New York: an early look at spring

Europe used to be European and the United States all-American. Lately, divergences in styles of living (and tastes in food) have become far less pronounced. The Europeans seem to grow more American; Americans are becoming Europeanized. So finding the gap narrowing in fashion, too, would not be surprising. What was seen on both sides of the ocean, however, in the course of several weeks of nonstop ready-to-wear showings for next season did not exactly fit the pattern.

The preeminence of Paris as the world's style capital was in question; the strength of Milan as a challenge to French leadership was palpable; and the possibilities that may in time be offered by the British seemed tantalizing. But what was most startling was the constant, tangible evidence of the rising international importance of American fashion.

''I so much want to come to New York,'' the editor of the Finnish Magazine, a Helsinki equivalent of Glamour, earnestly told an American reporter in Italy. ''I so much admire your Calvin Klein.''

Members of the fashion press are bellwethers of the desirability of designer clothes. Some young correspondents for continental papers covered the showings dressed in Norma Kamali's sweat-shirt clothes. Looking over the audience at a Paris opening, a London editor observed, ''This place is wall-to-wall Ralph Lauren.''

Wearables by Klein, Lauren, Kamali, Perry Ellis, and Willi Smith are all available overseas now, and they are selling. Most of these American designers have their boutiques in fashionable quarters of the big cities.

The editor from Finland did not manage to come to New York, the final leg in the round of openings. But influential French, British, and Japanese writers, as well as representatives from other countries, converged on Manhattan to see where American fashion is heading.

On the whole, American designers did not disappoint them. Certain trends were repeated here. There was plenty of black and white, as well as stingingly bright combinations of vivid color. Separates dressing for all hours (an American invention to begin with) was emphasized.

The tendency to drop waists to the hipline was noticeable. Sleeve interest continued, with balloon, leg-o'-mutton, and lantern among the inflated types, along with roomy batwings and dolmans. Beautiful, soft suede pieces were offered as covetable, if expensive, additions to spring wardrobes.

Very short and flippy circular culotte skirts, blousons, lingerie looks, and dizzying numbers of stripes on the rugby order were also common currency. Matte Jersey made a comeback, as it did in Europe. Kasper used it in ways that were reminiscent of Hollywood's golden age; Halston used it for Grecian drapery a la Mme. Gres.

But in the main, the reliance on Paris for direction - which for so long reflected lack of confidence and dearth of inspiration - seemed to have evaporated. New York designers did far fewer carbon copies of what their peers on the opposite side of the Atlantic are producing than has been the rule in earlier seasons.

Influences in the New York collections often stemmed from the American past, sometimes from the storybook romanticism of childhood - or the fashions were simply evolved from the needs of present-day lives.

Loose and flowy, American clothes for spring are not confined in spirit by any political or economic circumstances, as were the Paris offerings. The evening selection at Oscar de la Renta, whose collection this time had none of its usual Yves Saint Laurent overtones, is as rich as ever.

His dinner suits with blinding all-over beading and his moire-patterned satin chiffons in boudoir tints are ''Who says there's a recession?'' clothes. His practical side was nonetheless in evidence.

Turnouts of thin black jersey with white handkerchief linen indicated he had been thinking in bread-and-butter terms - albeit the very best bread and the finest butter.

Elsewhere, clothes for the business executive were scarce. Some designers seemed to have forgotten about suits and dresses. Those who remembered showed both matched and unmatched textures and colors.

Geoffrey Beene, who has been doing roomy tops over full skirts or trousers all along, did not abandon the casual look that now prevails with his confreres here and overseas. He combined gingham ribbons (they were often doubled around the hips) with lace inserts, linens, and leafy silks or flowered sheer cottons - coming up with layered effects that have a modern yet romantic air.

Beene's most amusing contribution is his doubled dinner dress. Peel off the overdress, adjust the gingham sash belt around the hips, twist the sheer top-dress around the neck and knot it like a scarf (as his models did), and voila! you have changed clothes in the middle of the party.

While lengths continue to be a matter of personal choice, Perry Ellis and Ralph Lauren are both advocates of long hems. Ellis's shapes are mostly skinny: the tunic-length sweater over the gently pleated skirt or pants, with a narrow belt marking the hipline, being characteristic. Summery fabrics (there is much white) add to an effect that has been compared to the early days of this century , when women began to engage in sports. The wide stripes the designer calls his ''croquet stripes'' and the mallets models carried helped put the point across. Lauren's storybook collection, with its ankle-length linen prairie skirts over eyelet petticoats, and its Victorian blouses, is a delectable warm-weather continuation of the Southwestern dressing he popularized for this fall and winter.

Gathered culottes, bermudas, and other different-looking trousers (including rompers) are still much in the picture for next season. Now that New York fashion has finally bolstered its courage and broken the French connection, perhaps more American women will have the nerve to wear the its creations. In which case, such European remarks as ''You can alway tell the Americans, they are the ones in the skirts'' will no longer be overheard.

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