There was a moment during the Oscar de la Renta fall fashion presentation on Monday when a model glided around the U-shaped runway dressed in an ivory Persian lamb trench coat. It was one of many examples of exquisite luxury on the runways this week. When the de la Renta show ended and the manicured herd shuffled its way toward the exit, editors, retailers and those elite ladies who do their wardrobe shopping from a run-of-show could be heard cooing about that coat.
While there is nothing remarkable about the fashion industry becoming starry-eyed over a frock, it was hard not to notice this week that the objects of their affection were aggressively, defiantly indulgent. Persian lamb? Such extravagance seems counterintuitive in a stalled economy and in a country on the verge of war. Could this be an aberration?
Yet at the Sean John show on Saturday night, singer Mary J. Blige yelped with delight on catching sight of a black mink bolero. After the Behnaz Sarafpour show, which featured dresses of horsehair skirts and glittering gold bodices, tulle party skirts and brocade tops, one retailer rushed backstage to make her case for getting the collection into her store. And on Tuesday evening at the Narciso Rodriguez show, actress Kim Cattrall was practically shredding her program as she made tiny tears next to the description of each devilishly luxe ensemble that caught her fancy.
So actually there was no aberration. The fur, the garments that announce one must have both a nutritionist and a trainer on the payroll, the white cashmere that suggests one is unacquainted with dirt, grime or mass transit -- all have been commonplace on the runway.
The best of the New York collections, so far, have engaged the viewer in a complicated love affair with beauty. It is not just that these items are prohibitively expensive. After all, it is human nature to be drawn to what one cannot have. Instead, these designers are engaged in flirtation and courting. Their allusions are to romance, sexual heat and defiant optimism. They signify that life is not simply going along as usual, but that it holds the possibility of being better than usual. They believe this to their core -- desperately and unshakably. One isn't sure whether to applaud their bravery or reprimand their blithe disregard for the world at hand.
The answer may be to simply respect their practicality. It may be reasonable to construct a safe room and stock up on blankets, batteries and nutrition bars. But would it be so terrible to pick up a few bottles of champagne at the same time?
Optimism is the currency of human existence. It is the essence of every great love story, of sweeping epics, of bittersweet tales. These are clothes about pining and longing and the enduring belief that in the end the love of one's life will be waiting atop the Empire State Building. In Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel "Love in the Time of Cholera," the hero never stops thinking of his love since she had "rejected him out of hand after a long and troubled love affair fifty-one years, nine months, and four days ago. He did not have to keep a tally, drawing a line for each day on the walls of a cell, because not a day had passed that something did not happen to remind him of her."
It is necessary to admire the true believers, the ones who can wade through trouble, wait out the darkness and are sure that goodness will be theirs.
Although most women are loath to go on record proclaiming their love for an inanimate object such as Rodriguez's white, a sharply-cut evening gown -- as though it somehow denies their love for God, family and country -- the reality is that a thing of beauty can bring a welcome flush to the cheeks.
It is easy to love Rodriguez's collection, for example. It continues an aesthetic he debuted for spring celebrating the glory of a woman's curves. Designers often speak about the sanctity of a dress's silhouette, but then they blur its beauty with pleats and ruffles and any number of unnecessary adornments. Rodriguez honors the purity of a garment's lines in the same ways that modernist architects celebrate the structure of a building. There is grace in the way his pale pink sheath is dissected with wedges of black velvet. And the way in which his seams curl around the bust or navigate the hips calls to mind a Henry Moore sculpture that is both erotic and welcoming.
It is just a garment, certainly, but it stirs passion. And for those of meager salary, it's a bit of unrequited love. The sensuality of the dress ignites a fantasy that involves you, him, elegance, a toast, a kiss, fade to black.
In de la Renta's party dress in the palest rose quartz with its skirt adorned with a cloud of feathers, there is a sense that these clothes are not meant to be a brief affair, a quick dalliance. There is a steadfastness to them. Their shelf life is long.
Designer Carolina Herrera's collection exuded a similar enduring elegance. The designer noted that she was inspired by a starry-eyed visions of Grace Kelly, her red lips parted in a small smile, a ballroom filled with swirling dancers or the intoxicating geometry of an hourglass shape in a snug pencil skirt.
Proenza Schouler Simply seeing the giddiness of designers Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez after their first professional runway presentation Wednesday put one in an optimistic mood. The duo design under the name Proenza Schouler -- a combination of their mothers' maiden names. They have only just graduated from Parsons, but their reputation has already floated skyward on fashion hype. The senior project the two collaborated on -- a small spring collection -- received praise everywhere from the Council of Fashion Designers of America to Vogue. It was purchased by both Neiman Marcus and Barneys New York.
Fall 2003 represents their official debut and it is an auspicious one. Combining the sophisticated restraint of 1950s cocoon coats and stand-away collars with rubber sequins and sporty shapes, they have a distinctive point of view that is glamorous, relaxed and adult.
Their signature for fall was a silver tweed tank that added sparkle under shrunken black leather jackets and mossy-hued cashmere bolero coats. The clothes respect the feminine shape, exploit the art of seduction and preserve a sense of modesty.
It is hard to argue against optimism. What good has pessimism ever done? Still there were designers who chose a darker path of leather and studs, of dour black and glum moods. At Bill Blass it was hard not feel a pang of sympathy for designer Lars Nilsson. How difficult it must be to create and present a collection in a room filled with ghosts. The historic Bill Blass signature must be preserved. The clients with their halos of white hair, teased up, combed smooth and sprayed solid, are perched on their chairs waiting to pass judgment. The old Blass gang is always standing guard over the memories, the image and the name. And of course, there are the ever-present market demands. Did Nilsson stand a chance? Probably not. He was fired yesterday, making him the second designer -- the other was Steven Slowik -- to fail at Bill Blass.
Nilsson never could get a full grip on the Blass style: that way of sexing up masculine signatures that dames do so well. But Nilsson had talent. He has a terrifically eccentric sense of color, somehow allowing warring shades to make peace. And he had a sure hand with prints, as with the pine green dress from his fall collection that reminds one of the geometric windowpanes in a Frank Lloyd Wright home. But fall was not a strong collection. In fact, none of them lived up to the potential of the first, small collection he showed when he was hired.
Kors, Malandrino Michael Kors used a predominantly black palette. He kept his silhouettes full on top with luscious wrap coats and narrow on the bottom with skinny trousers and leggings. But the searing images from the presentation were the metal studs on belts and leather jackets. The effect was one of cold aggression and seemed to heighten the vague sense of tension that most folks take to bed every night.
Just recently, Kors, along with Sportswear Holdings Ltd., acquired full control of the Michael Kors brand. Kors, along with partners Silas Chou and Lawrence Stroll, bought out interests that had been held by LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton and Onward Kashiyama.
The goal is to expand the reach of the company and to focus on its small menswear business. Kors put examples of his menswear on the runway for fall and it was in many ways as dark and as hard-edged as the women's line. In particular, the distressed leather jacket in dark brown paired with matching trousers lacked the body-conscious sensuality needed to make the ensemble enticing rather than off-putting.
Catherine Malandrino also focused on the dark side with harsh leather jackets and punishing heels that had models leaving skid marks as they slipped on stage. Malandrino presented her collection at the same theater that houses the Broadway version of Russell Simmons's Def Poetry Jam. She also borrowed poet Staceyann Chin and the production's disc jockey -- Tendaji -- who mixed and scratched a live soundtrack. And while women may find little for their wardrobe from Malandrino's fall collection, they can perhaps find solace in the closing lines of Chin's poem: "What is the value of fashion, if a woman cannot adorn her body without fear?"