Times Staff Writer

AN orchestra pit and a baby grand piano in the middle of the runway, a new designer who specializes in sexy evening wear and a collection of clingy, film noir gowns -- could this be the Rock & Republic runway show?

Oh, yes, it could. The L.A. premium denim line made its return to the Bryant Park tents last week and presented its first collection to bear the input of Los Angeles designer David Cardona, who signed on in December as vice president of design after stints at Cerruti and Bebe. Of the 65 looks sent down the runway, only six included the jeans that made the company famous.

The collection was also a 180-degree shift from last season's disco inferno traffic wreck. Michael Ball, Rock & Republic's creative director and co-founder, said action flicks such as "Black Rain," the "Mission Impossible" series and John Woo films were the influences, and though there were no slow-motion motorcycle stunts, there was enough amped-up formal wear that the whole show felt like a lost scene from Frank Miller's "Sin City," with costumes by After Six.

Women's looks included floor-length, clingy black sheaths with cleavage-baring cutouts; purple satin ball gowns; knee-length, cowl-neck dresses accessorized with bondage-style leather belts; and pleated miniskirts paired with body-hugging leather and topped with fedoras.

The men's offerings were less memorable. In Ball's world, the guys are merely punctuation marks, one- and two-button visual stopgaps between the ladies. The entire collection consisted of tux and suit jackets in black with tone-on-tone embellishments (including jacket taping so wide on some pieces it resembled duct tape), "Matrix"-worthy trenches with leather epaulets and cuff details, chunky turtlenecks and black-on-black shirt and tie combinations.

"I don't need to put denim on the runway," Ball said. "I'm trying to push Rock as a fashion and lifestyle brand."

And that message reverberated loud and clear, long after the wailing guitars of the show's rock 'n' roll orchestra had stopped ringing in our ears.


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