NEW YORK - The fashion runways traditionally have been platforms for the outlandish and extravagant, daring ideas and wildly trendy clothes with a one-season shelf-life at most.
For fall, however, many designers seem to be spotlighting a notion that's often overlooked: Wearability.
At the Fall 2002 shows, which began Friday, earthy colors, simple silhouettes, unfussy patterns and an old-time chic have dominated most runways so far. Kenneth Cole, Tommy Hilfiger and Nautica's David Chu stuck with the hip, yuppie fashions that have made them staples in the wardrobes of many under-35 men. Even the usually edgy John Bartlett - who showed a collection last season that seemed inspired by prisoners and bondage - dug deep into his Midwestern childhood and unveiled a line of lumberjack plaid shirts, thermal tees and comfy flannel trousers.
At a time when the fashion industry is trying to get the attention of American shoppers again, it appears what's in for menswear - this fall, anyway - are clothes that are more comfortable than outrageous, more J. Crew than Jean Paul Gaultier.
"The look is warmer, softer and vintage-inspired," said Tom Julian, fashion and retail analyst for New York-based Fallon Worldwide. "Because of the mood of wanting comfort, anything hard-edged, synthetic or futuristic is intimidating."
In menswear, which was shown the first two days of Fashion Week, designers unveiled lines that revolved around the theme of home and hearth, and tended to draw from a warm palette of caramel, chocolate, olive and ivory hues. The fabrics were just as inviting - suede, cashmere, velvet, corduroy and chunky cable-knit wool.
Hilfiger kicked off the shows with a collection that not only had his usual nautical Nantucket flair but also touches of old English comfort. Prominent in his fall line were tartan button-down shirts, argyle sweater vests in red, white and navy, and sleek windowpane pants paired with plaid flannel shirts that created the look of a modern farmer boy.
At the Nautica show, which took the form of an early evening champagne soiree at the Rockefeller Center store, guests chatted up models in blue cashmere turtlenecks, nylon sailing jackets lined with fleece and tweed sport coats paired with corduroy shirts.
Kenneth Cole's vision, described as "Modern Rustic," echoed that of his peers. Cole began the show at his Midtown showroom with a short video featuring scenes of New York and commentary about Sept. 11, which halted last season's Fashion Week.
"On Sept. 12, fashion was the last thing on our minds," the video began. "We were captivated by role models, not supermodels. ... Red, white and blue became the new black.
"On Sept. 12," it ended, "we were reminded that life is not a dress rehearsal."
Cole has been successful largely because of his wearable, high-quality clothes that look sleek and clean, but often feature intriguing details such as a raw seam or a distressed fabric.
This fall, the looks to watch for in his men's line include corduroy pants that are striped diagonally, distressed suede jackets with a well-worn, comfortable look and trousers split at the ankles so they fall easily over shoes and boots. His models wore cowboy boots, felt overalls and soft gray speckled sweaters over pinstriped shirts. But most memorable were a handful of antiqued corduroy jackets so richly dyed that from afar they resembled leather.
Bartlett, who this season launched his secondary collection, John Bartlett Uniform, also emphasized comfort with lambs wool sweaters, quilted hunting vests and fleece-lined lumberjack boots.
"There is no denying that the world is a different place than it was six months ago," Bartlett said in his show program. "For me, work has entered a new realm of meaning, characterized by a more immediate sense of the real and what men really wear. ... Laced-up athletic gear, heroic lumberjack coats and sturdy workwear conjured a romantic ruggedness that seemed a soothing fit for such Herculean times."
Perry Ellis International took the concept of dressing real men one step further when designer Jerry Kaye used "real New Yorkers" as models. However, his "models" were a cast of artists, journalists and fashion pros, so their authenticity was a little sketchy. Still, it was a treat to see people such as designer Gene Meyer and ubiquitous party photographer Patrick McMullan trot down the runway.
The trend toward creating wearable clothes extended into women's wear. Luella Bartley showed dresses and skirts that brought to mind the Catholic schoolgirl. Diane von Furstenberg's line of dresses, skirts and pantsuits were flowy, flirty and reminiscent of '70s sexiness.
In one of the most exciting debuts so far this week, newcomer Alicia Bell revealed a delectable romantic vision at her first Fashion Week show Saturday. Inspired by the old Alice in Wonderland movies, Bell designed a feminine collection of skirts and dresses in light blue, pink and green that were nipped at the waist and piped near the hem with a wide satin ribbon. She also offered different takes on traditional fabrics. A white pin-striped shirt was shirred in front and tied with dainty blue ribbons and a serious gray windowpane jacket was given an extra twist with a pink satin ribbon piping.
"It's more serious ... not as ostentatious," said Patricia Field, costume designer for HBO's Sex and The City, who took front row seats at several fashion shows. "I feel there is a need to step out of the spotlight and look hard at what's important. This is a time for more thought and reflection."
There were some departures from the overall muted tone of Fashion Week, however. Douglas Hannant showed a series of embroidered men's smoking jackets that seemed to evoke the style of Hugh Hefner. And during the Saturday night Baby Phat show, the line's first at Fashion Week, designer Kimora Lee Simmons presented a collection rife with faux fur, gold embroidery and mesh. It was clothing that seemed ill-suited for any social situation outside of a music video these days.
And while many fashion shows tended toward the subdued, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs opted to throw a $1 million bash at Cipriani, a high-priced chic restaurant near Grand Central Station on Saturday night.
Combs' public relations people mailed out 1,000 invites to the show, and the event was so poorly managed that they ended up making more than 100 guests wait outside the restaurant for an hour before turning them away. They had let too many people who weren't on the invite list into the show and exceeded capacity, leaving media from the Associated Press and Entertainment Weekly among others bitter and freezing.
So, perhaps in some ways, Fashion Week hasn't changed that much at all.