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Taking stock of fall lines Fashion: Bottom line is, feeding Wall Street could slow exchange of creativity.


NEW YORK -- When Ralph Lauren announced plans for an initial public offering on the morning he showed his fall collection here, the news highlighted the conflict between creativity and commerce that bedevils every artist. Now, the three best-known American designers -- Lauren, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein -- will be represented on the New York Stock Exchange.

Even though Klein has yet to go public under his own name, with his logo on everything from underwear to pillowcases he's big business as well. (The maker of his jeans, Designer Holdings Ltd., is publicly traded.) How do these designers deliver profits without neglecting the experimentation that feeds innovation? Segmenting their corporations into reliable cash-cow divisions like fragrance, hosiery and jeans theoretically frees top-of-the-line collections to take risks.

But both Lauren and Karan produced shows that were so much more safe and serious than in past seasons that it's hard to believe the bottom line isn't influencing their design studios.

No one is better suited to do a conservative, businesslike collection than Lauren, the master of classic style. Concentrating on strong-shouldered jackets worn with cuffed, full-legged trousers, he combined colors the way men do -- a brown pinstriped jacket over gray slacks, for example. Lauren is the least faddish of designers, yet a number of the season's trends surfaced in his show, including leather and boy's clothes tailored for the girls.

It's been a while since stylish women have wanted to combine leather pieces. (The chic alternative was to mix textures by pairing a leather jacket with wool or velvet.) Lauren showed tight leather pants, the only narrow trousers in the collection, with sleek cashmere coats. But leather suits -- asymmetric jackets with matching short skirts-- suggested that leather-on-leather is returning as an option. His most interesting takes on masculinity were reserved for after dark, when a black robe sashed in satin or a cutaway tuxedo offered Gatsby-esque swagger.

With his unerring eye for detail, it's no surprise that accessories give Lauren's collection its zing. An irresistible wide belt of burnished stainless steel circled cashmere sweater dresses, and, when worn on striped trousers, provided a good reason to skip a jacket.

The serenity that has flavored Donna Karan's designs since she began investigating New Age philosophies was evident again in her luxurious collection, which closed 10 days of fashion shows here Friday evening. Soft pantsuits, ultra-sheer cashmere sweaters and short dresses with slit skirts and narrow hip belts all came in dark tones. Karan offered both pencil pants, worn with flat shoes, and loose, drapey men's trousers. When the pants were combined with a plunging V-neck tunic of sheer wool gauze, the look was far from tomboyish.

The effect Karan produced on velvet last season by randomly stripping away threads is now applied to cashmere, with nearly transparent slashes revealing a pretty shoulder or a taut midriff.

What's a minimalist to do? Calvin Klein doesn't stray from his love of clean, simple silhouettes in solid colors, so the changes he makes from year to year are subtle. He used more color than most in a season dominated by black clothes. Suits, separates and coats were done in the pale sand shades he favors, or in beautiful scarlets or winter pastels like a soft green peridot and a blush of lavender.

Stretch jersey and cashmere blended with synthetic fibers were shaped into dresses that draped, with a blip of extra fabric falling from the collarbone of a sleeveless wool shift, or material bunching gracefully across the hip of a snug sheath. Asymmetric folds added interest to trousers, jumpsuits and dresses, the dressier pieces fashioned of matte stretch satin. Klein likes his skirts just above the knee, a length that looks more refined than the mini.

Pub Date: 4/17/97

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