A Pro-Choice Agenda


Wearable, shmearable. In their quest to bring fashion-phobic women back to the stores, most American designers have suggested spring styles so safe, basic and unintimidating that anyone in search of a little sartorial adventure might have to hunt far and wide. But in the week of fashion shows that ended here Friday, diversity was evident, if you knew where to look. There are designers, new and old, who operate in their own area codes, stylistically speaking. Their clothes have not been processed through some big trend blender, to emerge as homogenized mush.

Oscar de la Renta strides the line between classic and out of touch, and sometimes he slips to one side or the other. Nearly every designer has defined evening as a time when women will wear slender columns of brightly colored silk that cling to the hips and provide no harbor to any stomach that isn’t flat. Then, darned if that romantic De la Renta doesn’t trot out girlish silk taffeta ball gowns splashed with giant wallpaper florals, their full, pouffy skirts destined to conceal a multitude of sins.

Minimalism has its charms. The saying that a beautifully designed creation is diminished by enhancement takes its wisdom from nature: Don’t gild the lily. Yet De la Renta took the bold step of pinning a single jeweled bouquet of flowers on the shoulder of a pink silk suit, or at the waist of a turquoise wool dress. He held back on his trademark ruffles and flourishes, but acknowledged that real women do wear jewelry.

Bill Blass recognizes the inescapable truth that the wealthy women who wear his designs, many of whom are past the bloom of youth, appreciate flattering, pretty clothes. Like Yves Saint Laurent, Blass benefits from the everything old is new again mood in fashion; younger designers are discovering things about style Blass has already forgotten.


Pattern is not anathema to Blass. He produced nifty suits, fabricated of menswear pin-stripes and glen plaids. His idea of a great casual look was an ombre silk shirt over narrow silk pants. For evening, Blass brought out elegant black lace dresses with nude linings that were as sexy as lingerie.

Like Blass, Norma Kamali has been a fashion industry fixture for nearly three decades. Not only was her spring collection not cookie-cutter similar to the pack, but there was variety within it. She continued the exquisitely detailed ‘40s jackets and slinky matte jersey dresses that her followers depend on, and offered a group of lightweight suedes, in lime, orange, green, chamois and cobalt blue, that could have a ‘70s slant, or represent the lean ‘90s, depending on how pieces were combined.

Everything about Han Feng’s runway show was carefully planned, and a bit different. The young Chinese designer, presenting her fifth collection, banished the blaring rock that backs most shows, substituting mellow music by Phillip Glass and some esoteric cuts from the Vienna Boys Choir. She hung five panels of white gauze down the center of the runway, forcing the models to do a stately slalom around the billowing fabric. Weightless layers of silk, linen or chiffon just grazed the body, floating as if in an ever-present breeze. She draped the hem of a striped organza skirt in iris so ingeniously that the model seemed to be wearing a magnificent gift bow with her asymmetrical cropped top. Popular with artists and dancers, Feng is a highly individual designer to watch.

Anna Sui’s collection was revolutionary simply because it was more sweet than weird. Oh, there were moments--a plastic fantastic blue dress and lavender hip-huggers as snug as skin. But most of the clothes could have been designed for Gidget or Marcia Brady, all-American teen-age innocents of another era. Sui used school lunch boxes as purses to tote with her khakis, madras plaids and preppy Peter Pan-collared florals. Baby boomer fathers who see their daughters dressed in Anna Sui will experience a warm flush of nostalgia. These are the clothes the girls who stole their hearts in high school and college wore.

Sometimes the muse tells all. Drew Barrymore sat in the front row at Miu Miu, the less expensive line designed by Miuccia Prada. Who else but a cute 20-year-old given to flashing in public would wear these awkward, exhibitionistic clothes? In last summer’s “Mad Love,” Barrymore played a girl who seemed to be a wild free spirit. In fact, she was certifiable. Similarly, the Miu Miu styles could either be amusingly dorky, or just plain insane. Prada’s program notes referred to “uniforms” and “discipline,” but it seemed as if she took those concepts a bit too literally. If there really is a penal colony for fashion felons, the guards there would surely wear Miu Miu’s zippered cyber green uniforms.

An apple, some chocolate chip cookies and a carton of milk were left in small brown paper bags on each chair at the Cynthia Rowley show. The accompanying note said, “Dear Honey, Left you a little treat on the chair--save room for dinner.” Backstage after the show, Rowley said, “There isn’t enough humor in fashion. You can’t really add it to the clothes, so at least we try to make our shows fun. We stay really late at the office sometimes, and come up with names for the clothes and we laugh our heads off. Most of the time the names don’t seem so funny in the morning.”

Actress Claire Danes modeled My So-Called Knit Tube Top and Slim Skirt. The Orange Best WoMan tux was a flocked pantsuit worn with an electric red shirt; it would win any contest as the most original bridesmaid’s costume. There were Don’t Get Plaid, Get Even pants and an Evel Knievel stretch jumpsuit.

Rowley sends up that good taste-deficient decade, the ‘70s, with a straight face, as if ABBA and disco dancing were high points in our cultural history. She provides a solution for young women who have neither the time nor inclination to haunt thrift shops, but feel that they might have been Cher Bono in a previous life. Recently engaged herself, Rowley couldn’t resist giving the show a wedding theme. At the show’s end, all the models came out holding plump, gorgeous babies wrapped in Rowley diapers decorated with hearts. Maybe the moral is, she who wears Cynthia Rowley lives happily ever after. To quote the Beach Boys, “Wouldn’t it be nice?”