British designer Alexander McQueen was in the enviable position of presiding over the most anticipated show this week. The declining attendance of editors and buyers at the London shows provided much of the impetus for McQueen's move here. And while the designer has brought his collection to America before, this marked the first time the line would debut in New York.

It is a testament to McQueen's talent and innovative vision that he drew a full house on a cavernous pier in the midst of Thursday night's tropical storm warning. A McQueen presentation, it seems, was worth defying the mayor's plea to stay off the streets.

For his spring 2000 production, McQueen returned to a motif that he has explored before: water. In the center of his elevated runway, he constructed a shallow pool. While his guests were able to navigate the stage area thanks to a metal walkway, the models were instructed to splash their way around the massive rectangular pool, kicking up water with their elaborately adorned mules, dragging satiny trains across the indoor pond and soaking the hems of tailored trousers. While McQueen has done such tomfoolery before, one couldn't help but share in his glee at watching models splish-splash in clothing worth thousands of dollars--just as many members of his audience did to get to the show.

It's too bad that there were so few garments that gave one a clear sense of the smartly tailored suits, hauntingly feminine silhouettes and breathtakingly adorned separates that McQueen is capable of creating. But the reality is that he focused his remarkable talent and creativity on what was a collection of costumes for a fascinating theatrical event.

There were only fleeting hints of his ability to design actual clothing: A black frock coat with split sleeves is lavishly embroidered. A black bolero, with its slashed arms and open back, conjures images of wicked debauchery. And there are jersey dresses and filmy blouses gathered at the shoulders.

But they were virtually lost in the mix of trousers that were split open from the knees to the hemline, constricting leather belts that wavered between preservers of chastity and emblems of sexual domination. Cropped leather tops rise high on the neck and culminate in a demi-face mask that zips up from behind. And there were elaborate face masks of white gold adorned with diamonds. Indeed, the collection incorporated diamonds throughout, in several cases--as with the face mask--using pieces created by winners of an international jewelry competition. (One shudders at the thought that diamond face masks may someday turn out to be just the thing to celebrate a 50th anniversary. Happy anniversary, darling. Here's a 40-carat muzzle.)

McQueen's fascination with these women in diamond-encrusted masks seems to be inspired by international news of female subjugation, the Taliban and gender persecution. The collection was dotted with symbols of the Middle East. There are crescent moons adorning leather hot pants and high-heeled mules. A model splashed through the water dressed in a black chador topped with a ring of jet beads. The collection itself seemed to bounce among a triptych portrayal of femaleness. McQueen, in one instance, aggressively flaunts the female body and celebrates vulgar sexuality. Then the sexuality turns strong and self-empowered. And finally, it shifts to something completely hidden, as if the very mention of it is cause for revulsion.

It came off like a tormented and often muddled commentary on the discomfort associated with female sexuality and sexual power. (It is a topic that has intrigued other designers, such as Hussein Chalayan.) The finale, a dreamlike sequence in which the Taliban meets Cirque du Soleil, featured chador-clad dancers twisting, running and spinning above a bed of spikes that rose slowly out of the water. In one particularly disturbing moment, two of the elevated women appear to be electrocuted or hanged as their bodies convulse in mock death throes. The other women are by turns serenely meditating or desperately running. The finale, a levitating woman draped in black and wearing a silver-colored mask, seemed a melancholy spirit, a black bird of paradise intended to hang in one's memory long after the last garment left the runway.

With so much symbolism, it is hardly surprising that clothes seemed to be last thing on McQueen's mind. Indeed, the runway credits--the show was dedicated to the late Liz Tilberis, former editor of Harper's Bazaar--read as if they were from a Broadway production. McQueen provided his audience with a spectacle that is always appreciated during a week of fashion shows, but he failed to provide much fashion.

Geoffrey Beene, Hussein Chalayan

The designers Geoffrey Beene and Hussein Chalayan for Tse New York know how to create a spectacle through the simple pleasure of surprising construction, well-chosen fabric and a celebration of the beauty that can be found in a frock.

