a subdued season

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK - Fashion, really, isn't about clothes.

It's about creating an image, spinning a story around it, slapping on a hefty price tag and then selling the idea to the well-heeled masses.

And this fall, the idea that many designers are selling is the familiar, safe and sturdy. It's a conservative, often simple, well-tailored and modern chic. It comes in traditional patterns like paisleys, plaids and comfy patchworks, the typical fall hues of brown, black, gray and ivory, and it's all meant to convey a sense of the known in the current unknown.

"It's less dramatic," said celebrity stylist Phillip Bloch, who was all over Fall 2002 Fashion Week in his quest for Academy Award dresses for his Hollywood clients. "The mood is more subdued."

Designers from Carolina Herrera to Bob Mackie to Marc Bouwer unveiled collections with elegant, well-cut suits and crisp pants, slim-fitted, feminine coats that either followed the body's silhouette or were nipped at the waist and then flared out romantically. In women's pants, the wider pant leg seems to be the cut for the season, and the trouser length associated with summery clam diggers and britches was shown in collections by Marc Jacobs and Kenneth Cole. As for casualwear, many designers went with layered looks that suggested a rustic, slightly vintage yet modern feel.

Some designers took extra steps to convey the feeling of comfort. Cynthia Rowley ran a tiny white picket fence along the sides of her runway. And Nicole Miller not only titled her collection "The Living Room" - she also created a faux living room in her showroom to unveil her new creations.

"We all need a little softness in such a hard world," Miller said in her show program.

Just because the looks are recognizable doesn't mean they're boring. Rowley, who drew Bette Midler, Alan Cummings and Sex and the City author Candace Bushnell to her show, spiced up a men's paisley jacket by doing it in gold and soft pink. She also presented an adorable deep blue quilted women's jacket that came with red hearts as elbow patches.

Designer Lloyd Klein chose hot pink as his color of the season to accentuate black and gray items for men and women. He showed navy suits with pink pinstripes, serious gray men's jackets with a bright pink lining and a sleek blue velvet double-breasted men's jacket with a fluorescent orange silk lining.

In one of the most breathtaking shows of the week, Herrera displayed a collection of 43 coats, suits, cocktail dresses and evening gowns. The clothes sometimes appeared everyday at first glance, but closer looks revealed details that made all the difference.

In her collection, a pinstriped jacket came dappled with tiny snowflakes. A plaid cape was belted to resemble a sexy mini-dress. An ivory silk tuxedo was worn with a ruffled, platinum lame shirt peeking out from underneath.

And in evening gowns - a category in which Herrera dazzles every season - black was the color of the season, but it was sprinkled with bits of newness. One slender satin dress seemed conservative from the front, but a row of delicate red buttons that ran down the back added oomph.

Some designers, however, played it too safe. In the Anne Klein collection, designer Charles Nolan showed a series of well-tailored suits, crisp dress shirts and nicely cut coats in caramel, brown, black and Donegal tweed. In his show program, Nolan noted that he was designing for "Women who dress to live." Indeed, his outfits were plain and pleasant enough, but after the first 10 looks, the clothes were so basic and bland they all seemed to run together.

Less predictable were the ways in which designers interpret fall's casual look. Cynthia Steffe took inspiration from Spain and unveiled romantic, flouncy skirts and dresses in lace and velvet. And while some designers seemed to be successfully reaching back to re-create old customer favorites, others only managed to do so in a dated way. Nicole Miller showed a spotty collection of clothes that included sexy, low-slung pinstripe pants but also dresses and blouses in the leopard print that was popular several seasons ago but just seemed tired and overdone on the runway this time.

The patchwork pattern, which was prevalent in many collections, also was shown in many ways. Oscar de la Renta showed a series of embroidered patchwork coats with sheared fur lining. Marc Jacobs presented cute denim and corduroy jackets with floral patches of different colors stitched onto shoulders or cuffs. And Rowley presented a '60s-style dress she titled "Give Peace a Chance" that was a peasant number made of patches of pink, white, taupe and brown.

The vintage look was a hit with Jacobs. He not only made it his theme in his secondary line, Marc, but he also included touches of it in his signature collection. In his Marc line, he trotted out models in yummy colors like chocolate, orange and peach.

He put them in layers of corduroy, denim, velvet, cotton and mohair. A wool ribbed turtleneck was worn under a printed shirt and a denim jacket, for example. Or a collared jersey shirt was worn with a sweater and quilted corduroy jacket. But the amazing thing was, even though they were wearing layers, the clothes blended so well that his models looked as girly and waifish as ever.

His concept of layering was less successful in his signature line, where he showed looks that included a sequined evening dress with a white jersey T-shirt top underneath. But his gloriously cut men's pants and jackets came in comfortable fabrics such as velveteen and cashmere.

Jacobs' show was also a treat because of the star power he drew. In his front row were Kate Moss, Fran Drescher, Natasha Lyonne, Kirsten Dunst, Lisa Ling, Mo Vaughn and Derek Jeter. Even with the wattage of his VIPs, Jacobs kept his fans waiting. The show, which was scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. Monday, did not start until 10:20, reportedly because Jacobs' clothes didn't arrive until 9:40.

Then there were the mistakes, among which newcomer Rick Owens' probably rank the highest. Owens unveiled an amazingly unattractive and depressing collection in a midtown garage that somehow managed to make pretty models look like starving bag ladies. He showed shapeless dresses, track pants and sweaters with ugly asymmetrical necklines in bland oatmeal, green and brown. And he put all his models in tight hoods that looked like ski masks and gave them an alien aura. Particularly memorable was a taupe cape that resembled a mottled blanket tossed over the shoulder and fastened with a large safety pin.

But toward the end of the week, Bob Mackie showed a collection that more than made up for all the early missteps. The typically flamboyant designer - who drew inspiration from Broadway hits for this collection - exhibited a little restraint this season at the beginning, when he showed suits and evening gowns in black. But midway through, Mackie's models strutted out in gorgeous gowns dripping with jeweled sequins or so elaborately beaded that the whole dress sparkled.

The most gorgeous dress in the show was an Evita-inspired number that was a sparkling white bustier ballgown with a satin top and a grand skirt made of jeweled lace over pleated organza. It didn't hurt that as the models took to the runway to songs from musicals like Gypsy, Cats and My Fair Lady, they were vamping it up and teasing the audience with air kisses and calculated pouts.

"Fashion people are thinking that this time, we want to be more serious," Bloch said. "But at the end of the day, we just love to look at clothes and enjoy a fun show."

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