sweet femininity.

Certainly, there were clothes that were too tricky, that were overwhelmed with patterns, paillettes and pleats. And there were items that would bring only expensive vulgarity to a woman's closet. Is there ever an occasion for coral leather capris adorned with gold rivets?

MTV may provide the answer. In the midst of Sunday's "Salute to African American Designers," a fund-raiser for breast cancer awareness sponsored by the Magic Johnson Foundation, a fashion editor gushed over a garish group of skimpy knit separates coming down the runway, "That's sooo MTV." Indeed, the clothes could be worn--without fear of stares, laughs or relentless mocking--only in the confines of an MTV world. Hollywood has gone safe and classic. Instead, it is the folks who popularized "ghetto fabulous" who now provide the fashion industry with its playground. Gwyneth Paltrow isn't going to walk the red carpet in a pair of studded hot pants. Lil' Kim, however, very well could.

The African American designers honored by the Magic Johnson Foundation are all veterans in the field, although their names aren't as familiar as Calvin Klein or Donna Karan. One of them, Edward Wilkerson, worked for years with Karan. Now at the company Lafayette 148, Wilkerson has already made a name for that label with his sensual mix of fluid fabrics, rich shades of gold, bronze and copper and silhouettes that are elegant and reserved.

Another standout in the African American showcase was the label Epperson Studio. It is a collage of African-inspired wrapping, Japanese-style deconstruction and earthy silhouettes that would be just as comfortable in Morocco as in Berkeley. The palette included crisp white cottons accented with ruby red and other saturated hues.

Champagne house Moet & Chandon also organized a group show of little-known designers on Sunday. The Wrights, a team of designing sisters, have an eye for textural knits. Gregory Parkinson's strength is his glamorous patchwork skirts and unfinished blouses adorned with sequins and lace. And Alexandra Lind takes a structural approach to evening wear with tailored dresses and skirts with provocative cutouts that reveal the low curve of the back or a wide swath of the hip.

If these voices have anything in common, it is their refusal to embrace the philosophy of urban armor. They are not trying to protect a woman from her surroundings, but, in the manner of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture or a Georgia O'Keeffe painting, their fashion attempts to find synchronicity with the environment or to express a heightened awareness of nature.

Designer Han Feng expressed that sense of ease, womanliness and the exuberance of the environment. A poem by Pablo Neruda informed her collection: "Tomorrow will come on its green footsteps; no one can stop the river of the dawn."

It is the most calming and reassuring reference to a new millennium that the fashion industry has articulated so far. Gone were the tricks of technology, the apprehension and trepidation. In its place was a collection buoyed by the belief that beauty is all that is necessary for fashion to endure.

Feng worked in a palette of fuchsia, geranium, cerise, chartreuse, lime, lapis and turquoise. Every color was represented in an array of shimmering silk skirts shirred to create an inviting texture, and delicate organza quilted to look like tiny translucent pillows.

The trousers were cropped mid-calf. The skirts were slim and topped with full peasant blouses that hung rakishly off the shoulder. There were simple tank tops energized with pleated wraps or a sheer organza jacket. Evening gowns were mere yards of lustrous sapphire organza wrapped around the body. And skirts wound around the body and were ornamented with a contrasting band at the waist that mimicked the look of an obi.

Feng has always had an elegant hand with color and with fragile details. But often her collections could be too precious, transforming women into porcelain figurines. This collection, however, struck a fine balance between delicacy and strength, body-consciousness and reserve. It was a collection that showed feminine wiliness in the most flattering light.

CAPTION: Carolina Herrera's collection was at its best with sexy fabrics and cutouts; the U-shaped hems on her tops, right, showed an appreciation for the feminine form.

CAPTION: Gossamer fabrics skim the body in a shorts skirt with side-fastening tabs from Versus by Versace and in a thigh-revealing number by Alexandra Lind.