It's still the same old story

American clothes will not make your heart beat faster. They are real. They sell. And that's the point. Marion Hume reports from the New York shows. Photographs: Peter Macdiarmid

"You look so glamorous, so ... jaded." Sandra Bernhard, master of ceremonies at Ghost's show, hit the nail on the head. Here we all were, the international fashion pack, post-Milan, post-Paris, after almost 200 shows this season and still not through the New York fashion week. Here we all were, gathered together for yet another show and feeling weary.

The Ghost collection, spearheaded by a Brit, Tanya Sarne, pepped us up a bit. Ms Bernhard's commentary was spicy and the models, doing their thing for the umpteenth time, were, miraculously, in high spirits. And the clothes? They were plush velvet and romantic, topped with dinky hats that no one will ever wear. We all applauded enthusiastically.

Elsewhere in New York, the applause was more muted. "Death by clothes," was the verdict of one fashion pundit after the Anne Klein show, which wasn't bad, you understand, just stultifyingly dreary - we'd seen it all before and we would see it all again before the New York shows were over. Whatever show we stood in line to get into, whatever we anticipated while skim-reading its tasteful programme, the clothes looked pretty much the same.

For New York was playing safe, as it always does. That is fine, because most women do not want to wear shocking, innovative, kooky clothes. Throughout New York fashion week, we saw coats, we saw to-the-knee skirts, we saw the dress and the jacket combined as the new uniform for work. We saw to-the-shin skinny boots, we saw wide belts, we saw steel buckled slim belts. We saw camel, we saw chocolate, we saw red and we saw black, black and more black. We saw what women want, which was all very nice, except we saw it again and again and again, with a different designer label attached.

Which is why Ghost, which won't sell anything like as much as Anne Klein or Calvin Klein or Donna Karan, was rather refreshing. It was not, in truth, startlingly original, following the romantic path currently trail- blazed by Briton-in-Paris John Galliano. But so what? The commercialisation of fashion trends is what the New York collections (no matter what nationality the designer) are about.

American clothes are clothes that sell. That is the point of them. The American designer labels are mighty because they appeal to a lot of people. The reason for this appeal is that they offer rather normal, rather practical clothes that never make the heart beat fast, yet do occasionally make urban Everywoman reach for her wallet - as long as she is wealthy, for these clothes do not come cheap.

Here are clothes for real life, which should be applauded - except they aren't applauded with any degree of passion by the fashion crowd, unless they think the designer might be watching. Real clothes make for boring shows and a polite pitter-patter of clapping. Think Jaeger shown to a disco beat, a score of times every day. Very nice too, but it's not going to make you swoon.

So American designers, and those who witness the New York fashion shows, are in a quandary. What is quite clear is that many women like practical, hard-working clothes that fit their lives rather than marvellous, audacious catwalk creations that demand one's life fit around them. But what is the big-top razzmatazz that has become New York Fashion Week? These are clothes that used to be shown in small touchy-feely venues, until the designers got too famous and the demand for tickets got so great as to make this impractical. These are clothes that have little to say in front of fashion audiences of 2,000 people, but will, nonetheless say "wear me" when hanging in one's wardrobe.

What New York, which concludes the season's six-week fashion circus, puts into focus is the international quandary as to how to show clothes and what clothes to show. In London, these can be too ugly to linger on; in Paris, at times, too fantastical to be worn except by supermodels (themselves a threatened breed); in New York, the criticism is that they are too ordinary against all the pizzazz that surrounds them.

That's not to say there were no "wannahaves" in New York. They were there a-plenty at Ralph Lauren's straightforwardly commercial collection. No Highland high jinks, no cowboys and indians, as he has offered in the past. This time round, Lauren, the king of the theme show, took sophisticated dressing as his chosen subject and majored in what to wear to work (a neat and sculpted muted tweed suit), what to wear for the weekend (a sumptuous, sweeping coat, a neat blazer, a snug polo neck and crisp polar- white cricket trousers) and what to wear out in the evening (only a full- on spangly sheath will do).

The strangest collection, to anyone not a long time resident on planet fashion, was Miu Miu, the second line from the highly influential house of Prada. In a show deemed "directional" by the in-crowd were early Sixties- style fitted jackets with three-quarter-length sleeves, pastel petticoats that appeared to be made from lining satin, and skinny coats that looked as if they had been cut from old bedspreads. Make-up was smudgy, straw blonde hair was kirby-gripped into backcombed "do's" and bare, mottled legs ended in boots worn to half mast up the calves. It all went to show that what fashion gurus might dub the last word in modern style can, to the uninitiated, look just like trashy dressing of poor young mums on housing estates.

Calvin Klein's skill is that he appears to be radical when he isn't. He hit the same notes as Miu Miu in a collection that shared its early- Sixties silhouette, but Klein's version was more Audrey Hepburn than Christine Keeler. Here was the tweed, the jackets sliced to the hip bone and the angular little coats. Yet the offering, which was devoid of colour or accessories, was so severe as to seem sophisticated. A word of warning: absolutely plain black evening sheaths looked great on Audrey, but are not to everybody's taste today, as the actress, Sarah Jessica Parker, discovered when a hail of post-Oscar criticism met her choice of Calvin Klein for the Academy Awards.

Elsewhere, severity was the keynote for daylight only; overblown evening frocks are now very much re-established in the after-dark dresscode. Ralph Lauren took things a little too far when he awarded one of his own frocks an Oscar (the model came out carrying one)- but his array of shimmering sequinned gowns was certainly dazzling. Ditto Isaac Mizrahi. His big ballgowns made their mark, ranging from slinky spangled sheaths, cruelly dubbed "slags' night out", to full-blown prom skirts.

But it is the daywear that will sell. It is the tweedy clothes, the camel clothes, the black clothes that women will buy and like to wear. It is the clothes that are so boring when they are paraded as something sensational that ultimately one will want. Ah, so glamorous and so jaded indeed.

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