Weird Science : Those Lab-Concocted Fabrics of the Past Become Runway Cool in Variations From Sleazy to Elegant


A T-shirt, a jeans jacket, a miniskirt. Shorts, a sweater, a dress, hip-hugging pants. Fashion doesn’t have to be complicated, according to designers previewing their spring/summer collections here this week. In the early rounds of more than 50 runway shows being presented in two giant tents in Bryant Park, they distilled a woman’s wardrobe into basic sportswear elements that have long been the apotheosis of American style.

It’s in the variations on those essentials that the fashion game gets, if not complex, then at least interesting. Because the choices being offered line up at the opposing poles of good and bad taste, where trashy or proper looks are up for grabs and mildly color-washed clothes vie for attention more likely to go to intensely color-saturated ones.

The gap between clothes that look deliberately cheesy and those that strive for a rich elegance defines the most pronounced dichotomy of the season. Donnatella Versace’s Versus collection, shown for the first time in New York, embraced tackiness with the gusto of a tough chick popping gum in the principal’s face. The line is priced lower than her brother Gianni Versace’s exuberantly erotic couture or ready-to-wear, and it obviously aims at a younger customer--a club crawler ready to spend a chunk of change to look cheap.

A standard shirt turned obnoxious in screamy pistachio. A leather jacket, possessing all the appeal of non-pliant Naugahyde, achieved heights of hideousness in magenta. Acid tartan leggings were paired with snug tops in test-pattern stripes, as if any tamer combination would be reserved for wimps. Think a zebra-patterned slip dress worn with bright blue tights and fluorescent shoes is a challenge? Try it in shocking pink.


Thanks to a change in the perception of what properties are desirable in the fabrics we wear, formerly reviled synthetics have redeemed themselves as slickly as a crooked politician suddenly born again. When polyester and its chemical cousins were first brought on the market, the reaction was ewww, yuck. This stuff is shiny, sticky, too clingy. Now, the reaction is, oooh! It’s shiny, sticky, clingy. Cool! The road to sleaze is paved with materials concocted in a laboratory.

Donna Karan also traveled that road with her DKNY collection. In its infancy, DKNY made outfits for women who aspired to wear the Donna Karan collection but couldn’t afford to. Now into a brash adolescence, DKNY offers many magnificently simple pieces. But a lot of them display so much of the body that they might be considered clothes for the child within any woman who longs to hear her father say, “You’re going out in that ?”

The offending costume might be a caustic orange cardigan fastened only with a tiny hook, baring the midriff and belly above a tight tube skirt. Karan has a genius for systems dressing, and her concept this time is based on the tube. A spiral of fabric can be a dress; a short, medium or long skirt; even a skinny pair of pants.

To illustrate the point, she opened her show with models wearing only tubes of black, their bare chests covered by their crossed arms. The tubes were stretched out to ankle-length or scrunched up into minis. Then the possible additions emerged--a sheer dress over a tube skirt, a slender shirt in place of a jacket, a sleeveless tunic of pale leather.

There is great versatility within the collection. The paradox is that the trendiest looks in lines such as DKNY and Versus should be worn by only the young, and only the middle-aged can afford them.

Several of the themes that appeared in a number of designers’ collections were synthesized by Marc Jacobs, who was one of the first kids on the block to revive Mod and ‘70s flash. There were nerdy plaids shaped into long, languid dresses, narrow flat-front pants and little short-sleeved blouses worn carelessly unbuttoned and untucked; they had the innocent charm of a child’s shrunken pajama top.

Victor Alfaro and Mark Eisen were among the designers bringing fresh twists to clean, spare shapes. Eisen’s midriff-baring vests and shorts with skirt-like fronts in icy pales were simple without being simple-minded. Alfaro mixed long cutoffs shaped like loose bicycle shorts in with his low-riding pants and A-line skirts, then brought out Shantung gowns in bold pretty colors that had the self-assurance of a well-brought-up young woman poised beyond her years.

But if it’s evening clothes you’re after, Todd Oldham’s your man. Never a designer for the timid, Oldham didn’t forsake some stinky synthetics or jazzed-up takes on flea-market finds. He did crocheted and flame-stitched knits, sometimes mixed with stripes, and gleefully forced unrelated stripes into sharing the turf on a single, nearly naked dress. He worked multicolored silks into braids of ribbons and fashioned sparkling patchwork prints and sequined florals run amok into body-conscious, spaghetti-strapped creations.

Transparent sequin-sprinkled blouses in colors of silk upholstery fringe weren’t the high point of this ebullient show, in which the models’ hair was teased into goofy beehives that would have been the pride of any circa 1963 trailer park. In a season of clothes that emphasize transparency and bareness, Oldham’s revealing black dresses with embroidered net inserts were among the sexiest.

* Next: Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Anne Klein, Richard Tyler and Isaac Mizrahi.