Fashion goes full circle for fall

IT promises to be a season of contrasting profiles. Flared `swing' skirts from the big-band days. Long, long coats over skinny mini skirts. In the variety of new designs seen on New York runways, the common thread is simple, minimal designs -- few frills, few shocks, and a low-key elegance. WHY dress in tricky shapes, noisy prints, and less-than-beautiful materials? Influential designers think they have better ideas. They see the future in terms of uncluttered lines, smooth, rich textures, and soft, luxurious fabrics. That's their plan for the coming season, proposed during the recent American showing of clothes for fall.

The fashion powers going in this low-key direction are Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Louis Dell'Olio for Anne Klein, and, to a degree, Perry Ellis. Their vision is minimalist, featuring flocks of understated separates. The latest component: a big blanket stole wrapped about the shoulders -- almost invariably of matching solid-color material.

This minimalist philosophy carries on for dressing from 9 a.m. to midnight.

Sleek jersey dresses, also for around-the-clock, are unadorned for day and lightened for after-dark, with diamant'e touches or satin inserts, in some instances. Curvaceous Madame X-type black velvets are given the same treatment.

The sportswear selection in Karl Lagerfeld's European, made-for-America offerings -- using denims with elegance (top-stiched and silver-snapped) -- proved how upscale even the lowly blue jean fabric can be. His belted, big-shouldered, and wide-lapeled jackets in leathers, glen checks, and iridescent lam'es exhibit the spare elegance that has helped to make him a premier inventive force in international fashion -- and a significant contributor to the fall picture.

This aura of spare elegance, pervasive in many of the new collections, has romantic roots. The nostalgic themes designers work are old-money country and the ambiance of bygone, more secure times.

``Swing'' may also become a fashion catchword in the autumn.

Whether in motion or in graceful repose, full-circle clothes -- often so long they barely clear the ankle -- are newsy. Whirlaway styles haven't been around since the big-band era when flare-back swagger coats and New Look skirts were prevalent. But although most designers are making a point of them, the swingers aren't the only aspect of fall's variegated scene. Willowy tapered coats, trumpet skirts that flare out at the hemline, knee-length molded suits with peplums, and curvy, movie-siren strapless looks are also in the lineup.

At major shows like Oscar de la Renta's and Geoffrey Beene's, the sound tracks complemented the clothes. The vocalizing of re-discovered singers like Vic Damone and Tony Bennett and selections from the John Williams album ``Swing, Swing, Swing'' hit the right notes at de la Renta.

Whether full-skirted or slender-lined, his Chesterfield-collared suits and coats are the ultimate in citified sophistication. Split-color jersey dresses of different lengths, black velvets with flare-back satin jackets, and cashmere-topped bouffant skirts of satin are among the offerings.

Poise and polish characterize the day clothes by Bill Blass. His three-piece suits (mostly short), composed of double-faced wool reversible coat, tailored jacket, and skirt or trousers, make eminent sense.

The camelhair and cavalry-twill world of Calvin Klein is populated with cashmere twinsets, wide-leg flannel trousers, pea jackets, long dirndls, and alpaca wrap coats. It's the kind of style put on the map by Ralph Lauren, whose mastery of the fine points comes through in juxtapositions like his glen plaid menswear poncho with black pants, cashmere cardigan, and wing-collar shirt -- as well as the paisley panne velvet circle skirts he pairs with black officers' jackets.

The Ivy League atmosphere of Perry Ellis's long pleated skirts and sweaters, with names like ``Wellesley'' or ``Whiffenpoof,'' is much less minimalist than Donna Karan's system of no-fault layering, beginning with the Karan bodysuit (a one-piece combination of briefs plus blouse or sweater).

Such are the pronouncements from the mighty and influential; but it is well to remember that a vast number of people won't want to march in their parade. And a number of significant designers are as usual working their own unique territories.

The major artistry of Geoffrey Beene, for instance, as applied to kimono-cut mohair coats doubled over mohair vests in such brilliant colors as orange and billiard green offset by short black skirts, drew a standing ovation from retailers and press.

On more offbeat turf, the updated 1950s look from Manhattan's Norma Kamali concentrates on peplum suits with narrow skirts (choice of very short or extremely long) and slink dresses -- the kind Marilyn Monroe was sewed into by the studio's wardrobe mistress. Cathy Hardwick's skirts are sometimes layered over soft cuffed pants. She gives equal time to fit and flare, offering sweeping Cossack coats of gray shetland on the one hand, and wool T-shirt-topped skinny skirts on the other. New underpinnings: black jersey leggings.

An influence that couldn''t be overlooked in the fall clothes parade was that of Coco Chanel. Her favorite black dresss with white collars and cuffs were a recurring sight, especially at Albert Nipon, where the praiseworthy collection pays homage to her enduring elegance (gardenias and all).

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