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Fashion: New York

American designers have a reputation for safe, soft designs. It took an Austrian to put them first on the fashion map, literally. Styling by Sophia Neophitou. Photographs by Francesca Sorrenti

Above white dress with pleated back panel, by Helmut Lang

Left grey chiffon dress with back boning, by TSE New York, designed by Hussein Chalayan

Americans are not known for their high-flying style. They might excel at sportswear - look at the average American tourist and their trainers will be the most up-to-date thing about them - but they cannot compete with Europe at setting the trends. In the past, American designers have been accused of plagiarism. They don't have any of their own ideas, say the critics. And isn't it convenient that they show their collections two or three weeks after London, Milan and Paris have shown theirs? Just enough time to make those crucial alterations, add a few all-important show-pieces guaranteed to catch the camera lenses of the world media and to water down any extreme ideas that popped up on the catwalks of innovative, uncommercial old London.

But the Americans aren't happy to be seen as copycats. They want to be the trailblazers. And when the influential Austrian designer Helmut Lang, who moved his headquarters to New York last year, decided that he simply couldn't wait his turn to show his spring/summer '99 collection along with the rest of his adopted city, all hell let loose. Lang held his show in September, more than a month before the scheduled New York fashion week. And such is his power and influence that Calvin Klein and Donna Karan followed suit. Of New York's most powerful triumvirate, only Ralph Lauren, confident with his billion-dollar empire, stood his ground. He watched his fellow designers run around like headless chickens in September and coolly showed his own collection last week, along with the rest of New York's designers, including Daryl K (for Kerrigan), downtown Manhattan's most wanted young name, Anna Sui, and Marc Jacobs.

Next spring, the New York shows will open the season, a privilege usually given to creative London, which appears to be being squeezed off the schedule. Key British designers may be forced to move their collections to the wider arenas of New York and Milan. American designers will be required to show their collections ready six weeks earlier than usual. No mean feat. The fashion press will be waiting with bated breath. We know Helmut Lang can be a fashion innovator - he is European, after all. But can the rest of them come up with new ideas of their own?

For summer '99, Karan and Klein have done pretty well. Klein's green- and-red graphic assymetric dress points the way forward to a colourful summer, while Karan's pale blue muslin dress is obviously inspired by the Japanese school of design ... but, of course, made her own and - most importantly - womanly and wearable. Of those who showed later, Daryl K, who was born in Ireland but who now calls New York her home, has cracked the secret of making edgy, modern sportswear with her own strong signature. And TSE New York, the collection designed by London based Hussein Chalayan, is the perfect blend of just enough innovative ideas to make a commercial line stand out from the rest. And that is the secret of New York fashion: it is all about finding the perfect balance between art and commerce. With Helmut Lang's presence to stir thing up a bit, it would appear that the balance is just about right.

Here we photograph the best of the summer '99 New York collections - from those who showed before Paris, and those who waited. Tamsin Blanchard

Above right white cotton wide-leg trousers, black top with white and blue sleeves, by Daryl K

Right red jacket with black hood, also by Daryl K

Above right pale blue muslin dress, by Donna Karan

Right green and red asymmetric dress, by Calvin Klein

All clothes will be available in the UK from next February

Model Marianne Schroder

Make-up Jorge Serio at Garren NY

Hair Zaiya at The Agency

Stylist's assistant Warren Noronha