SHE'S GOT LEGS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK -- Fashion Week typically involves days of models trotting up and down runways, flaunting slender shoulders, tight behinds and well-toned midriffs.

In the Fall 2003 shows so far, however, the star of many collections has been legs, legs, legs.

Sure, these collections are supposed to feature ensembles designed for cooler weather, but instead, there are teeny Twiggy dresses, sequined shorts, knickers chopped off at the knee and peek-a-boo minis galore.

If you presumed you could stop hitting the gym to tone your legs once September rolled around, think again. With these fall looks, the most enticing parts of the body will be the taut calf, the slender knee and the tantalizing thigh.

Kenneth Cole kicked off Fashion Week Friday with a trip to the '60s, a theme that has inspired several designers this season. He showed darling tiny skirts and minishifts in various combinations of gray, white, green, marigold and black that were reminiscent of Mary Quant and the swinging '60s London scene. And Nicole Miller unveiled darling thigh-high, pleated suede skirts, while Diane von Furstenberg drew inspiration from the enigmatic women of James Bond movies and showed sexy-secretary pin-striped wrap dresses that ended above the knee.

"I think we are really loving the fun of the Courreges moment again," said celebrity stylist Phillip Bloch, referring to 1960s designer Andre Courreges, widely thought of as the father of the mini. "I'm feeling a lot of that pop '60s -- not the freaky '60s or the hippie '60s. It's very jet-set."

The leg-baring ensembles weren't limited to skirts. Especially memorable during the Heatherette show was a pair of styling hot pink knickers. Lloyd Klein showed pantalons in rich velvets, corduroys and satins that were cuffed just below the knee. And Turkish designer Atil Kutoglu's models strode out in gold and poppy hot pants that peeked out from under long open caftans.

Feeling cold? Cole finished sleeveless dresses with snazzy, high silver boots that made whites look extra crisp and sparkly. And designers like Klein and Miller paired micro minis with tall boots and thigh-high hose.

In menswear, designers seemed greatly affected by recent talk of impending war. At the Cloak show, army peacoats and bomber jackets in navy blues and fatigue greens were ubiquitous. And John Varvatos -- who invited fashionistas to a Chelsea space where comfy old couches lined the runways instead of the customary stiff, folding chairs -- showed beautiful items like a two-buttoned wool suit in a glorious merlot hue. But he also trotted out warm military parkas and woolen officer's jackets that were cut to perfection.

Fashion observers noted that the military trend, which waned after Sept. 11 made the style statement a tad too literal, probably is going to stick around for a while.

"I went to the Yigal Azrouel store opening" last week, said Tom Julian, a New York-based fashion trend analyst for Fallon Worldwide. "There were all these military jackets on attendees."

"The military is so in the news," added Bloch, whose clients have included actresses Halle Berry and Salma Hayek. "Designers are influenced by what's happening around them, whether they realize it or not."

The most memorable shows so far, however, involved designers who broke away from the pack to deliver strong statements. Liz Collins, for example, created tan and red "X-ray" sweaters featuring playful rib cage patterns and sewed tiny sock monkeys together to form a long belt that trailed behind the model. Stuffed monkeys were big in her show -- she also stitched a bunch together to form an adorable "sock monkey stole."

Bridal designer Reem Acra, who made her official eveningwear debut Sunday at the opening of her Madison Avenue store, dipped into the 1920s to wow fashionistas. She transformed her store into a collection of dioramas featuring seductive coquettes lounging in tiny parlors as they casually read magazines from the 1920s, played cards and painted each other's nails.

Despite the distraction, there was no ignoring the true point of the presentation, however -- a breathtaking collection of gowns and hand-embroidered kimonos destined to dazzle on the red carpet. A spaghetti-strapped pink charmeuse slip gown was spiced up with burgundy velvet flowers embroidered on the bodice. And a gold, embroidered brocade bustier was paired with a gold long skirt with flecks of burgundy and turquoise that was dripping with shimmery beads.

Sean "P. Diddy" Combs made an even bigger splash -- but for reasons beyond the clothes. Combs, who usually shows only the fall collection of his Sean John line, rented the tony Manhattan restaurant Cipriani for his Saturday show. As usual, his invites were the talk of the town. They included large, long-sleeved T-shirts that said "Hard, Sexy & Beautiful" and cost an estimated $75 each.

But the show, which drew singers Mary J. Blige, Macy Gray, designer Zac Posen and a Chanel ear-muffed Kelly Osbourne, lived up to the hype. Combs paired a cashmere, thermal underwear jumpsuit with distressed shearling chaps and showed ribbed, puffy ski pants and a hammered silk cargo jumpsuit. There were his customary sleek suits, but with brilliant small touches. A black silk suit, for example, came with shiny blue stripes that glistened in the lights.

"A lot of my shows when I look back ... it was such a wide variation of looks," Combs said backstage after his show. "I wanted to show a tighter collection this time and be committed from beginning to end to the statement I was trying to make, which is a strong, hard, sexy, beautiful look with a sleek modern-type vibe. It felt a little more realistic."

And he found many fans in the audience, including Kelly Ripa. The chipper TV personality took in the show from the front row with husband Mark Consuelos and declared that she'd love to see him in "all of it." The very pregnant -- she's due in two weeks -- Ripa also gushed that she was glad she'd checked out the show because she had a wonderful time.

"Did you see? Anna Wintour was smiling," Ripa said. "Like, I hear that never happens!"

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