Fashion: The prairie dolls

Just as Europe is absorbed in the fin de siecle, so New York fashion is turning back to the Wild West frontier days. (Wait - was that a cowgirl in cashmere?)
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The Independent Culture
One day after Helmut Lang presented his millennial collection in New York City last week it was available to view on the Internet at helmutlang.com. Anyone tapping into the site (which received over 1 million "hits" last season) will see exactly what press and buyers saw in his downtown shop: a timely collection of clothes (photographed by Juergen Teller) for urban soldiers with a penchant for hard-edged androgynous glamour.

From the orange silk organza space-age jump suit with astronaut collar to the black silk canvas dress with attached cashmere neck pillow, it's all there. The only element missing is the aural ambience, but even that is easy to recreate. Simply find a recording of "Land of Hope and Glory", sample a few late-night talk radio shows, then mix in a bit of NASA mission control speak and the whirr and click of 50 cameras. You'll be right there. Believe me.

That's the thing about New York. What you see in pictures is nearly what you get. The fashion show itself is almost an irrelevance in the wider scheme of things. As Lang knows all too well, the copycats will copy him whether he's on the Internet or not. Which leads us to the main point about New York fashion: there is no mystery; just clothes that will be in shops this September, rather than clothes that might be available to order - if we're lucky.

New York has every right to be matter-of-fact about clothes. Their fashion industry is worth $20bn per year, and the designers want it to stay that way.

As always, the catwalks were full of "I want them now" clothes, and some significant (albeit Americanised) trends which will have an effect on our winter 1999/2000 wardrobes. The most important was fabric. When fashion becomes as pared down as it is now, there is little to experiment with other than fabric and, in turn, shape. Several designers, notably Daryl K and Helmut Lang, used a steel/nylon or steel/cotton fabric which has a permanently crumpled appearance and gives surface texture to otherwise basic items. The big winner of the week, however, was cashmere.

Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Daryl K, Ralph Lauren, TSE New York (by Hussein Chalayan), Michael Kors, John Bartlett, and Marc Jacobs continued on the cashmere trail with umpteen-ply, mostly fitted variations on high-neck jumpers; but these designers also worked felted, boiled, and treated wools and fleeces into the mix, lending all of their collections a chunky and raw-edged (rather than gently layered) softness and comfort.

These super-soft, but stiff looking fabrics gave the designers a new way to work with shape. Most opted for moulded wrap, apron, or A-line skirts at knee or mid-calf lengths, and blanket-inspired wraps, shawls, shrugs, ponchos, dresses and coats, many with funnel, astronaut-inspired, or crew necks. (This resulted in one woman complaining at Michael Kors that this coming winter fashion was aimed at long-necked women.)

Chalayan even went as far as to call his austere yet luxurious collection for TSE "The Bed"; he pushed the paradox home further by sewing blanket labels onto his satin edged "super-cashmere" skirts.

Colour was also a strong message. When Calvin Klein and Donna Karan did colour last season, the result was immediate. Last week, the catwalks were awash with beautiful hues, especially by Ralph Lauren who showed mouth-watering Opal-Fruit brights; lemon, lime, strawberry and orange for duffel coats, a poncho and slim suiting, and soft blue and pink for knitted funnel-neck shell-tops, skirts, slim pants and jumpers. For some reason, his show got a bad review stateside, (well, it was a bit Eighties). But anyone brave enough to show (or wear) a fabulous, bright yellow trench coat with matching polo neck gets my vote.

Likewise, Anna Sui, who was charmingly off-kilter with her homage to the innocence of pre-Woodstock 1960s college kids going to their first folk festival. Orange popped up again in the form of a crochet poncho reminiscent of the sofa throw in Roseanne, and the dreaded patterned anorak was resurrected, along with patchwork mohair skirts and smock dresses.

Marc Jacobs played safer with shades of petrol blue, lilac, mauve, dusty pink and dove grey in his collection which can best be described as "Prairie Chic meets Rustic Street", a look which is strong on the streets of New York already.

He messed around with perceived 1970s memories such as watching Little House on the Prairie and Bonanza. Indeed, Jacobs showed a mix between the two: American pilgrims crossed with the Wild West by way of disco, a mood also picked up on by Michael Kors, Marc Eisen, and young designer Rebecca Dannenberg (whose show I watched on the Internet back in London: 7thonsixth.com).

It's strange: while British designers are looking back to Victoriana with frills and bejeweled capes, Americans are going all Western. Jacobs sent out felt, mid-calf length bib dresses - with rustic curtain hem detailing, or raised seaming - which tied like aprons at the back, and felt breeches and swirly capes. His mid-calf length cow hide apron skirt, and cropped denim tuxedo pants, featuring a wide satin stripe, were instant must-have fashion hits. And the multi-ply cashmere jumpers with hand-warmer pockets? Start saving now.

Karan and Klein, though, shied away from colour altogether, preferring monochrome and neutral tones (do they know something we don't?) Indeed, Calvin Klein's collection was a deliberately toned down and overly minimalist affair. It was almost as if he'd decided he'd had enough of dictating and instead wanted to present fabulous clothes that everyone will want to buy. If so, he succeeded beautifully.

Julia Roberts and Christy Turlington sat in the front row (Turlington diligently making notes), as the collection - built around the funnel- neck shell-top in cashmere, fencing jackets, slim trousers, felted wool coats, and to-the-knee skirts in mostly black or shades of camel - strolled by. One look stood out for its sheer simplicity - a strapless black corset tube over long black trousers. Calvin Klein still does the best boob tube in the business.

Donna Karan could also have called her collection "The Bed", as blankets appeared to be her starting point. Despite the odd sighs of boredom, the collection was infused with her passion to accentuate and flatter the female form without drawing unnecessary attention to flaws. She did this by wrapping and draping lengths of fabric (chocolate and ivory cashmere, liquid mercury satin) to create contemporary dresses, skirts and coats with their unfinished ends flapping. This collection was about fluid movement, and, as in her DKNY line, Karan drew from the latest fabric techniques, including moulded seams and "memory cashmere", an innovation which supposedly remembers the shape of the body wearing it.

Away from the big guys of fashion there were two other scenes taking place. First the British landing. Vivienne Westwood was in town to promote her new shop by presenting her Red Label collection - normally shown in London - to a bemused audience. Nothing new there. London-based Tomasz Starzewski was promoting his new menswear line and drumming up business among uptown ladies keen to buy into his Royal connection with Sophie Rhys-Jones. Nothing new there either, but the gowns and day suits will look good at society dinners and charity auctions.

Last is the "off-schedule" scene which, unlike the messy arrangement in London, is run by an organisation called South of Seventh. This is how Designer Daryl K - often described as New York's home-grown answer to Helmut Lang - launched her career.

Current names to watch are Bruce and "People Used to Dream About the Future", designed by Adrian Cowan, an Englishman, with his Roman girlfriend, Diva Pittala. "People are dying to see serious fashion design in New York," he said after their third show. "But we still have to explain everything we do on the show notes," he says. That's New York for you.

Next week: Full London report by Susannah Frankel

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