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Designers pull out the stops in N.Y.

| Friday, Sept. 17, 2004

Highlights of New York City's Fashion Week:

Marc Jacobs: While bow-necked sweaters in ginghams and dots had an intentional jeune prep buoyancy, the shapes anchoring the collection were ageless: a full, swishing skirt, cut in multiples and often edged in sequins; roomy trousers, rolled to mid-calf. The dresses, too, were divine, starting with a magical micro-daisy printed tent, opened -- and jeweled -- on one side over a faux petticoat.

And for those wondering what more Marc could possibly do with a "tweed" -- suffice it to say there will be a waiting list for the giant herringbones woven from colorful organza strips. For evening, he focused on Sigma Chi sweethearts with frocks of tightly packed ruffles or silk poplin flaunting giant bows.

Donna Karan: For her Donna Karan collection, the designer made one of the boldest moves of the season, one that, quite frankly, fell flat with many in her audience. Few could deny that Karan deserves kudos for taking so audacious a leap.

She, New York fashion's great doyenne of a self-created New Age modernist-artisanal hybrid, came down in favor of a dramatic, haute industrial motif. She bid at least a momentary adieu to all that back-to-nature, cross-cultural ornamentation she loves. Instead, she opted for a clean, authoritarian aesthetic, one that worked industrialist -- and a few Starship Enterprise -- influences into something well beyond cliche, as she leveraged them against ultra-feminine corsetry and draping.

And, different as it was, she kept it all within a context that was unmistakably Donna Karan.

BCBG Max Azria: After last season's slump, Max Azria returned with a spring lineup full of whimsy and charm. Fun cotton dresses in bright, cheery colors such as orange, aqua or iris were rich with details, including embroideries or zigzag hems, playing up that folksy look, and sometimes paired with little embroidered vests or jackets. His pants and shorts were relaxed and loose and looked cute when rolled at the cuffs and paired with sweet jackets and floral-printed tops.

Too bad he didn't try to translate this playful theme into evening. Instead, he reverted to his favorite flowing chiffon numbers in otherworldly hues of light blue, pink and lilac.

Betsey Johnson: Sayonara to the rock chicks of last season. In her spring show at Matsuri in the basement of the Maritime Hotel, Betsey Johnson made a few references to her Asian inspiration -- a chiffon kimono blouse here, a Chinese newspaper printed onto a slipdress there -- but the focus of her collection was really the fun looks that are her signature.

There were tons of flirty dresses and party looks, such as a teal strapless frock featuring a gold zip-front corset top and shredded taffeta bottom that would be just right for any fete, and a pretty striped taffeta blouse worn with a flounced velvet skirt that would certainly do for a hot date. There were also white denim pieces and T-shirt dresses offering a touch of street cred.

Cute as it all was, the collection could have been a bit more focused.

Ellen Tracy: It's nice to know that, in a season where loud color is dominant, a gal can always turn to Ellen Tracy for a little peace and quiet. This time, in fact, the collection was almost all white, with a sprinkling of gentle sherbet tones, such as the pale lavender and cantaloupe knits, and the light floral chiffon dresses and tops that were feminine without being too flirty.

A couple of sharp peacoats looked more than seaworthy when paired with cropped pants and belted cardigans. And for the lady boss who wants to give her power suit the day off, there was a lovely contrast-border twinset paired with a cotton jacquard pencil skirt that oozed easy sophistication.

Douglas Hannant: Hannant is an astute designer who knows his Lunching Lady clientele. Most of the time, he wisely kept a light touch with turquoise beading, trimming fresh white tweed coats and dresses with the stuff -- and even won with a swingy beaded skirt worn with a delicate cashmere tank.

However, what Hannant does best is his perennially pretty, tweedy look in the form of no-fuss tailored pieces. Although he managed to freshen up this look a bit by pairing a fitted ivory jacket with a delightfully swingy chiffon skirt, grand and brand-new statements are not his forte. Hannant is at his best when being straightforward, and some attempts at fashion-forwardness, such as a couple of fringed, suede looks, didn't work at all.

Zac Posen: Zac Posen called his collection Trinity, after the new jewelry collection of Cartier, one of his trio of sponsors. Posen started with an airy group of whites, yet another indication that tchotchked-up, head-spinning frivolity might be, if not endangered, no longer fashion's single dominant force after this season.

He opened with a sexy slouch of a suit, moving on through a lineup that swung from relaxed to hourglass to suit girls of various persuasions -- chic mariner, playful sport, all-out diva. The section enjoyed a beguiling calm, one only enhanced by the occasional poufed sleeve or strip of glittering "bullion" embellishment.

