Marc Jacobs

Marc Jacobs (Kirk McKoy, Los Angeles Times / September 8, 2008)

RETAIL sales are in a slump, we're in a historic mortgage and credit crisis, and the eyes of the world are riveted on our heated presidential race, not our runways. In other words, American designers who showed here last week, hoping that in a few months women will open their wallets for a new $1,000 frock, had their work cut out for them.

Which is why Marc Jacobs' show was so brilliant. He didn't just show us clothes, he showed us a way to dress, acknowledging that in hard times, style comes before fashion. What puts Jacobs in a league of his own is his power to influence not only every level of the apparel market, but all of us, and how we style clothes bought at a vintage store or on an exotic trip, even things we already have in our closet.

Like the music he chose, Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," Jacobs' collection was a melting pot of influences, combining classical draping with the rhythms of the street; the finest foiled florals with the plaids of a work shirt; a sculpted, couture-like jacket with a shiny scrap of fabric that could have been picked up at a flea market, wrapped around the waist, obi-style. Come spring, these simple belts could be the biggest trend since Nicolas Ghesquière's ethnic scarves at Balenciaga. And anybody can wear them.

In the midst of an election that is shining a light on what it means to be a woman in America, Jacobs embraced the experience, then put it in a blender. Calf-grazing, foiled, floral and striped skirts and straw boaters brought to mind suffragists, while plaid shirts and kerchiefs spoke to frontier sisters, and kimono jackets suggested the immigrant experience.

There were Jacobs' beloved eccentrics (the Edie Beales of the world) in funky glasses, sculptural necklaces and side-swept, multilayered, multi-print skirts, and sexual provocateurs in sheer, peekaboo blouses and platform espadrilles that laced up the leg. There were goddesses in draped, micro-striped gowns and chain belts, the last remnants of their servitude, and political pit bulls in tidy pinstripe jackets with razor-sharp shoulders and matching skinny shorts.

The joy was in the mix of eclectic styles, eras, cultures, textures and prints. It was an invitation for women to be creative with their wardrobes, even if they don't buy anything new (though I'm sure Jacobs would prefer that they did). And one couldn't help but leave the show feeling that this difficult season is only a temporary blip in a more powerful continuum.

For other designers, the message for spring was much simpler: body-conscious sportswear, the American answer to the more streamlined looks coming out of Europe for fall.

At Michael Kors, graphic style was writ large in nautical stripes and picnic checks. His Pop Art princesses could have stepped out of a Roy Lichtenstein painting in their shiny sun visors the size of hubcaps, blocky platform patent-leather sandals and polka-dot bikinis. There were athletic-looking, color-blocked neoprene shift dresses, as well as 1950s circle skirts, one in black-and-white gingham worn with a clever anorak-turned-crisp white shirt.

These were salable, feel-good clothes, brimming with optimism -- a blue-dotted, short-sleeve dress scooped out at the sides to show off a tanned and toned stomach, a yellow trapeze coat flapping in the breeze like a sail, a color guard of gowns -- black, followed by blue, followed by red, decorated with nothing more than a few well-placed zippers.

Oscar de la Renta took a more graphic turn too. He began with a belted, color-blocked one-piece swimsuit in oyster and navy, picking up the theme again toward the end with a white evening gown with black harlequin embroidery. Throughout, he kept the focus on the body, defining the waist with corset belts worn over a beige and black kaleidoscope print shirtdress, or a crisp white shirt and a tie-dyed full skirt. Somehow it all seemed a little too sweet, a little too dull.

Narciso Rodriguez added a sexy edge to his architectural style with black-and-white bondage motifs that brought to mind graphic novels. And it was exciting to see him enter new territory. Skirts were "bandaged" in black-and-white stripes that amplified the curves. Threads of black embroidery "unspooled" around a white silk chiffon cocktail dress, playing a cat-and-mouse game with the eye. Other dresses had crisscrossing straps and cutouts offering sensual glimpses of skin, the best one binding the torso in black, with a pale-pink skirt. And if you looked closely at the print on one of those cross-front dresses, those were throwing stars. You go, girl!

Dark and menacing

THEN there were those with a decidedly harsher view. Proenza Schouler's Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez showed tough-girl clothes with an '80s bent. White cotton shirts and jackets with enormous dolman sleeves that flattened into papery edges made the models look larger than life. Add to that sexy, black-leather, high-waist pants and a black-leather bra top, and it's easy to imagine a biker girl streaking across a barren "Mad Max" landscape in round, mirrored sunglasses. There were jumpsuits for these warrior women too, the most menacing one covered in black beads, with a leather harness in the back and striking cutouts over the ribs in front. Clearly, they got carried away.

At Rodarte, Kate and Laura Mulleavy's vision was even more apocalyptic. Their models were automatons in nude, pleated schoolgirl skirts and weblike leather leggings, stepping in torturous-looking stilettos through the rubble of a crumbling wall. Those spidery knits from last season are even more threadbare this time, a mélange of leather, chains and thread that looked to be disintegrating on the body. The draped gowns were back too, with rivulets of silk tulle painted bright orange, blue and purple, like free-floating graffiti.

For all of fashion's fantasy, there has to be some reality, and the Mulleavy sisters proposed a handful of wearable leather biker jackets and shiny cigarette pants, skeletal-looking tops and destroyed knits. These clothes were an expression of social anxiety, a real fashion horror story. But not the way a woman would dress to survive and fight another day.

booth.moore@latimes.com