Spring in Their Step

Helmut Lang would have had a lot to answer for if his spring collection had been a dud. It was Lang who decided this summer that he would show his spring '99 collection before the Europeans spring theirs, causing more sound and fury than a flock of fashionistas at a Prada sale. With Lang in the lead, New York became a city torn: On this side, the megaweights (Calvin, Donna, Helmut among them) panting to show before the London-Milan-Paris ready-to-wear circuit; on the other side, the megaweights (Ralph, Oscar, Isaac) who opted to hold out until November.

Fortunately for Lang, at least, he proved he was fit to lead the pack with a collection that was long on style and spark. Meanwhile, Calvin Klein, hoping an early collection would temper those all-too-familiar copy-catting charges, showed a collection that mixed Classic Calvin with Colorful Calvin, while Donna Karan launched both her signature and secondary lines during the week.

Helmut Lang

Helmut's Here: For several seasons now, more than a few designers have followed as the Austrian-born, New York-based Lang touted pleated skirts, cargo pants and V-neck shirts. This year, a sizable chunk of 7th Avenue's best even followed as Lang brazenly pushed to the front of the London-Milan-Paris-New York fashion circuit. And it's unlikely they're done following. For spring, Haute Helmut offered up his signature shapes--lean coats, pants and skirts done in everything from fuzzy wools to crinkled cottons. Far more adventurous, though, were Harlequin Helmut's sheer tank dresses and tank shirts. Pleated, wrapped origami-style or trailing floaty tendrils from hem or sleeve, the tulle dresses were paired with the simplest white T-shirts, at once daring and darling.

Think Pink: Lang didn't just tweak convention; he upended it. Forget urban shades of cement, steel and granite. Lang's tulle dresses screamed pink--from barely-there blush to searing hot pink; even his black pantsuits were finished with hot-pink hose.

Hyperbolic Helmut: Just when you thought you'd seen the last of overage, overweight tourists sporting fanny packs, Lang revived the pouch--this time, a flat belly pack slung across hip-hugging pants. It wasn't the only Lang look that only the most fashion-addicted might buy. What to make of Lang's knee pads, some of them tied onto rail-thin biceps, others seamed into slim pant legs, all of them a bit over the top in this age of Monica Lewinsky.

Calvin Klein

A Calvin Is a Calvin Is a Calvin: Nothing rattles Calvin Klein more than accusations that he built his reputation on a pad of tracing paper and a stack of Vogues. This, after all, is the designer who made a mint stitching his name onto women's undies, the guy who's had more hit perfumes than any designer in the world, the boy from the Bronx who's shaped not just American fashion but the very images of late 20th century America. So why is Calvin so darned insecure? He isn't saying, but in his not-so-secret zeal to show his New York collection at the fore of the international ready-to-wear pack, he's left little doubt that he won't rest until he shakes the tag of le copiest.

Cool Hand Cal: Thankfully, in trying to prove his point, Klein resisted the urge to stake out some starkly un-Calvin territory. (Anyone remember the long-ago season he turned into Calvin Saint Laurent?) At his best, Calvin is simply Calvin, with long, lean jackets and pants; wrap skirts that sit away from the body and unstructured dresses, all of them in earth tones like parchment, mineral and fatigue (cream, gray and khaki to the un-Calvinized). Ornamentation--such as it is in the House of Klein--ranges from an asymmetric zipper slashing north from the hem of a skirt to a gentle origami-style fold and twist of fabric around the waist.

Calvin the Colorful: Calvin Klein is a man who contemplates beige. So, in the most un-Calvin of moves, his spring collection went out in a blaze of color--dresses and skirts in dazzling shades from fiery red to cool cerulean blue. Among the most dazzling: a deep green tank dress lined in blinding green satin and a strapless red-and-lime color-blocked dress with a soft panel draping off the back. Not quite Calvin were the orangey-red and the golden yellow pantsuits that looked like Calvin was trying a bit too hard to be Ellen Tracy.

Vivienne Tam

Vivienne's Island: Tam's head was clearly in the tropics for this collection, which she says was inspired by the colors and patterns of places like Bali, St. Bart's, Hawaii and Hong Kong--all of them a long way from her SoHo store where the fashion flock gathered to bring down the curtain on this early edition of the spring shows. These were clothes clearly destined for a beach somewhere, from the opening group of all-white dresses, shorts and skirts, all done in gossamer fabrics like mesh, crochet or organza, to the bolder blues, greens and corals taken from the sea and its surroundings.

Paradise Found: Brilliant florals--computer-printed dahlias, hand-painted orchids, sequined poppies--came on everything from the shortest of shorts to simple little dresses to long, flowy skirts. Florals not your thing? There was a print or pattern for everyone, from a subtle hibiscus or palm to a brazen grasshopper. And for those meditative moments, Tam offered up a couple of numbers embellished with an oversized Buddha.

Paradise Lost: In an experimental frame of mind, Tam played around with a new fabric innovation, coated paper, which was used in everything from pants and shorts to full-length dresses and coats.

Jussara

Balancing Act: "A sense of balance" is how Jussara Lee describes her ambitious (64-outfit) spring collection. The clothes were fun and serious--a fabulous gray pinstripe apron dress had pleats in the back, zigzag knit Missoni-esque dresses were done in sherbet colors, a raglan-sleeved beige cardigan atop a sparkly blouse and jeans.

The Empire Strikes Back: A load of feminine empire dresses, including one in a Liberty print, another in red silk chiffon and a blue knitted number, were fresh-looking.

Peasant Bred: The peasant-themed look was well-represented. There were shoulder bibs, apron dresses and peasant tops and dresses. Overall, the designer managed to avoid that "yodel" cliche with the exception of some of the embroidered pieces with oversized flowers.

Donna Karan

Black-Tie Beach Party: To liberate women from the tortures of dress-up and still allow them to look like angels and feel beautiful is no small feat, but somehow, in her spring '99 collection presented in her narrow black showroom, Donna Karan proved she was up to the job. Healthily bronzed models wore fragile, impossibly beautiful colors--nude (the palest peach), sage, sky and petal. There were the softest, fine oversized T-shirts paired with full, graceful taffeta skirts.

A luxe white cashmere / silk hand-knit shrug sweater shown with a low-slung, shirred-waist silk skirt was positively exotic. The dreamy strapless rose evening gown was even kind enough to have pockets.

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