NEW YORK - Designer Zac Posen flits from rack to rack, pulling out corseted dresses, woolen pants and silk blouses from his Fall 2003 collection, imploring guests to stroke this fabric, to study that carefully crafted seam.
The aim, he says, is to dress "women of all ages." It's an intriguing emphasis for the 22-year-old wunderkind who became the toast of the New York fashion scene last fall with a collection made almost entirely of beautifully tailored cocktail dresses and Greek goddess gowns.
Man, however, cannot live on evening gowns alone - especially in this harsh economy. And at the New York fashion shows, which ended Friday, Posen was among several designers who presented collections that were a mish-mash of looks - day and evening, sporty and elegant. All seemed calculatedly conceived to appeal to a larger variety of women and, in the process, seal their images as all-purpose designers.
Posen's collection, presented at the Four Seasons restaurant, was especially memorable for impeccably tailored plaid suits spiced up with gold appliques and pleated ruffles. He also showed a cute series of silk cocktail dresses and blouses bearing map imprints and a breath-taking sparkly raincoat made of a new fabric by jewelry designer Swarovski that was dotted with tiny crystals.
Earlier in the week, Oscar de la Renta showed his usual ornate dresses - a black velvet gown trimmed with sable and beautiful cocktail numbers in rich, brown, gold and red brocades. But just as noteworthy in his collection was a series of cozy cashmere capes, knit caps and sweaters destined to be must-haves for winter log cabin getaways.
Ralph Lauren's collection was a little confusing with its jumble of looks - some models resembled Savile Row-suited heiresses while others, with their messenger bags, baggy coats and pageboy caps, were modern-day Oliver Twist waifs. However, each ensemble shared one commonality - exquisite elegance. Motorbike jackets in glorious antiqued leathers were paired with ruched, velvet ballskirts, and scrumptious tweeds came in lovely chocolate browns and sun-kissed olive greens.
Collections with mixed messages didn't always work well, however. Anna Sui showed 58 looks, many of which featured several layers of clothing that made it impossible to focus on the individual pieces. As the models strode down the runway - sometimes, faster than a stampeding photographer at a fashion show - it was a true feat to figure out whether to look at the zig-zag cardigan, patchwork wool skirt or the multicolored faux fur coat.
Designers Carolina Herrera and Carmen Marc Valvo succeeded by delivering simple and clear visions. Herrera drew inspiration from the well-heeled heroines of Alfred Hitchcock, presenting pencil-thin silhouettes, trenchcoats with upturned collars and pinstriped and houndstooth skirts with dainty, red velvet ribbons circling the waist. Valvo paid similar attention to the waist, adding belts that resembled the obi sashes on kimonos to high-waisted wool pants, jersey halter tops and heavenly ballgowns. Especially stunning in his collection were silk mousseline dresses inset with beaded black lace and silk lame gowns that had such delicate pleating it seemed like rays of sun raced up and down the bodice.
Hovering over the glamour of last week's fashion shows, however, was the grim specter of reality. There had been signs all week that the world was not quite normal - there were hushed debates in the Bryant Park tent over missiles and war, the occasional pang of fear of another terrorist attack and a marked lack of celebrities in the front rows. It was telling that the biggest celebrity at the often star-studded Tommy Hilfiger show was Joe Millionaire's Evan Marriott.
By Thursday, paranoia was beginning to set in. One fashion show attendee flashed her accessory of the week - a box of anti-radiation, potassium iodide pills. Some raided the Evian fridges in the tent for small bottles of water - just in case. It seemed comforting, then, that Fashion Week ended Friday as it usually does, with staunch New Yorkers Donna Karan and Calvin Klein.
Karan showed a mostly black and white collection that she said was an "ode to the enduring style of Manhattan." And Klein leaned on his customary minimalism and penchant for a dark palette.
Sitting and watching Klein's models trotting out in simple wool coats, slender flannel pants and sweet dresses with short pleated skirts, with the photographers' flashes occasionally erupting, it was somewhat reassuring. For just a moment, it felt like a regular fashion show at any normal fashion week.
Here's who we spotted at Fashion Week:
Super-hot model Tyson Beckford all-too-briefly unzipping his jeans and flashing his boxers at the launch party for the Victoria's Secret book, Sexy.
Stephanie March, who plays a steely assistant district attorney on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, cooing over Badgley Mischka's sequined gowns from the front row. Alas, it's not likely she'll don one on the NBC drama. "If I could wear anything but a suit on the show I would be so happy," said March, wearing Juicy Couture jeans and a black lace Badgley Mischka blouse. "The shock would probably kill me."
Renee Zellweger at Calvin Klein possibly shopping for Oscar night? The (very petite) Zellweger looked eager to chat with press, but Klein public relations people aggressively swatted reporters away
Goose-pimpled models from the Ralph Lauren show braving 20-degree temperatures (sans mink-trimmed coats!) to stand on the sidewalk and speak out against war. About 10 models - including the season's hottest walkers Carmen Kass and Natalia Vodianova - wore self-made white T-shirts bearing messages like "No war."