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In the end, designers show how good they are at being bad

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK - She's the type of girl with a penchant for bombshell red lipstick and skirts so short they tease the world with flashes of her behind.

She favors dresses that encase her heaving bosom in striking satin cups and never wakes up before noon, when she languorously slips into a silk kimono and reaches for her first martini and cigarette.

And she will steal your boyfriend.

Just before the Spring 2003 Fashion Week ended Monday, a decidedly different woman emerged on the runways from the ruffles- and pastel-loving girls of the earlier shows. This woman pouted for the cameras in plunging halter tops, hot pants the size of bandeau tops, and outfits cut, ripped or slashed to bare flesh, flesh, flesh.

The bad girls of spring finally had come out to play.

"You have to have attitude," said Patricia Field, the Sex and the City stylist whose line of clothing, House of Field, seemed devoted to the bad girl. "Otherwise, you're going to get run over."

David Dalrymple, who designs Field's line, trotted out models in fringed kimonos and slashed mini-dresses in thematically incongruous Popsicle hues such as lemon yellow, baby blue and sherbet pink. Their skirts and shorts were paired with exposed thongs and, at times, thigh-high boots. They wore bodysuits and teeny dresses bearing beaded tiger faces on their bottoms and stretchy Tupac Shakur shirts converted into bikinis.

To further his sexpot theme, Dalrymple - a popular choice for stars seeking music video togs - even got hip-hop bad girl Eve and "Lady Marmalade" alum Mya to walk his runway. With her hair teased up high, Mya strutted her stuff in a bright green and yellow bodysuit with a matching miniskirt cut so low her hips were exposed. Eve closed the show wearing a big blond wig and a one-shoulder gown in stretchy black lace.

The tiger motif proved popular with Kimora Lee Simmons as well. At her Baby Phat show - which drew both hip-hop and just plain hip glitterati from Wyclef Jean and Baltimore R&B; sensation Mario to Vanessa Williams and Tyra Banks - Lee showed jumpsuits, jackets and halter tops with sequined tiger patterns. Even the elegant Carolina Herrera dabbled in the tiger theme and showed a glorious, strapless evening gown accented with beaded stripes.

Anna Sui's bad girls were of the sporty set. They wore mesh football jerseys dotted with sequins, tiny running shorts with knee-high socks and baby-doll dresses featuring Astro Turf-green appliqued golf holes. To - almost literally - drive home her point, Sui had Naomi Campbell carry a red golf club as she sauntered down the runway in a short white dress, golf visor and high boots.

No one managed to present spring's bad girl as memorably as Donna Karan, however. Karan shrugged off last season's black-dominated solemnity and unveiled a line of dresses, coats and suits that were both well-tailored and seductive.

"These clothes pay homage to women who make America strong," Karan said in her program, "women who dress with passion and live in their own inimitable style."

And what style Karan displayed. She showed a beautiful black wrap dress with a deep neckline, a wide sash that wrapped around the waist and delicate piping that added striking lines to the outfit. She paired a slender wool-and-jersey belted jacket with a jacquard swirl skirt. A dramatic black lining peeked out as the model twirled about.

It was, however, Karan's siren vision that was most spectacular. To the strains of Peggy Lee's "Fever," models appeared in sizzling satin and stretched tulle dresses with flouncy skirts and sweetheart necklines that framed their creamy bosoms. Their halter tops were tied at the neck with fat, satin ribbons that formed large, soft bows at the nape. And the tops came in oyster, red, black and pale blue, some with big polka dots that at once conveyed sweetness as well as bodaciousness and excess.

It wasn't just the vamp looks that were crowd-pleasers.

Carmen Marc Valvo's collection sparkled with sexy cocktail dresses and beautiful pieces such as a black leather trench coat lined with lace, and with ruffles at the hem. Narciso Rodriguez showed a breathtaking collection of slim silhouettes - tailored Capri pants, dresses and gowns that are cut so well they'll make any woman walk taller and more confidently.

