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In the battle between girlie and womanly, adult elegance seems finally to be winning. It is a long time since the lost days of innocence, when "coming out" referred to a girl breaking bud into a woman. Then came the youth quake and womanliness went out of fashion. But after a lingering period of girlishness as a mantra, fashion is starting to grow up.
Two significant collections from Roland Mouret and Narciso Rodriguez introduced an undercurrent of sensuality to graceful dresses that have marked the spring/summer 2006 season. The rest of New York's shows seem in thrall to the spirit of Los Angeles, from its whimsical dresses and red carpet gowns through the celebrities in the audience.
The Cuban-American Rodriguez, who came to prominence with Latino clothes that clung to the curves, sent out a perfectly judged collection in shades of gray, black, off-white and faded lavender. Instead of taut and sexy silhouettes, there was an ease to dresses in soft fabrics that fell in liquid folds to mid-calf, offering sweet serenity, devoid of fancy frills.
As in most of the shows on the New York runways, pants took a back seat, although when they appeared they were slender and stylish, worn with a curving jacket.
"And I loved the peekabo," said the actress Clare Danes backstage. She was wearing a lilac satin dress and referring to the cut-outs above the bosoms or at the back, each opening a window on the body but without any overt sexiness.
Rodriguez had worked hard on the show, offering contrasting textures from slippery satin to canvas and washed cotton. He had also loosened up his look, from the bold industrial zip fastenings to the simple sandals. And he had added menswear elegantly informal clothes to complement the rest.
"Men and women together in the way they should look," said the designer, who has moved his line forward and himself into fashion's big league.
French-born, British-based Mouret had Scarlett Johansson as his muse and Cole Porter on the soundtrack, as his Hitchcock-style heroines stepped out. Balanced on towering heels below slender, elongated skirts and dresses, they spent the daytime in plaid tops, snugly fitted jackets with full three-quarter sleeves and divided skirts, in which the limbs moved freely.
The other statement and it was a strong one was about jersey dresses, slithering across the body, often in vegetal shades of jungle green, in archetypal black or with a dash of orange or raspberry. The point of these dresses, with their square 1940s necklines and ineffable chic, was to show a new generation that there is a more rigorous alternative to the flashing flesh and frolicsome embellishment of the so-called "It" girls.
Banished, too, from fashion's new mood are the haute Bohos the hippies deluxe whose layers of gypsy clothes were given a final spin this summer.
Matthew Williamson used to be king of Boho dressing. But before his show, inspired by the modernity of the iconic fashion editor Diana Vreeland and by artistic pattern and print, the British designer presented a new mission statement.
"I wanted to show how relevant pared-down classicism can be, offering a real wardrobe, with a clear silhouette and not in the Bohemian spirit," he said.
The result was a patchy collection where a cardigan was simplified and elongated, decorated mod style with bold pearl buttons; or there were tailored shorts and vests. That all looked elegantly different from full-skirted dresses with exotic prints and satin ribbons. Hippie accessories such as colorful patchwork bags and a jungle bird necklace seemed left over from the previous Williamson style.
But the designer gets full marks for realizing that the world is turning and that his Boho glamour needed a cleanup.
Bill Blass, like many a venerable fashion company hoping to refresh its image, paid homage to the sweet bird of youth. But are girlie dresses in pretty gingham checks, raised waists and full skirts really part of any young wardrobe? There is no arguing with the technical skills of the designer Michael Vollbracht. His treatment of couture-style fabrics such as crisp horsehair or filmy chiffon is masterly. But the resonance of 1960s jet set heroines, from Brigitte Bardot through Catherine Deneuve and Jane Fonda, will not speak to 20 somethings, nor will the mythic holiday spots of the past such as Capri and the French Riviera.
The truth is that few women will find a sundress and coat combo useful for summer in a modern city, and gym-honed bodies are not enhanced by empire line (are you pregnant?) dresses. Some Bill Blass classics have withstood the test of time and a cashmere sweater teamed with a lacy skirt or a taffeta shirtwaist dress have a perennial charm.
The other extreme of "youthful" dressing was seen in Marc Jacobs's ditsy, multilayered, bring-back-leggings show for his Marc line. Jacobs is so fashion savvy that he can mix a stretch leotard, a tulip-shaped skirt, baby doll dresses, tailored coats, parachute string parkas and a visible bra and make all that seem fun and funky. And don't forget the leggings, in sky blue, anchoring a mille- feuille of layered dresses. It all added up to creative chaos that could be broken down into powerful individual items.
The L.A. factor is one of the strongest influences on American fashion. That means both the theatrical red carpet dresses that used once to be anathema to American fashion predicated on sportswear, and the girlie prettiness that is the starlet uniform. Monique Lhuillier has been a hit with stars hoping to up the wattage. Her boxy jackets (a current trend), layered skirts and tailored coats made pretty daywear. But her forte is the fairy frock a dress dusted with sparkle. For the endless awards ceremonies there are photogenic gowns: a slither and drape of raspberry satin a la Jean Harlow or a meringue of a ball gown.
Do women really need this retro-vision of Hollywood's silver screen years? The answer came from Anna Kornikova, seated front row at 10 a.m. in a wisp of a dress and vertiginous patent shoes that would never be allowed on a tennis court.
"I love Monique everything fits my body perfectly and I wear her clothes at all my events," Kornikova said. ***
Suzy Menkes is the fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune.
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