A big spectacle always seems to do designers in, gets them all tied up in knots. Flashy runway productions have a way of making them get goofy and go off track. That's what happened Friday night to Donna Karan and the team behind her DKNY collection.
The secondary line is celebrating its 10th anniversary. To mark the occasion, Karan erected a grand tent in Central Park for a massive runway show. She also shut down several city blocks leading from the park to her new DKNY store to allow guests to promenade from the show to a party in her new boutique. The sight was breathtaking. The tent, constructed of clear vinyl flaps, offered a view of the night sky and the lush trees as a phalanx of models, dressed in pale peach leather and suede, stormed the runway. After the dramatic opening, the models returned in smaller groups for more careful viewing of the collection. And it was this closer inspection that brought on the disappointment.
The collection was dominated by low-slung trousers with a snug fit, snake-embossed leather jackets, persimmon sweaters, stretch tulle dresses and tops and tangerine-colored nylon dresses printed with peonies and water lilies. The colors were enticing--although one might want to quibble that the designer, in this age of multiculturalism, persists in designating shades such as pale pink and beige as "flesh" and "nude"--but the shapes were disheartening. Those garments that did not appear to be painted on the models hung off of them in an awkward manner. As models walked the runway in strapless mini-dresses that fit over the body like a baggy sock, they seemed to be alternately hiking them up and yanking them down. Nothing would stay where it was supposed to. The finale, Karan's line of "foil" jeans in metallic shades of pale blue, platinum, amber and delicate rose, made for a nice effect under the lights, but it's doubtful that they will look so chic once they hit the land of malls, white ankle boots and oversize T-shirts.
To Karan's credit, DKNY had begun to reflect some of its old verve. It was looking more like the youthful, urban and sophisticated line that was its essence upon conception. While the presentation on Friday night was indeed special--as befits this once ground-breaking line--the clothes did not do this label justice.
Calvin Klein's signature womenswear collection, also presented Friday evening, was, by contrast, a low-key expression reminiscent of some of the designer's signature work. Klein was one of the few designers last week who still believes that there is a place for the jacket and for the suit. Of course, these jackets are a distant cousin to the traditional lined and shoulder-pad-laden jackets of years past. Instead, they are as fine as a shirt, delicate and light and not at all constricting. His skirts fall just to the knee or as far as mid-calf, and they often have demure kick pleats.
The runways for spring have been swamped by fluttering dresses with handkerchief hems and delicate shoulder straps. So many in fact, that when Klein shows his versions, which come in wafer-thin silk-nylon, one can't help but greet them with a shrug of boredom and a feeling of guilt that one's tolerance for such fragility has run out. Happily, however, Klein has more to offer than these butterfly-wing dresses. He suggests jersey shirt dresses that slyly accent the body and underwire-bra dresses that finally solve the conundrum of what to wear under a slip dress. Klein makes support part of the aesthetic statement. And after so many years of bold transparency, the modest stroke of draping a sheer dress over an opaque slip looks positively daring.
These long, lean silhouettes require a sexy heel to keep them from looking frumpy, and Klein provides a spare sandal--held on by a single python strap--that elongates the leg and gives these dresses a sophisticated attitude.
Like most of the collections unveiled over the last week, Klein's was reassuring, gently enticing and confidently executed. But one is left with the sense that, having viewed these New York collections before those set in Europe, the conclusion has preceded the exposition. The New York collections have always excelled at making the often-incomprehensible ideas of a season understandable and palatable. But before that can happen, the daring ideas must be presented.
There were no big ideas in New York. One has a sense of what clothes will look like next season, but no one has suggested what changes await garments one or two years from today. Unless someone is thinking such expansive thoughts, fashion will remain mired in sameness. When fashion becomes too familiar, it moves that much closer to being just clothes--and the designer's role becomes a quaint tradition rather than a necessary indulgence.