After the calm, the show exploded with dizzying optic stimuli. So what's wrong with a little chain-mail frock prepped up in argyle• Or riffs on the polo, like a zigzaggy affair stretched into a skin-tight dress• Finishing off, a trio of Elvira-goes-artsy gowns punctuated an oddly discordant black group.

Luella: A London It Girl herself, Luella Bartley makes clothes for the smartly cheeky sort of lass who likes an off-kilter brand of sexiness and is always up for a laugh. So, for spring, she mixed a mostly clean, preppy lineup of chinos and polos with clunky, yet seductive, spectator heels in various shades.

To add her trademark sense of humor to the situation, Bartley chose the apple as the motif for her collection, which she showed in a multitude of forms, such as in the jacquard texture of a blazer, printed in green on crispy cotton button-downs and tote bags and used still more subtly in the black-and-white print of flippy silk dresses.

Cynthia Rowley: Rowley abandoned the tricky silhouettes of past collections, and went instead for simple, easy sundresses and fun floral shorts with airy tops. Continuing the mood of a sun-drenched, exotic getaway, she sent out gauzy scarves, dresses and shirts in earth tones such as brown, ecru and sunflower yellow -- the color palette complementing the soft, organic quality of the collection. Stripes in bright hues added a playful twist to some dresses and tops, and she sassed things up with some electric pink and green metallic numbers. Sweet heart or floral embroideries played up the girliness for which the designer is known.

Still, Rowley couldn't resist sending out some vampy black, shimmery tops and dresses. That lapse aside, most of the collection consisted of appealing, wearable looks with just the right amount of Rowley quirkiness.

Carolina Herrera: Spring glowed with freshness and light. To that end, Herrera banned black -- and pants for that matter, save for some snappy bermudas. She kept colors clean -- aqua, red, ivory -- and let shapes flow back and forth from crisp to fluid.

She worked the jaunty side of chic in snappy sweaters over those shorts and swimsuits, smart sundresses and camp shirts dolled up in silk and wrapped at the waist. Softness emerged in flou with various artsy embroideries, and in a divine dress made from rows of frayed silk in ivory, brown and aqua.

The elegance continued into evening with an array of distinctive high-glam gowns. Romantics will love the frilled jade green silk, and sirens, the white jersey with a jeweled medallion at the hip. But for evening merriment, it's tough to top the sweeping halter gown in a witty "swimming-ladies" print -- a perfect blend of spirit and chic.

Bill Blass: In his third collection for Bill Blass, Michael Vollbracht tempered his penchant for major diva statements in favor of clothes grounded in some sort of reality, if not always one that screamed currency. While the pantsuits and some coats seemed suited -- and attractively so -- to Old Guard Ladies alone, other looks, especially some lovely dresses and gowns, could make inroads beyond the house's dwindling core customer.

Cynthia Steffe: The designer effortlessly captured the essence of desert living with a lineup of sprightly floral halter frocks in breezy cotton or beaded chiffon, along with cool army jackets certain to captivate hippie chicks. The looks came in smart earth tones with splashes of vivid orange, yellow and magenta, while the models wore their hair in little braids, a style which harkened back to the innocence of the '60s and early '70s.

The collection overall was a beautiful mix of relaxed and sophisticated looks, as illustrated by the clean-cut jackets and skirts that went well with the Indian-style, crystal-encrusted tops.

Heatherette: Although the show was only their seventh, designers Traver Rains and Richie Rich appear to be going strong. Under the theme of Heatherette High, the designers managed to mix in fun and wearability with their trademark sense of humor and camp. Pretty printed and fringed frocks were interspersed with deconstructed punk rockers and sexy bad girls -- one of whom sported a stand-out look of a sequined bolero, a silk button-down and sequined tie worn over a pair of skinny black jeans.

Lacoste: The alligator is getting fashion-fierce. The firm's designer, Christophe Lemaire, showed great skill at retaining the essence of a brand while still moving forward. The clothes were fun, relaxed and rarely gimmicky. Cases in point: the wine-edged, ivory cable-knit pullover with short kimono sleeves and a long, airy white cotton kurta over pants. The iconic alligator also looked right at home on a cool white cotton blazer worn over one of the designer's striped sundresses and on a brightly trimmed black sweatshirt and bikini bottom.

Jeffrey Chow: Chow managed to hit the fresh-take-on-luxury nail on the head more often than not. The first look out of the gate -- a bolero of sequins crafted from recycled soda cans worn with a pintucked cotton top and red-and-white, paisley-patterned damask shorts -- was a standout, quickly establishing the right balance of nouveau and old-school blue blood. He lightened up some of his signature vintage-inspired shapes with unexpected fabrics, as with a high-waisted coat cut in a delightful pale coral cotton tweed.

Elsewhere, his liberal use of loosely woven raw silk in rich shades of coral, turquoise and a creamy ivory, along with the African-inspired embroidery, had the same effect.

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