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American Patchwork

When New York designers flex their imaginations, it’s something to see. And, from Betsey Johnson’s Mexican Betseyville and Charles Nolan’s swinging Sixties at Anne Klein to Catherine Malandrino’s thrift-store warriors and...

When New York designers flex their imaginations, it’s something to see. And, from Betsey Johnson’s Mexican Betseyville and Charles Nolan’s swinging Sixties at Anne Klein to Catherine Malandrino’s thrift-store warriors and BCBG’s take on 20th-century laborers, there was plenty on view.

Betsey Johnson: Hip, hip hooray for Betsey! After 40 years in the business, she’s the industry’s Energizer Bunny, still loving the whole spectacle of it all. This season, along with looks from her signature collection, Johnson liberally mixed in “Betseyville,” a new line that concentrates more on jeans and T-shirts and less on tutus. The two collections will be marketed side by side, differing only in focus, not in price. Overall, the designer was Inspired by her new house in Zihuatanejo, on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, and she worked a newfound love of Mexican kitsch and her signature kicky style into the more casual collection, while attempting to include every one of Crayola’s 64 colors.

With no less than 70 looks, Johnson’s runway romp transitioned smoothly from flouncy peasant skirts to colored denim and corduroy to “Shampoo”-inspired sequined knit dresses with nary a lull or lag. In Betsey’s world, every outfit stands to benefit from a little white lace peeking out from under tops, layers of crinoline and loads of trimmings, but the new denim, corduroy and cotton velveteen pieces remained relatively unadorned. However, the line still caters to Betsey-girls of every ilk: the ultracool prom-queen; the sweet and sassy sweater girl, and the straight-up sexpot. As is her tradition, Johnson turned her runway cartwheel and proceeded to cha-cha down the line with her maraca-shaking models, who seemed to genuinely enjoy the ride.

Anne Klein: Hopping on the Sixties bandwagon that’s currently making all local stops down Seventh Avenue, Charles Nolan dug some 30-odd years into the Anne Klein archives for inspiration, specifically the fall of 1969. The result was a quiet and clean translation of the decade. In fact, most pieces, removed from the context of the collection, wouldn’t readily conjure up images of the Summer of Love.

Nolan capitalized on a few references — a round button, a shorter skirt, bands of color — and worked them repeatedly to good, if not humdrum, effect. However, the Klein customer will have her cake and eat it too: clothes that hew to current trends, but don’t look costumey or out of sync with the rest of her wardrobe. Aside from slight missteps, like a black pony anorak or a striped leather shirt, Nolan’s work was right on.

This story first appeared in the February 12, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Perry Ellis: “You can call it workwear, lifestyle or modern,” said Elissa Bromer, president of Perry Ellis women’s wear. “What we’ve done is a well-priced, well-made, quality product.” Bromer can say that again. With a wool plaid baseball jacket and slim gray pencil skirt, nubby knits and corduroy blazers, all of which retail for under $150, the fall Perry Ellis collection makes a strong case for sensible, affordable dressing. The company, which, under licenser Public Clothing Co., and in conjunction with Perry Ellis International, relaunched the women’s line at retail for spring, is targeting the Baby-Boomer market with clothes that give the latest trends a nod, but are built to bolster a business casual wardrobe. And with this smart, perfectly-pitched showroom presentation, Bromer and her team hopes to double the number of retail doors for the women’s collection from 250 to 500.

The collection also incorporates design elements on which Perry Ellis himself once built the brand, including cozy handknits, witty patterns and a variety of woven shirts. And Bromer said that some of Ellis’ marketing ideas would be revived, too. Customers who indulge in certain handknits this fall will be given the same gift with purchase the designer once gave: knitting needles, a little ball of yarn and a Perry Ellis clothing label.

Yeohlee: Fashion frivolity aside, these are serious times. And intentionally or not, Yeohlee’s collection mirrors that mood. These are quiet clothes, many beautiful for their sobriety. But you occasionally find yourself wanting to scream, “Lighten up!”

The designer says she’s “inspired by the American Arts and Crafts Movement,” and that shows up in a wonderful patchwork-effect, black-and-white coat and other pieces with a Shaker-like simplicity — (dark neutral palette, stark shapes and clean lines). But it all felt more like typical Yeohlee. That, of course, means lots of terrific coats, the best of which were a long, Velcro-closed duffle look in black wool and fleece and a black melton friar coat; easy classic sportswear looks like the soft navy worker’s or wrapped shirts and relaxed pants; and, for evening, fluid silk crepe tunics with gently ruched sleeves. Yeohlee neither pretends to nor aspires to reference the latest trends, and, always true to that position, she continues to show impeccably made, elegant clothes that will neither rock the boat nor be swept into fashion’s mainstream. Clearly, sticking to that route is both her strength and her weakness.

BCBG Max Azria: Some designers are exploring the exotic this season, but Max Azria chose to focus his attention closer to home. His inspiration, in fact, was a series of August Sander photographs depicting early 20th-century laborers and tradesmen. Sound a little bit dour? It was — and a far cry from his pretty Easter-colored frocks from spring.

But, as a master of the contemporary market, the designer knows better than most how to mix a bit of charm with a hearty dose of function. His chunky knits, for example, acquired a thrown-together chic when paired with flirty washed silk dresses or contrastingly textured separates. One look partnered a cozy rose-colored cardigan with a delicate printed cotton voile apron top and loose, cropped corduroy pants. For those who want something a little more buttoned-up, there were cotton canvas peacoats and lots of sailor pants in shades of navy, aubergine and charcoal. There were some nice moments, but overall, the collection was simply too sedate with too many played-out details.

Dana Buchman: While the bridge category may be tricky and misunderstood, Dana Buchman knows exactly who her customer is and what she wants. “Luxury was the inspiration for the collection,” she said over the strains of a live jazz group during her showroom presentation. That meant lots of shearling, fur trim and velvet. Texture came in the form of tweed pantsuits, sometimes with mink trim, or in delicate burnout velvet on a flirty cocktail dress. One of the best looks for day was a rib-knit poncho with leather fringe, worn over slim black leather pants. Outerwear, which Buchman considers important to complete a look, included an ivory cashmere topper that buttoned left of center, lots of classically shaped shearlings and even a silver fox capelet worn with a black silk evening gown. The luxe quotient was undoubtedly met, but the mix could have used a few trendier pieces.

Catherine Malandrino: “For what is the value of fashion if a woman cannot adorn her own body without fear?” Def Poetry Jam performer Staceyann Chin posed that question to conclude her original poem in which she mused about yellow corduroys and other fashion-feminist intersections, in an original work commissioned to open Catherine Malandrino’s fall collection, shown on Tuesday at the Longacre Theater.

Begging to differ, Staceyann, but sometimes, the only thing a woman has to fear is fear itself, and some overwrought, overstudded clothes. Malandrino loves to work a detail, but sometimes, more is too, too much. And this time out, the overload of heavy embellishments and overly retro Seventies and Eighties references dragged her collection down. From a spiral zipper on metallic leather pants to brass studs on just about everything, the details overpowered the characteristic prettiness of the designer’s work. Apparently, Malandrino wanted to make the connection between strong clothes and strong women by creating a sort of funky thrift-store warrior done up in corsetry, blouson sleeves and platform boots — as if inner mettle can be drawn out by donning hardware-laden clothes.