Wrapped in reality

Times Staff Writer

FASHION WEEK ended here Friday, and skinny model debate aside, the shows were surprisingly low-key. There were no pop tarts on the runway -- or in the front row. Even Paris Hilton stayed home as the attention shifted away from celebrities and back to the clothes.

Pragmatic is the word to describe this season of fashion that makes sense, is comfortable, grown-up, even work-ready. Designers turned down the volume and embraced a narrower silhouette. Layering was still important, but it’s not about piling it on, but rather layering a sweater under a dress or short-sleeve jacket. Other must-have pieces are high-waist pants, mini- or mid-calf-length skirts and chunky knits, especially cardigan coats. The best collections went beyond Hollywood to what real women want, and not just those who are 18-year-old Size 4s.

The timing couldn’t have been better for Anne Klein, the classic American sportswear brand, to return to the runway under the new direction of Isabel Toledo. The indie fashion darling, who received the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award in Fashion in 2005 and is married to artist and illustrator Ruben Toledo, has been flying under the radar since 1985 with her own avant-garde line, known mostly to fashion insiders who shop at Barneys. So, tapping her to revive Anne Klein seemed a bit odd.

Toledo had her moments of carrying on the Klein legacy of coordinated separates -- the plaid portrait collar coat and matching pants that opened the show, the plaid fitted jacket and brown leather carpenter pants that followed soon after, a nice-looking navy side-button sweater coat and red corduroy coat dress. Cashmere sweaters trimmed in looped fringe were a clever ode to the brand’s lion head logo. But other pieces were too quirky to be functional, such as a black ruched tube dress with tiny loops down the spine, and pants with a buttoned bib in front. Still, it was a good start.


In just three years, Tory Burch has created the next great American sportswear brand full of separates that work well together and flatter women of different ages and sizes. She always does tunic tops -- that most versatile of pieces -- for fall in gleaming silver sequins. For work, a red wool boat-neck shift worn over a black turtleneck was chic, and a luggage-brown leather jacket with turnkey closures will be an instant classic. After the success of the Reva ballet flat, with its metal logo ornament, Burch is expanding her accessory offerings with short boots, a leopard hair-calf flap bag with a chain handle and a cow-print hair-calf tote. And the best part is, most pieces are less than $1,000.

Working in an earthy palette, Ralph Lauren’s take on the knit dressing trend was one of the most creative this season. He started with a tweed dirndl layered over the softest cashmere turtleneck, before moving into knit dresses with flirty skirts, including a halter style in a black waffle weave. Hand-knit chocolate and silver cardigans looked refined, as did skirted knit coats.

His new take on the suit was a cropped tweed jacket, worn with the mid-thigh-length pencil skirt that’s making a comeback. He also carried the metallic trend forward, showing a gorgeous antiqued gold tweed skirt with a saucy suede bustier.

Donna Karan returned to her roots, building her collection around the bodysuit layered under body-grazing dresses with bustiers that fanned out across the chest. It was a wholly original day-to-evening look. Karan exercised her draping skills too on a black stretch wool coat that fell in soft pleats at the back, and a fabulous black silk jersey gown swept up into a sculptural curl at the shoulder.

Plays on volume are on their way out, but nevertheless, at Calvin Klein, Francisco Costa managed to show some nice cocoon coats in coal gray with funnel necks and released backs. Knitwear was swell too, especially a gray cable-knit poncho worn over a pencil skirt. Unfortunately, the rest of the clothes were just as wooly and cumbersome, but cut close to the body and terribly unflattering. What woman wants to wear a thick wool shift with kangaroo pockets over the stomach, or a wool jersey gown with rear pleats smack on top of the butt?

There was also a mini Russian Revolution, with Vera Wang showing romantic, tulle-trailing frocks with military jackets on top, and riding breeches with jeweled “Doctor Zhivago” boots. Add to that babushkas and a rousing Russian march and the collection felt corny and contrived. Alice Temperley fell into a similar Bolshevik trap with velvet jodhpurs, bolero jackets and scary looking boots. Where were all her pretty embroidered, beaded dresses?

It’s amazing that someone as young as Zac Posen, 26, could approach fashion in such an old-fashioned way. With most designers this season emphasizing separates that can be pulled apart and combined with other things to create personal style, Posen’s total look is particularly jarring.

His 1940s-style clothes -- twill day dresses with cowl backs, tweed suits nipped at the waist with organza insets -- are totally cinematic, which is why the starlets love him.


But it’s hard to imagine real women wearing them in their everyday lives. (Not that it matters, I suppose, when you have Sean “Diddy” Combs as a financial backer.)

Posen tried to exercise some much-needed restraint with his gowns, taking inspiration from flowers, to make an elegant apricot silk column draped in the back to resemble a calla lily.

Still, there was one that got my vote for the worst of the week -- a black taffeta monstrosity that looked for all the world like it had bat wings.