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NEW YORK - Signs of a different Fashion Week: The Bryant Park tent is painted red, white and blue. The parties - usually lavish, champagne-filled things - are more modest. Then there are the clothes. They are being summed up in one word: comfortable.

This is the new normal in the fashion world. Since Sept. 11, the industry has struggled to cope with canceled spring shows, a tanking economy and more sober-minded shoppers.

Tomorrow, fashionistas, buyers, celebrities and journalists descend on this city again, this time to get a first look at the styles for fall. The week is usually a grueling marathon of jostling for prime-time slots for shows and gossiping about which players are generating the buzz of the season. It's often catty, self-obsessed and all about money, power and landing a front-row seat.

But not this season, the fashion elite is saying. This week, they're hoping to gather, unveil fashion's Fall 2002 collections, sell some clothes and symbolically, at least, move on.

"We've all been through an emotional whirlwind," designer Kenneth Cole said. "We've gone through this whole period of reflection, where we questioned how relevant fashion was, and I think we, as an industry, have come to the conclusion that fashion is a reflection of where we are as a community. It's not just what we wear on the outside, it's also who we are on the inside, and it's very important."

The seriousness this season is a decided departure from years past, when the start of Fashion Week tended to kick off eight days of nonstop soirees. This year, far fewer parties are on the schedule and even the invites seem a little plainer - with the exception of invitations from Sean "P. Diddy" Combs' line, Sean John. Those, which reportedly cost $60 each, came embroidered on a men's handkerchief encased in a chic black felt box.

Many designers are making a point this year of rallying around New York and the United States, through either showing here for the first time in years or unveiling collections that draw inspiration from patriotism or the armed forces.

Perry Ellis International, which hasn't shown in New York for several seasons, signed up for a Fashion Week slot tomorrow. Calvin Klein, who customarily unveils his men's collection in Milan, will do so in a Chelsea showroom next week. Even some Europeans are crossing the Atlantic. The legendary house of Balenciaga, one of 10 luxury labels within the Gucci Group, will show in New York in addition to Paris this year.

"There has been a lot of energy and support for New York and American fashion," said Fern Mallis, executive director of Seventh on Sixth, the group that organizes Fashion Week. "The Super Bowl just happened. The Winter Olympics are starting. I'm seeing this as our fashion Olympics. This will be a very proud time for us."

But patriotism and alliance aside, there also is the underlying knowledge that this week is crucial for an industry that had already been affected by a waning economy even before Sept. 11.

"The whole event was just so bizarre and shattering," said designer Carmen Marc Valvo, who invited about 30 people to his apartment to see his Spring 2002 collection a few weeks after his Sept. 12 show was canceled. "After that, we weren't able to show a proper collection, and that really affected us. As a designer, you lose all your blurbs and write-ups in papers across the country for the everyday Joe who wants to read about fashion for the fun of it. That had an impact on the retail climate."

But the hardest-hit were the lesser known, like Oliver Christian Herold, a designer who has kept his day job as a broker on Wall Street. Herold showed his first collection on Sept. 10, but only four buyers placed orders in the wake of the attacks.

"We obviously could have done more business," he lamented. "But with the lagging economy, everyone was saying, 'With Sept. 11, right now is not the time for us to take a chance.' For a new talent, this is a very trying time. That's why this season is very important. It's my second showing and it's critical."

Fashion and retail analyst Tom Julian predicts that fall collections will reflect a more conservative vision catering to the consumer who is seeking comfort and familiarity more than ever before.

"This Fashion Week is very important because fall is a bigger-selling season than spring," he said. "The shopping element now seems to be all about the value and a good buy. ... We may see very high quality, focused collections that are not just about the clothes but are about the brand and the vision of the company."

Julian could be right. Cole said his new collection is a "return to natural fabrics and natural elements." And Valvo said his show will feature luxurious handknit cashmere evening coats and lace blouses that have the feel of family heirlooms.

"I wanted something that evokes an image of fragility but also quality, and something that creates comfort," Valvo said.

Herold, whose show is scheduled for Tuesday, said his collection was inspired by the idea of "the diary of a military nurse." He said his clothing will attempt to capture the glamour and femininity of women in the armed forces from the 1940s through the Vietnam War.

"Women are ready for this," he said. "With this, they can see the way it was, that through the tough times and being frugal, there was still an elegance."

A few days before the shows were to start, Mallis said she just hopes designers like Herold get to share their visions with the public this year during a peaceful week of shows.

"We are still a country at war," Mallis said. "We still don't know when the next shoe will drop. We're all praying that we just get through this week."

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