And Vera Wang, who hasn't staged a runway show in a few seasons, returned to Fashion Week with panache. Drawing Holly Hunter and Oprah Winfrey to her front row, Wang shared a delectable vision for spring that included hand-pleated, ruffled or waffle-weave chiffon and organza skirts and gowns with wonderful details that set them apart. A dinner suit was spiced up with a macrame sash, and a floral chiffon gown had delicately ruffled epaulettes that fluttered as the model walked.

The most exceptional show of the week, however, was staged by Ralph Lauren.

"This is a time for a new glamour," he said in his program. "It's about breaking the rules and putting together the unexpected. Spring has a romantic feminine feeling balanced by an eccentric tattered edge."

Lauren went to great lengths to create the atmosphere to complement his vision. His show took place on Saturday evening at a cozy, ivory tent in the garden of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in Manhattan's tony Upper East Side. To get to the tent, guests walked down stone steps lighted by flickering ivory candles. Waiters circled the garden bearing trays of champagne, lobster and truffle tarts and foie gras hors d'oeuvres. The tent resembled a warm, ivory haven prepared for a midnight wedding - the ceiling was draped with muslin, crystal chandeliers sparkled and big, cushioned couches lined both sides of the runway.

And his clothes were as impressive. Lauren drew from old-time grandeur for most of his collection, showing jackets, vests and pants in tea-rose, cream, and light blue with touches of faded gold. They bore striped and floral patterns reminiscent of wallpaper found in centuries-old French and English parlors. Tiny details gave Lauren's offerings modern twists. A pair of pants with an antique floral print was done in leather, and a cream floral beaded top was paired with a dramatic denim ball skirt that came with a zippered jean waist.

If Lauren was designing for socialites, John Bartlett appeared to be dressing their fantasy pool boys.

Bartlett's collection was inspired by California's surfer dudes, and included white T-shirts cut off close to the collar paired with red swim trunks so low-slung that his tanned models didn't have to bend over to flaunt their derriere cleavage. They wore comfy fleece jerseys and shorts in fuchsia, orange and pale blue, and crisp linen blazers and cool, spring tuxedo pants that came in khaki.

For his finale, he sent out two Heath Ledger clones with sun-bleached, wavy hair, radiant eyes and dazzling smiles. As they jauntily strode down the runway, it became clear that beneath the large bamboo surfboards they carried, they wore nothing.

The moment conveyed an intriguing Fashion Week closing thought - sometimes, clothes are way overrated.

Key looks for Spring 2003

Cargo, cargo, cargo: Silk, satin, suede and seersucker -- whatever fabric you can think of, you'll see cargo pants and skirts in it this spring.

The short, flouncy skirt: Spring's tiny skirts have ruffles and pleats and sometimes hike up as high as Serena Williams' tennis skirts.

Lingerie looks: Racy lingerie style will be ubiquitous this spring. Wear a sexy slip that's longer than your sundress or pick a frock that has lace appliques to make it look as though you stepped out in your peignoir.

Ribbons and fluttery sashes: Grosgrain ribbons are everywhere this spring, cinching dress shirts and tank tops at the waist or sewn onto sundresses in criss-cross patterns. Sashes are dominant, too -- the key is to tie it so it gently flutters in your wake.

Macrame and crochet: Chunky macrame or crochet detailing, appliques or sashes will add a complex texture to tank tops, blouses and evening gowns.

Culottes: Designers from sporty Tommy Hilfiger to Lars Nilsson for glam Bill Blass showed well-tailored, slender shorts that fell just above the knee. Blass even offered a series of sleek culotte suits.

Navy blue: This color is a clear favorite for many designers this spring. Some of Michael Kors' more memorable pieces came in navy blue with sharp white piping. Other popular spring hues on the runways were lemon yellow, lime green, fuchsia and pale pink.

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