THE SHAPES FOR SPRING are fluid and simple, the colors clear pastels or rich jewel tones, the fabrics often textured naturals or smooth, shimmery silks. Even some brocades have started to appear.
Jackets and sweaters stretch out to tunic shapes, skirts and dresses are softened with draping. Prints are impressive in scroll and paisley patterns, variations on the ikat, the distinctive pattern made from tie- dyed yarns, and English-style chintz.
Is it a reflection of India, a spinoff from the movies "Gandhi" and "A Passage to India" as well as the epic PBS series, "The Jewel in the Crown"? Or is it just another variation of the simple, unadorned styles that have been the spirit of clothes for several seasons now?
Undoubtedly both. The focus on India can hardly be missed by designers constantly scouting fresh ideas for new collections. But if the simple, unstructured clothes appropriate to today didn't accommodate those styles that might be dubbed Indian-inspired, the fashion mix would never work. Fads would develop, and one-shot items with an costumey Indian look might be offered; there would never be the huge impact that India is about to have on fashion.
It is already beginning to happen. Major stores are planning Indian promotions, some spotlighting authentic Indian jewelry and accessories, others with a far broader scope including a range of fashion and home furnishings. Japanese designer Issey Miyake, whose clothes are presented first in Paris, has gone to India to create an entire collection based on Indian designs with Indian fabrics and craftsmanship that will be introduced in New York. Everyone is looking to India.
It is easy to call the long, lean, body-skimming tops and jackets used by designer Michael Kors and others for spring as raj inspired ("raj," meaning rule, from the word "maharajah"). The stand-up collar jackets at Anne Klein II and Perry Ellis' Portfolio line could well be renamed Nehru jackets. And while those wonderful paisley and dotted cotton jackets and pants by English-born designer Danny Noble sometimes have an "Amadeus" look to them (particularly with ruffled shirts underneath), without the ruffles, they have a clean, Indian style.
The oversized shirts offered for spring by Noble, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and many other designers in lightweight cottons and sheer silks give the effect of the kurta that is worn with pants by both men and women in India. Those popular stirrup pants with an oversized shirt really underscore the point.
Geoffrey Beene's draped, gold-threaded skirt recalls the sari. In fact, when Jacqueline Onassis bought the style to wear on a trip to India, Beene commented, "I just love it."
Fabrics are as important a part of the Indian theme as silhouette. The artisanry of handcrafted textiles goes way back, and old techniques have not been forgotten -- only added to. The bantamweight silks of the Varanasi saris have been used by some designers, while others have translated the sheer, floating effect to organzas. And many designers, like Willi Smith, create and manufacture their clothes in India using Indian fabrics. Some of the most beautiful hand embroideries used by American and European designers are made by Indian artisans.
Colors take their cue from dhurries and saris and vegetable dyes; patterns pick up on paisleys and ikats as well as florals. Bleached and natural handwoven cottons are also essential to the Indian theme.
Who was the first to pick up on the Indian fashion revival this time? Perhaps Paris designer Jean Paul Gaultier with the dressy brocades he showed in October; he underscored the point with models' wearing a version of the Nehru cap. At the same time, Kenzo offered the Nehru jacket in his collection.
Does it mean that Nehru jackets will return for men? Undoubtedly, a few men may revive their old Nehru jackets -- if they can still get into them. But the new variations on the Nehru jacket will be a cut apart from the ones tucked away in attics. The Nehru jacket in the menswear collection of Kenzo, for example, is constructed with the softness of a shirt. It has wider-cut armholes and a lighter fabric in a shorter jacket than the last time men wore (and quickly rejected) the Nehru style. And like most fashion offerings today, it is only an option, worn far more casually than before, st as appropriate tossed over a cotton sweater and shorts as worn for dinner in place of a shirt, paired with light linen trousers and espadrilles (or in Washington, loafers without socks). It may even make it back as an option for evening which, you may recall, is one way it was favored in its last revival.
Jewelry designer Kenneth Jay Lane has already incorporated Indian-inspired jewelry in his current collection. There are actually three kinds of Indian jewelry, he points out -- temple jewelry which is from southern India, all with rubies, real or not; the elaborate court jewelry; and village jewelry, which women wear to show off their wealth. Lane's designs concentrate on gold and gold metals to stand apart from the jewelry designs in white metals that have been popular in recent seasons.
While few designers of jewelry or fashion have researched Indian design as thoroughly as has Lane, Seventh Avenue soon won't have to go far to learn about India. Starting next month, the Festival of India, the largest concentration of Indian art and culture ever exhibited in the United States, will take place in over 40 states. In Washington, the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian's Museum of National History and the annual folklife festival on the Mall will all have Indian exhibitions and cultural performances.
Among the New York exhibits will be a show at the Cooper Hewitt of the works of designers, sculptors and architects, including Mary McFadden and Jack Lenor Larsen who will have created modern designs in India using that country's craft traditions.
And the clincher, without a doubt, will be the next costume show under the direction of Diana Vreeland, special consultant to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Open December, it will feature the dazzling court costumes and textiles of India.
If fashion designers missed the message before, they will certainly catch it then.