Not much has changed on the runway since last season. There are still short, perky jackets with three-quarter sleeves, a rainbow of bright colors, plenty of sparkling adornments and an emphasis on skirts -- form-fitting versions and swinging A-line styles. There is so much syrupy sweetness on the catwalks it is as though the industry has been glazed in sugar like one big candy apple.
One longs for something tart and bracing. Isn't there at least one designer willing to be the sarcastic contrarian?
Donna Karan tried. Her color palette seemed to have been inspired by a construction site, loaded with steel gray and cement. No explosion of pink, yellow and lilac! How refreshing. Her models emerged from a tunnel of stainless steel and marched around a stark white warehouse. They wore urbane jackets and dresses with athletic mesh inserts and tight corset lacing along the back. But often the dresses looked like a parachute in which the models had become entangled. The clothes were too complicated, too aggressively artful. A dress with a swirling, sensual neckline had harsh lacing in the back. A sexy boardroom suit had a bubble hemline. Each garment tried to do so much, but in the end most managed to do very little.
So many designers have begun to draw inspiration from Narciso Rodriguez that there is no doubt that he has created a unique fashion aesthetic. He cuts his dresses close to the body, following every curve with a seam. He uses corsetry to enhance a woman's figure rather than contain it. He draws flattering attention to a woman's bust line but never puts her breasts on unnerving display. And he makes a strong case for the beauty of hips.
He has loosened his silhouette for spring, raising the waist, keeping the bust line fitted and allowing fabric to caress the hips rather than hug them. Rodriguez keeps up an interesting dialogue in his work without ever changing the subject from the clothes. There are no esoteric references. He doesn't return from vacation and treat his collection like a picture book of his travels. He can say more in the positioning of seams on the body than most designers who must share the entire contents of their summer vacation to explain why a dress is blue.
Michael Kors is still visiting the world's resorts to find inspiration for his collection, but he always comes back with sophisticated souvenirs. He turned to Greece this time and made it look much more enticing than two weeks of Olympic Games managed to do. He offered an enticing collection of embroidered jackets and skirts in Mediterranean blue and shimmering yellow. His brown jersey tunic dress had a neckline embellished with beads. And his sharply pleated skirts stayed close to the body for a flattering fit.
But his menswear and its styling -- python blazers, neckerchiefs and Greek fisherman hats -- still make one think of gentlemen with names like Buck Wild and Dirk Diggler.
Francisco Costa, the designer at Calvin Klein, stubbornly insists that sad sack silhouettes somehow capture the label's history of minimalist sophistication. For spring, Costa believes in slouchy dresses in gray jersey that are so unflattering that one wonders whether he has ever met a woman, let alone considered the female shape.
Ralph Rucci continues to create such exquisitely wrought garments that one wishes that he would give lessons in technique to some of his colleagues. Rucci closed the spring 2005 shows Wednesday afternoon with a presentation of perfectly constructed swing coats in shades of raspberry and copper, gowns stitched from alligator and satin, coats woven out of leather and chiffon shifts strewn with flowers. Nothing is left to chance in Rucci's Chado collection. Every angle has been predetermined, every curve considered for the way in which it will launch a hemline outward or pull a neckline away from the body. Control is evident in every stitch.
It is tempting to describe Rucci's designs as "art." They certainly inspire one to ponder their form, to reflect upon their references, to study the creative use of patent leather, wood and feathers. But they lack any emotional pull.
Their beauty comes from the fabric, the decoration, the technique -- the way in which alligator is manipulated as easily as if it were chiffon. The clothes impose a shape on the woman. And this, one supposes, is a fine thing if a woman is not so terribly fond of her own figure. But that also means the clothes have a sterile quality to them. They discourage an embrace as unmistakably as a dark-suited man with an earpiece and a scowl.
Ordinarily, this would be considered a flaw. But with so many other designers slathering on perkiness and eagerness this season, one couldn't help but admire a designer whose clothes essentially said: Get away from me. I'm thinking.
Virtues such as elegance and restraint are in danger of being undervalued in the fashion industry. One worries that the beauty in Ralph Lauren's collection, inspired by the old-fashioned glamour of women such as Linda Porter -- wife of Cole Porter -- will go unheralded. His pale blue linen suit with a mermaid skirt shimmered softly. His ivory charmeuse evening dress was accessorized with glimmering dress clips. And his trim white pencil skirt with its high waist was paired with a powder blue cardigan in fuzzy angora.
