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Fashion: Move over, Calvin

Thanks to Helmut Lang, some of New York's leading designers have already shown next summer's trends on the catwalk. Or have they? By Melanie Rickey
Nobody is embracing the new long skirts and flat shoes look in New York City. It's far too sultry and smoggy. Instead, the world's most powerful fashion editors (with the exception of eccentric doyenne Polly Mellen of Allure, whose Marc Jacob shoes are so dainty and flat they appear to be drawn on to her feet) are still wearing their summer clothes and sandals and talking about their holidays. It is unprecedented. No, not the weather and the clothes, but the fact that this is New York, in September, and the fashion editors are gathered for fashion shows, although one would be mistaken for thinking it was an up-market cocktail party. "I was in Morocco, kiss, kiss, you?"; "How was Fire Island?"; "You look so well darling" etc.

Traditionally, New York Fashion Week takes place in November after the hectic London, Milan and Paris shows. And take place it will, but without two of its shiniest stars: Calvin Klein and Donna Karan. It is all because Helmut Lang, the reclusive Austrian urban minimalist who decamped to New York last year (allegedly for love), decided that he wanted to show his collection before everyone else at the risk of upsetting the applecart - and he did. In the process he caused a fashion revolution. Not only did he create a new role for himself as one of the most influential designers in the world both fashion- and business-wise, but Calvin and Donna followed hot on his heels. They ended up staging a mini fashion week which worked so well that next season New York will kick off the international collections, instead of being last.

Calvin Klein's representative Robert Treifus says: "It is purely business. It just doesn't make sense to show the collection in November when we've already sold it in Milan. Helmut Lang did the right thing." Those who know better say Lang did not want to show after his former Parisian contemporaries (he showed for eight years in Paris) in case he was seen to be copying them, a charge often levelled at the Americans. But Lang has always, and will continue to bang his own drum, and having his show early simply means he will have longer to sell it and produce the collection.

London's own Alexander McQueen, in New York last week to be honoured at the 15th annual "Night of Stars" as one of fashion's "individualists" alongside Miuccia Prada, told industry bible Women's Wear Daily: "The proof is in the pudding, to see what they can come up with before Milan and Paris." That's what everyone else is saying, but there was no denying that the clothes shown last week were very desirable, and will sell and sell. This is something that makes Americans very happy - Kate Betts, fashion news director of the mighty American Vogue more so than most. "People will look at New York fashion in the fresh way it deserves now, not as a way to fill in the blanks after a long and tiring season of shows."

Indeed New York is a powerful, slick and commercial animal; the clothes shown on catwalks and worn on the street are wearable, uncomplicated, and very, very smart. In New York fashion boutiques, it is common for a well-groomed woman (they are always well groomed), when confronted with a drawstring or a drape, to ask: "How do I wear this?" Really. But they are learning, and will learn more as their native designers and Helmut Lang get to grips with their wardrobes, and slowly add edgy European details to the commercial pieces: an oddly placed zipper to accentuate the hip drape on a jersey dress (Calvin Klein), an ornately tucked and draped light-as-a-cloud blue tulle and organza shift dress (Donna Karan), or a hot-pink ruched organdie vest-dress, layered over a white vest-dress printed with a subtle, urban camouflage (Helmut Lang.)

These are summer collections, after all, and what better way to feel summery than to explode colour on to the catwalk, which undoubtedly was the biggest trend "message" last week in New York. Full-blown orange, grass green, aquamarine, yellow, aubergine and raspberry at Calvin Klein were flung together on sheer jersey tops, knee-skirts, long fluid crepe de Chine, and split jersey dresses with elongated armholes, some worn on top of each other to get the maximum colourful effect. Donna Karan took the same approach for DKNY a few days earlier, offering bubblegum- bright double-layered skirts, simple slash neck T-shirts, and her new range of underwear. For her womanly main line, however, she took the subtle approach with a beautiful collection that was called rather cornily "The Lightness of Being". When the last hurrahs died down the title did have some relevance. The clothes were as light as air and in the most part the silhouette was somewhat reminiscent of Yohji Yamamoto's early Eighties offerings: low-slung, elasticated-waist, puffy washed taffeta skirts and cotton dirndls were worn with off-shoulder fine cotton jumpers over white vests; too-long cashmere T-shirts were hiked up around the hips, and trousers were cropped to mid-calf. Mixed in was laser tailoring so sharp and precise it did not need hemming.

The colours and the fabrics made this collection shine. Buff, nude, bone, parchment, rose - no thesaurus was left unleafed in the quest to describe these soft hues which were rendered in washed taffeta, crisp cotton and soft cashmere. Texture was all, but it did leave the question: what will the black pack do? A-ha! A small note at the end of the show blurb reveals "quintessentially, it all comes in black".

Which leaves Helmut Lang. The man of the week; the reason everyone was there in the first place. Tanned and happy after a summer break and cool as a cucumber before his show, he hid just out of sight backstage as his guests arrived.

Every now and then his hand would pop out, beckoning a friend who would be welcomed to his sanctum for a moment. One got the feeling he was loving every minute, and why not? The show was a perfect Lang experience. Urban, simple in silhouette, and approachable without losing any of the cool factor. These clothes said "you want to wear me". Indeed some of them looked like they had been worn extensively before their outing, and that, too, is part of the Lang charm. These are city clothes for city people, and what better place to show them than in New York, the ultimate urban environment?

There was the key trouser, flat-fronted, long and slim, some with motorcycle padding at the knee in aged silver leather or black and cream cotton, and worn with utilitarian money belts around the waist or clipped to the upper arm. The vest (or tank) was another key item. It turned up sheer in white and black, opaque in nude and soft beige, others in white cotton had asymmetric drapes across the chest and, of course, there were the hot pink dresses, some with matching sheer tights worn with high heels, the fluffy beige car-coats, the green parkas, the slim skirts, and the paint-spattered jeans.

As the show ended and the crowd clapped, something became apparent; on the pared-down programme notes, about 10 lines of typed text said: "Underwear, men's shoes, bags, accessories, jeans, clothes, all Helmut Lang." He might be reclusive, but he's got big ideas. I'd put my money on Mr Lang becoming the Calvin Klein of the new millennium.