Fashion: And then the circus came to town - New York can still work its quiet magic - when the clowns don't steal the show, says Marion Hume

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The New York shows used to be easy. The Yankee spin doctors would take the directions of Europe, make them commercial and Pizzazz] - the perfect suit, the perfect coat, the perfect dress would all appear. We would gasp at the skill, sigh with relief and itch to start shopping.

But then something happened. Last season, the Americans decided that the showrooms - where this alchemy used to be demonstrated - were too small and too treacherous for the clamouring crowds. So they joined together to put on their act in two Big Top tents, pitched at 42nd Street.

This meant there was no more hiking Up and Down town, no more scary elevators and no more ceilings to collapse on the audience (which has happened). But unfortunately, the magic formula was shaken up in the move.

American clothes, which at best are sleek and pure, suddenly looked small. The big catwalk made the simple look insubstantial. Instead, loud clothes, like those of the Italian, Gianni Versace (currently scouting for a Manhattan show venue for next season), looked right. The Americans, who had been happily building billion-dollar businesses on beige, navy and black, felt helpless as a huge white ultra-bright catwalk swallowed them whole.

So for this second season in the Big Tops they went bigger, brighter, bolder. They gave up their quiet magic and ran away to join the fashion circus where the Virtual Reality of catwalk clothes, rather than the reality of real women's clothes, was the star of the show.

Lights, cameras, action with Isaac Mizrahi, the Doris Day of Seventh Avenue, having a ball. 'It's showtime]' he squealed, as the backstage frenzy was suddenly visible front-of-house through a white gauze screen. Toy-poodle-pink Puffa jackets, petal pink tutus and chinchillene fake-fur sleigh coats went by and gee] they looked terrific up there on stage.

Scene shift to the blustery north of Scotland right here on 42nd, where Ralph Lauren had pantomime page-boys in velvet smocks, crusaders in leather doublets and a gorgeous black Guinevere in golden chain-mail, all starring in an Arthurian epic set to Celtic tunes.

Scene shift three to the finale, a tear-jerking tale of female bonding, as Donna Karan harnessed Womanpower, wooing middle-aged models and (slim) social stars into nighties and knitwear. Bianca, Veruschka and Isabella Rossellini all took part as Everywoman anthems filled the air.

All in all, it was rousing, it was emotional, it was glorious. But so were the world-famous Rockettes at the Easter show at nearby Radio City Music Hall.

These are tricky times for New York designers. Big ball gowns and bright clothes look good on the catwalk and they make good pictures. But they don't make for realistic clothes to sell in Bloomingdale's and Barneys, Bergdorf's and Macy's, those department-store cathedrals of commercialism. The real story of the New York shows will emerge in September, when the winter clothes reach the shops. And many of them will not look as they do now.

This is because the New York City woman (and her rich and sophisticated urban sister elsewhere) dresses in dark colours. She doesn't wear hot pink. She certainly doesn't wear bright green, which is odd, because it kept showing up in shiny leather and slinky satin and I can't tell you why.

I can't tell you who will want sequinned, spangled, skin-tight jeans Seventies-style, a teeny T-shirt appliqued with a shiny red heart or a Cathy Come Home coat by Marc Jacobs either, although he is the hottest name in New York. But his muted mohair suits (almost invisible on the catwalk and impeccable on the rail) are likely to sell well.

Almost everywhere, the small clothes of real life were smothered by the glamorous and disco-glam clothes of showbiz. And that was a shame. The market is already chock-full of 'big' clothes, which work wonderfully well if you are being photographed at the Oscars. But most of us aren't.

A few designers remembered that. Michael Kors (who eschewed the tents in favour of a showroom presentation) went for clean and simple, although bare legs and high heels will be a problem if next winter is anything like this past one. Calvin Klein showed sensible clothes with sensible shoes in his most dour collection to date.

His was an odd reaction. Instead of bowing to the pressure to design 'big' clothes, Klein pared down further. He maximised the white space of the huge catwalk with sombre clothes that looked as if they had been swapped for ration-book coupons. Skirt lengths were on the knee, always a difficult and often a dowdy proportion, while knitwear with floaty dresses washed of colour made models look like land-girls. His rigorous joylessness, emphasised by a white noise soundtrack, was completely at odds with all else in New York. The show was uncomfortable, but original.

It probably represents the first difficult step in a new direction for Klein, who has been coasting at the peak of his powers for several seasons. The other Americans were also redirecting themselves and the shows felt as if we were witnessing their teething problems in public. By next season, hopefully, they will have redefined the perfect suit, the perfect coat and the perfect dress and everyone will be happier.

(Photographs omitted)

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