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From divas to drivers of race cars

Times Staff Writer

An hour before the first runway show for her Sweetface label, Jennifer Lopez was backstage in a fuzzy pink bathrobe and mile-high heels, having makeup applied to her ankles. Asked for a buzzword to describe her fall collection, she turned her head, searching the air for the answer: “It’s very ‘baby,’ ” she said with a manicured flourish. “Like baby from the street. Get it?”

Then she was off. The model Carmen Kass had arrived and La Lopez was needed to consult on accessorizing her first look, a red velvet top with more than a passing resemblance to a milkmaid outfit, and tiny jean shorts. Playing up her “expanded role” with the line, the pop star took a seat on a director’s chair to contemplate a floppy hat and a baseball cap. She decided on the latter before turning her attention to the placement of two rhinestone angel wing pins on said cap.

Meanwhile, on another runway in Bryant Park, Ralph Rucci, the only American designer to have been invited to participate in the Paris couture shows since Mainbocher in the ‘30s, was presenting his ready-to-wear collection. Rucci’s label is named Chado, after the ritualistic Japanese tea ceremony, and his clothes often incorporate design elements to highlight the sacred chakras of the body.

If Lopez is the designing diva, then Rucci is the Zen master, and the cosmic pairing of their shows at the end of Fashion Week here on Friday underscored the schizophrenic state of American fashion today, as more celebrities enter the market and threaten to steal the spotlight from established design talents. In June, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs won the top menswear award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America and he will likely show his first women’s wear line to much fanfare here next season, while Beyonce Knowles has expressed interest in a runway debut for her new House of Dereon label.

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At the same time, the fashion industry is confronting the reality that most new American designers are burning out because of competition from mega-brands (celebrity and otherwise) before the public has a chance to even learn their names.

Of course, everyone knows Lopez’s name. Her first runway outing, titled “The JLO Show,” was a super-hyped extravaganza in three acts loosely corresponding to phases of her life, with accompanying lights and music. Bernadette Peters, L’il Kim, Foxy Brown and music mogul Russell Simmons were in the audience for the Jenny from the Block act, the J.Lo as chart-topping pop star act and, finally, the J.Lo as red-carpet-icon act.

Models resembled J.Lo clones, in over-the-top creations such as an extra-long fox fur hooded cape, a leather garter belt and sparkly off-the-shoulder white mohair sweater, jeans with 20 carats’ worth of diamonds on the waistband or, on Naomi Campbell, a cream ruffled chiffon jumpsuit and Hula Hoop-sized floppy white mink hat. Really, the only thing to say about the clothes is that they could have been worse.

But one couldn’t help feeling like yet another cog in Lopez’s publicity machine. She used the show to debut her Miami Glow fragrance and her upcoming album “Rebirth” (both were in the gift bags). The whole gig was filmed for a documentary that will air on MTV at the end of the month.

By comparison, Rucci’s runway was an oasis of calm, complete with tinkling spa music. In the past, Rucci has suffered from being stodgy and overly intellectual, but this season he offered his mainstay kimono-like jackets and skinny pants, along with some sexy shifts worn with over-the-knee boots. He also injected the collection with welcome shocks of color -- orange, pink and plum. One of the best pieces was a white double-faced wool “suspension suit” with orange slits and triangles that brought to mind a Calder mobile. A black wool dress was scored with tiny knots and tears that evoked constellations in the night sky. But most remarkable was an embroidered jacket and gown with ribbon ends fashioned into fringe around the neck and shoulders. It was couture technique brought to the world of ready-to-wear.

Another master, Ralph Lauren, was inspired by his vintage race cars. The collection was a safe mix of gray cashmere, luggage leather and silver beading in classic silhouettes. A wool dress with leather elbow patches hit every curve; a bomber jacket with a lush fur collar fit like a glove; and a gray sweater with beaded cap sleeves gleamed like a pair of chrome tailfins. Menswear-inspired trouser suits in gray flannel houndstooth were paired with leather helmets and goggles, and gowns with rows of jet black beading sparkled like wet asphalt. What the show lacked in surprise, it made up for with the kind of restrained, timeless luxury that only comes from having Lauren in the driver’s seat.

In fashion, change is expected and usually demanded. So it seems like cheating to say that Donna Karan’s collection, which unlike Lauren’s was all about risk-taking, crashed and burned. She joined Marc Jacobs and several other designers here this week in pumping up the volume and experimenting with origami-like forms. But in Karan’s hands, the exercise was heavy-handed and forced.

An overgrown flower bloom was plopped on the front of a mahogany stretch wool jersey skirt that was already elaborately draped, while a black wool coat with a stand-up wing collar was so exaggerated it brought Dracula to mind. Gowns were overly complicated too. A black stretch viscose creation had Fortuny pleating on the skirt, fan pleats around the shoulders, wide bands of black elastic crisscrossing the waist and squeezing the flesh, and a sheer back.

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Among the newer names, Derek Lam was again a standout. The California native captured the relaxed boho chic of his home state and the devil-may-care attitude toward weather, with a brown silk faille shirtdress, worn with a pair of gladiator sandals, a chiffon peasant skirt in a blue rose print paired with a breezy gray pleated blouse, and a fabulous striped blanket shawl with a huge antique cross embroidered on the back.

Jeffrey Costello and Robert Tagliapietra had a strong debut with a line of jersey separates. The concept was simple enough: a charcoal wool wrap dress that tied in front, then one that tied in back; a red jersey skirt that swung gently around the knees and a red jersey dress with darts. But there is a modern sophistication to this kind of easy dressing, which made it even funnier when the burly design duo stepped onto the runway in flannel shirts and jeans, looking like they’d be more at home constructing beams rather than seams.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Coming into view

More than 70 shows kicked off the fall season during New York Fashion Week. A few emerging trends in women’s wear:

* Russian and Far East rich hippie looks

* Rumpled skirts and oversized cocoon coats

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* Shirtdresses

* Boleros

* 1950s circle skirts

* Men’s-style cuffed trousers and cardigan sweaters

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* Metallics and jacquards

* Do-it-yourself trims: fabric flowers, bits and pieces of lace and ribbon

* Flat boots and shoes

* Fur

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-- Booth Moore


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