Bright and bold, European designers are not subject to the dictates of corporate design like their US rivals, says Tamsin Blanchard
REPORT FROM THE NEW YORK COLLECTIONS

AS I sat editing pictures from the New York collections for Autumn/ Winter 98, I found myself drifting off, my eyes glazing over and my head drooping on to the light box. "Is there anything I can do to help?" asked our New York catwalk photographer Andrew Thomas, feeding me a sugar-coated doughnut for energy and sympathising that perhaps I was suffering from jet-lag. "Well, short of redesigning the collections, no," I snapped. "It's just the clothes. They're so boring!"

The thing is, Andrew Thomas - with or without his vast experience of snapping every single outfit at the collections since before he cares to remember - could design better collections balancing a long lens and standing on one leg than most of the American designers. Fashion in New York has very little to do with new ideas, experimentation with colour, shape or pattern, and everything to do with corporate design. The designers are scared of colour and print. They do not know what to do with it, preferring the safety of grey and black.

These are clothes that are given birth to around a big table in some glass office 30 floors up from street level. No wonder they are so soulless. To be a fashion designer in New York, forget a training in design or aesthetics; what you really need is a degree in economics and a sound knowledge of market forces. And even then you can come a cropper.

It says a lot about the state of American fashion when the best collections - creatively rather than commercially - of the week were designed by Europeans: Helmut Lang has recently moved his operation from Paris to New York, and British talent Hussein Chalayan has been employed by cashmere company TSE to create a new line called TSE New York.

Both collections were outstanding; Lang's collection alone could - and no doubt will - provide enough ideas and inspiration for America's finest designers for years to come. Perversely, Lang decided not to show the collection on the catwalk, instead releasing images on the internet on the day of the show and sending out CD-Roms and videos to the press. This was just a great excuse to go and have a look at the clothes in the showroom.

Lang offers both practical and fantastical solutions to dressing. Sure, he uses cashmere and knits it up into loose-weave, fine-gauge sweaters. But he then adds a long panel sewn into the side-seam of the sweater so that the wearer can wrap it diagonally over her shoulder and around her waist. His clothes are never boring.

For warmth, Lang's collection includes feather-light parka coats with detachable linings and padded capes like miniature duvets with shoulder straps to sling over the shoulders. Everything in the collection has something extra - a reversible lining, a sleeve that trails to the floor, a knitted cape that flaps over the shoulders as you walk. Fabrics ranged from the sheerest, floatiest organzas to bulky, but lightweight, quilted nylon. The designer has the knack of mixing prettiness, practicality and absolute street-cred.

The other hit of the week, Chalayan's first collection for TSE New York, also provided a showcase for cashmere. The New York collections may have been a bad week for fashion, but it was great news for the world's cashmere producers. The best cashmere comes from China, where severe conditions ensure the finest yarn.

Chalayan has given TSE's cashmere collections an extra edge with inverted pleats on wide trousers, pockets hidden inside seams, cashmere sweaters knitted with a mere gauze of wool to cover the neck. A long cocoon dress with cropped sleeves that hug the shoulders is given a deceptively intricate and chunky knit but feels as light as a silk shift. And for the total cashmere freak, what could be better than a vast blanket with a single armhole that can be wrapped around the body for the ultimate in cosy luxury? With stores such as Jigsaw and Marks & Spencer now selling cashmere at relatively affordable prices, the luxury fibre that is combed from the underbellies of goats has come into common currency. For a hand-knitted TSE New York dress, the retail price will be around pounds 850.

Cashmere formed the core of almost every other collection on the New York runways. Take just one outfit from Donna Karan's collection: "black doubleface cashmere felt funnel-neck cardigan-jacket; black stretch cashmere crew-neck shell; black doubleface beaded stretch cashmere straight skirt". How much goat's hair can a woman pile on herself in the morning? "Not enough" seems to be the resounding answer.

Indeed, Donna is having such a love affair with the stuff she played a soundtrack of Indian love poems recited by her friends Demi Moore, Madonna and co. The CD, A Gift of Love, goes on sale in June. Any designer who sends her models down a catwalk and convinces them to keep a straight face as the lines "my arrow of love has arrived at the target" as a chiffon and devore dress floats by, or "I am your flower garden and your water, too," were chanted to accompany a flat, seamed, doubleface, cashmere coat has a lot of nerve. Watching from the front row, Susan Sarandon, Billy Zane and Donna's daughter, Gaby, got lost in the mystical vibe at least.

Calvin Klein's collection, which was slightly more of this world, used cashmere as well as puckered wool (luxury seersucker) and stretch mohair. It was an odd collection, heavy on pretensions to be European and intellectual, with draped dresses, Japanese-style loose-fitting tunics, high-wrapped bandeaux tied around the waist like obis and padded skirts to create volume.

Ralph Lauren, meanwhile, stuck to basics with crisp white shirts, cashmere strapless evening gowns, wool combat trousers, a long duffle coat, and Ralph's new invention, the trouser-skirt - a long wool or tweed skirt with a fly-front and jeans-style pockets. At least Ralph Lauren's collections always have his own point of view rather than a diluted one borrowed from Jil Sander, Lang, Chalayan or Rei Kawakubo.

Likewise Rifat Ozbek, who looked back to his Turkish roots, and the designer Vivienne Tam, who has in the past produced irreverent T-shirts with photo- prints of Chairman Mao being stung on the nose by a bee. This season the designer took a trip to Burma and fused Chinese and Indian influences to make a bright and eclectic collection that made you sit up and take notice if only because there was more going on than a grey coat with matching trousers.

Tam, at least, has a strong voice that shouts out beyond the interminable stream of doubleface cashmere coats.

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