Beene presented his collection in his showroom today, selecting models who understand how to help the audience discover the magic in the clothes. They do not simply walk unsmilingly toward a bank of cameras, grudgingly pausing just long enough for the shutters to click once, maybe twice. Instead, a Beene model moves slowly. She unzips a bolero to reveal that the center section can be completely removed, unveiling a micro-tunic, seemingly constructed of jet beads, that tops one of the designer's signature jumpsuits. A halter-style dress in French vanilla has a pin-tucked neckline. A one-shoulder top closes with a single button that is perfectly in line with the single button that keeps a matching skirt from slipping off the body.

Beene is not of that generation for whom fashion is entertainment just as surely as movies, television and music can be. He does not need a host of other accouterments to thrill. If the clothes are meditations on construction, sculpture or color, that is more than enough to contemplate.

Chalayan is one of those young designers whose clothes are sometimes weighted with serious meaning. But in the collection he showed today, Chalayan was content to present clothes that, while they toyed with notions of geometry, were more concerned with simply being pretty than with being intellectual.

Chalayan offered sparely cut suits in shades of geranium, purple, blue and stark black and white. The more colorful pieces are covered in a circular print--as if one had used the bottom of a glass and cheerful paints to create a sea of interlocking rings. His most experimental pieces were adorned with what he referred to as a "3D" trail. The result reminded one of smashed ruffles that wander haphazardly around the hem of a skirt or up the center of a blouse. The pieces have a childish charm, evoking elementary school paper sculptures.

Donna Karan, Randolph Duke

Indeed, it seemed that most of the designers who presented their collections today were more concerned with creating pretty frocks than with making grand statements. (Perhaps McQueen had said enough for them all.) Donna Karan tamed her affinity for broad spiritual gestures to create a collection of wrap jackets, handkerchief-hemmed chiffon dresses in fuchsia and pale blue, suits woven with metallic fibers that allow the jackets and skirts to mold to the body and jersey dresses that cling to the torso while fluttering around the hips and the legs.

The best pieces of the collection were the navy and black separates--jersey tops, organza jackets, sheer jersey skirts, tissue-thin cashmere sweaters. When worn together, they embodied the breezy informality of the times. But the sturdy shades of navy and black kept them from floating away on dreamy whimsy.

Karan's collection focused on skirts and dresses in soft shapes and translucent fabrics. Pants were only rarely sighted in this presentation. When she showed dresses stitched up in sweet pastels, the collection took on a different sensibility. It became a collection of fluttering party dresses as light as a feather and as camouflaging as a theatrical scrim. The dresses, with their low-cut backs, hang from the shoulders by a single thread. They are daringly revealing and unapologetically for a woman who believes bare skin is her best accessory.

As Karan has become more focused on the creation of her clothes rather than the meaning of them, designer Randolph Duke has taken over the role of purveyor of fashion mumbo-jumbo. His program notes were virtually incomprehensible, full of references to "enchanting mogul patterns," "sundowner chic" and "embassy-bound Bohemian." One doubts that even Duke knows what all of that gibberish means. Who could have figured out from all of that that Duke would be presenting a collection inspired by the sea? It was filled with shades of blue from rich navy to pale sky. There are balmacaans in stripes of white, teak brown and deep blue, sharkskin pull-overs in dark blue, sailor-style trousers and skirts, thick cotton cardigans, leather capri pants and spectacular evening gowns adorned with embroidery and paillettes.

Like a host of other designers who have shown this week, Duke envisions all his customers either poolside in Palm Beach or on a yacht sailing to an exotic island. Dinner is, of course, always formal.

Duke has a wonderfully light hand with beading and embroidery. That restraint is particularly notable in his "thrown paillette" gowns which look as if a handful of sequins have been haphazardly scattered across a thin whisper of an evening gown.

There were times when the collection seemed to veer into the land of debutante balls, with stiff tea dresses worn with white gloves. But his galaxy beaded skirts and pants, in which the glittering flourishes spiral dramatically in imitation of the Milky Way, more than made up for those missteps.

And thankfully, the gowns were inspired only by a starlit sky over a still ocean. They offered no commentary on shipwrecks, environmental disasters or the meaning of water.

CAPTION: Alexander McQueen's glittering body suit covered in paillettes, above, and cropped leather top with a partial face mask.

CAPTION: Randolph Duke's broad striped skirt and striped sweater dress, above, and a Geoffrey Beene black-and-white satin dress with organza trim.

CAPTION: Translucent fabric and torso-clinging cut showcase an off-the-shoulder dress, left, and a silk chiffon choker-neck dress, both by Donna Karan.