NEW YORK - Spring fashion customarily brings flirty dresses, comfy shorts and cool linen suits. The colors are Easter egg pleasant, the fabrics are light and soft, and the feel, generally feminine and undramatic.

At the Spring 2003 shows so far, these rules have largely been over-observed. With the uncertain economy continuing to play a starring role in fashion, designers from Michael Kors to Kenneth Cole unveiled safe collections that often seemed about as daring as a Gap T-shirt.

But just when your eyes were about to glaze over from the pervasive sense of blah on the runways, a sequined racing stripe suddenly sparkled up a white tank top. Chunky macrame dressed up a neckline. And spring's ubiquitous cargo pants made surprise appearances in satin and silk charmeuse.

The key to Spring 2003 fashion, it seems, is in the details. But they're such tiny ripples in a sea of Banana Republic uniformity that you have to look carefully or miss them altogether.

"Selling clothes is on designers' minds," said Kal Ruttenstein, Bloomingdale's senior vice president for fashion direction. "But people want to look different and there has to be something that distinguishes you from the others."

And so Linda Allard punched up a crisp linen suit in the Ellen Tracy line with delicate, perforated leaves around the shoulders. Anne Klein offered darling skirts in tablecloth prints with handkerchief hems. Cynthia Steffe delivered jogging shorts in chocolate satin and a rosy corduroy. Also prominent in her collection were satin baseball jackets, hand-crocheted skirts and a black denim mini-skirt covered with a layer of embroidered chiffon.

BCBG Max Azria unveiled a line of gorgeous sun dresses designed to emphasize what was worn underneath. The delicate, cotton voile dresses, which came in lemon yellow, sea mist, white and lilac, were paired with long lacy slips in contrasting colors that peeked out at the bosom and cheekily flounced at the hem.

Tommy Hilfiger showed a particularly memorable collection that was stunning, extensive and a departure from his signature preppy casualwear. The 77 Hilfiger looks included sporty parachute pants made of silk charmeuse and crepe satin that were cinched at the waist with toggles. He also used these fabrics to create sophisticated versions of cargo pants, cuffed clam diggers and sexy cargo skirts. They came in decidedly grown-up hues like olive, navy and champagne.

"We can't ignore that the cargo look is there," said Tom Julian, a New York fashion analyst for Fallon Worldwide. "But it's not so sporty this season - it's a dressier chic."

Donna Karan took sporty to an extreme in her DKNY line with several mini-dresses that resembled tennis outfits. They were so sexy - think deep V and halter necks and short, pleated skirts - that they conveyed "tennis vamp" more than "country club princess."

Michael Kors chose the classic route and created a line of sporty looks that are likely to become staples in many an uptown wardrobe. Kors referred to California as his major inspiration - "motoring to Malibu with the top down, teeing off in Palm Springs, the quintessentially good life."

And he succeeded in conveying that vision of luxe-casual with navy polo blouses with crisp white piping, sleek tank tops striped in brown, taupe and blue, and flowy suede skirts the color of an azure California sky.

Not all designers, however, were as successful as Kors. Almost immediately, there were grumblings in the Fashion Week tent that some were playing it too safe this season.

"We've certainly seen a lot of clothes that could jump right off the runway and onto people's backs - more so than other seasons," observed Linda Wells, editor-in-chief of Allure magazine. "It's so comfortable, so safe that the creative element seems subdued."

John Varvatos, who usually creates sturdy menswear with stylish touches, offered a forgettable collection. The Perry Ellis show was an even bigger snoozer with only one outfit that made an impression - but only because it was so perplexing. It was a sandy-hued cotton gown with one large white stripe racing from the funnel neck to the hem.

Kenneth Cole's show was almost as uninspired. Cole usually excels in dreaming up a theme. Last season, it was the well-executed rustic comfort message. This spring, however, his offerings seem all over the map, with belts and scarves and pants and vests sewn up and thrown together seemingly haphazardly.

There were, however, two glorious deviations from the current cookie-cutter norm.

Marc Jacobs proved yet again why he deserves to be fashion's darling. At his Marc by Marc Jacobs show, he opened the event with a lemon yellow and white printed plastic raincoat that was breathtaking in its divergence from the norm. He showed leather heels and sandals affixed with pom-poms and bows in must-have colors like Astroturf green.

His sundresses were polka-dotted and striped. His sweaters bore dramatic back zippers and a tulle, tiered black dress reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn came with little bows daintily tied at the nape. Particularly memorable was a black skirt that had about 20 zippers racing up and down the silhouette.

Jacobs' trend-setting vision extended to his signature collection as well, where he dug into Jackie O's '60s and created sexy pink boucle suits paired with exposed bras. Jacobs used barfly terminology to describe the colors: a "strawberry margarita tweed coat," for instance, or a "whiskey cotton pant."

Bonnie Fuller, editor-in-chief of Us magazine, gushed about what she called the "office sexy" looks Jacobs showed. Fuller took a front-row seat at Marc Jacobs along with celebs like Sandra Bullock, actress-model James King and Benicio Del Toro.

"You could wear that into any boardroom," she said, "and whatever you needed to ask for, the answer would be 'Yes.'"

The other designer who generated excitement among even the most jaded of fashionistas was Zac Posen, who is just 21 but already seems a strong contender for Jacobs' designer darling status.

Posen showed at Fashion Week for the first time last season, and there's been such a buzz about him in the months since that industry observers have been looking forward to his second collection to determine whether he's got what it takes to stick around.

Among his eager fans in the front row were Natalie Portman, who wore a Posen dress to the world premiere of Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones this year.

"It's really exciting how he takes classic designs and makes them really young," said Portman, who had on a Posen pinstriped shirt and a red wool wrap skirt.

Posen's fans didn't just include the ingenues. Ellen Barkin, Kyra Sedgwick and Julianne Moore also came to scope out new looks.

"He's really a master tailor," Moore said. "He's so young and so self-assured. It's great. Good for him!"

From the first look, Posen gave clear indications that he's here to stay. His collection reflected the spirit of someone so young he cares not how the world perceives him and is possessed of a devil-may-care determination to make his mark exactly as he chooses.

He opened with a beautiful red and orange "Flicker" dress that had dramatically cut sleeves which resembled flames and continued with luscious goddess dresses and bad-girl baseball shirts. Especially memorable was the finale, a long black gown with bright gold snaps allowing the wearer to alter its length as she chooses.

Bloomingdale's Ruttenstein said Posen has sold well in his stores - about 45 percent of all his items are snapped up.

"Even established designers usually sell about 25 to 30 percent," Ruttenstein said.

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