The industry's exuberance for bold colors, a cacophony of patterns and fabrics that keep sparkling from one sunrise to the next have seduced the eyes. Folks are drunk on glitter, addicted to gewgaws, high on stardust.
Take a look at the folks sitting ringside at the shows. It is barely 10 a.m. and already they are decked out in crystal-encrusted mini-dresses, ropes of Austrian crystals and tank tops glistening with sequins. Let she who is without a brooch cast the first stone.
It seems that every designer has found a way to incorporate rhinestones, SweeTart-colored tweed jackets and cheerful embroidery into their own aesthetic. Marc Jacobs's collection incorporated every color in the crayon box. He showed a collection of schoolgirl sweaters, slouchy trousers, yarn-embroidered jackets and A-line skirts with rows of tiny flattened ruffles with the nostalgic sweetness of a prom corsage pressed into a scrapbook.
Folks came out of the woodwork for the Marc Jacobs show Monday night. Celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony settled onto the bleachers under a tent along the Hudson River. People who had retired from the fashion industry dusted off their stilettos and teetered in. Odd-looking characters with "Bride of Frankenstein" hair crawled out from under rocks to attend the show. They all squeezed in expecting Jacobs to say something significant about the newest trend, influence or fashion direction.
This time, however, there was no startling news. There was a metallic blue brocade blazer with a silver sequined lapel hanging loose, as if it had been nearly torn from its moorings. And yarn-embroidered jackets had ruffled collars that enveloped the chin. But the grown-up pencil skirts that were on the runway for fall are gone. In their place, Jacobs offers short toddler dresses and rugby-striped shirts. The collection was as sweet as ever, but it offered the sugary emptiness of Pixy Stix and Lemonheads rather than the lingering satisfaction of a perfect chocolate truffle.
Anna Sui found her inspiration in the Technicolor glow of the American West with a collection of prairie skirts, embroidered smocks, Western shirts and the sorts of dresses that one might find described in a Laura Ingalls Wilder book. BCBG Max Azria offered its own version of peasant frocks and lively embroidery. Bryan Bradley at Tuleh cut some of the sweetness in his collection by pairing his mermaid skirts with motorcycle style jackets, mixing graffiti prints with his signature floral patterns and cutting his jackets with more sportswear details. Oscar de la Renta mixed ikat blazers into the swirl of crochet jackets, dresses scattered with pompoms and a romantic white evening gowns embroidered with golden leaves. But none of it could cut through the sense that fashion had gotten so sweet it could give one a cavity.
So one takes a break from the big-name shows in search of some little-known designer who might have something aggressive, angst-filled and downright irritating to say. Elena Humphreys, the designer of Brilliant, had potential. She sent out a group of silk charmeuse evening gowns with hard rock references such as "Black Flag" written in crystals on the derriere. But the show quickly lost its creative steam and soon the only thing one could focus on was the need for seams that were consistently straight.
House of Diehl also seemed promising. It is designed by MJ Diehl and Roman Milisic. The two are active in the art world and the manifesto included in the program notes was virtually incomprehensible. "Fashion and film: competitors, co-conspirators -- both vie to be that idealized vision into which the self is subsumed."
The collection involved strips of fabric stitched together to form jackets that wrapped around the body and extremely short skirts. The duo also incorporated prints of album covers into belts and vests. The use of the album covers was intriguing, but it was difficult to distinguish Flock of Seagulls from David Bowie because the models were spinning and vamping and showing the phalanx of photographers as much pouty-faced love as they could muster.
But the crowd cheered and a blonde screeched, "I never saw anything like this, never in my life." Afterward she gave the designers a standing ovation. That's a lot more affection than any of the folks showing uptown got.
This town is overrun with giggles, smiles and sweetness. Is it real or is it Splenda?
A fight broke out in the photographers' stand just before the start of the Derek Lam show Sunday night. The argument was over space and who will or won't be in the path of the models. In the end, a guard picked a photographer up off her feet and removed her from the room. The whole scene lent an air of breathlessness to the show. People were fighting to see these clothes.
The clothes weren't worth a battle, but they were fine. The collection, according to the program, was inspired by photographer Helmut Newton and his older French lover. There was a polka dot silk skirt with a jersey T-shirt, mannish trousers, buttoned-up dresses, clunky necklaces hand-strung in the designer's studio and a soulful sensibility to the entire collection. It evoked romance, but the clear-eyed variety.
These aren't clothes that speak of young love or puppy love. This is true romance, the kind that has been knocked around and become stronger -- and sweeter -- because of all of the hurt.