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Dark palettes, few frills and well-worked details were some of the elements that made an impact on the runways.

Ralph Lauren: A modern shooting party — hardly the typical fashion-girl spot of tea. But coming at the end of the New York season, Ralph Lauren’s ode to sartorial Englishness played like a fashion PowerPoint in 3-D, a keenly focused presentation with a singular, simple message: The goal is to make women look beautiful. Point one in support of the thesis, Halle Berry, seated in the front row, gorgeously understated in Lauren’s pinstriped pantsuit and turtleneck. Unlike so many front-row celebrities, she looked real, as if she’d dressed herself and was there not to pose self-consciously, but to enjoy the show.

Which of course, has always been central to Lauren’s work. Despite the renown of his so-called perfect imaginary world, Lauren doesn’t set out to make sweeping social or quasi-political statements on his runway; he’s content to make great, real clothes in which real women will look great. If that means approaching trends with a feather rather than a sledgehammer, so be it. Here, he hit on fall’s essential themes: coziness, layering, the dark palette, the dearth of frills, all delivered with a control and haught that played to the Brit motif. He favored earthy tones — lodens, olives, browns — achieving a wrapped-up feel with no bulk and little volume, save for the occasional sweep of a wool cape or fringed poncho. More often he went for a linear line in snug-fitting peplum sweaters, lean skirts and a considerable show of leggings, mercifully limiting the true jodhpur sightings to one. Throughout, Fair Isle derivatives played against tony tweeds, supple velvet softened sturdy wools, the rugged richness of it all heightened by suedes and cabled cashmeres.

Lauren didn’t linger long with evening, though he did show a crisp tartan taffeta, putting him in league with other designers with day-for-night fabrics. Still, it’s not the trend, but what you do with it. Lauren took a geriatric concept — the strapless cocktail hourglass — and made it look new and young. And that’s putting a little English on it.

Donna Karan: So long, yin! Catch you later, yang! Ditto full and lean, rugged and refined, and all you other long-attracting opposites. For fall, Donna Karan gave temporary rest to those career-defining dichotomies, retreating for a moment into a state of conflict-free calm. The result was a minimalist jewel in which elegance trumped edge to beautiful effect.

This story first appeared in the February 13, 2006 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Karan set the mood immediately, opening with a gray double-knit coat worn over her all-time favorite item, a bodysuit, for a sultry combination. Yet while this was one of the designer’s plainest collections ever, it commanded attention via the power of provocation. In fact, what Karan brought to the minimalist party was the sense of confident femininity maintained even through the collection’s most tailored moments. She showed two primary preoccupations: coats that molded around the body’s curves, in at the waist and around the hips, and the jersey dress — her preferred choice for almost any occasion — gathered in front and falling freely in back, in numerous variations. But for the bodice cords and crystal appliqués that gave shape to these dresses, she decorated sparingly — a mirrored border on a jacket and dress and peekaboo horsehair strips set into a hem. And, in her most frivolous display, she let unruly fringe unsettle otherwise simple coats.

A few tuxedos aside, evening, too, was all about the dress. Often, Karan worked in day-weight wool jerseys, heightening the heat with a slice of illusion net, or by allowing the fabric to dip into a deep cowl in back. Once or twice, she even added a big gold chain-link necklace for the red-carpet goddess who wants a haughty alternative to bling.

Karl Lagerfeld: Rock stardom isn’t for wimps. Karl Lagerfeld, fashion’s biggest rock star, achieved that status on the merits of giant talent and bravado translated into brilliant commercial success. So it’s hardly surprising that for the much-anticipated debut of his eponymous brand, reorganized after its sale to Tommy Hilfiger, he unleashed his inner Goth — previously unknown — in an exciting flurry of fashion and showmanship.

Both the New York-based Karl Lagerfeld label and the Paris-based Lagerfeld Collection were featured, with the designer claiming a Northern European influence: “I am from the North, no?” he quipped, alluding to the region’s great playwrights. But the resulting breeze whispered Helmut Lang as well as Henrik Ibsen, perhaps at the hand of Melanie Ward, creative director of the New York line (she joined Lagerfeld for the postshow bow) and formerly Lang’s longtime collaborator. There were nods as well to those once classified as avant garde, the Belgian and Japanese. But Shakespeare had his sources, too. Lagerfeld made the brooding tone unmistakably his own, delivering compilations of swirled, twirled and twisted shapes — wrists dripping with stringy fur; flimsy outside pockets strapped on at the hips — with just enough restraint to suit his savvy commercial intuition.

For all its disaffected art-student stance, the collection came packed with beautifully sensible clothes: ultracool tailoring, gorgeous utilitarian coats with well-worked details, and knits that played to the approachable side of undone. These were all concepts that should speak well to sophisticated urban types, especially those who consider fashion’s lingering retro lady fascination an insult to modernity. This is not to say that the designer offered his more extreme renderings as runway-only propositions. New York has already seen a turn away from the precious, most notably at Marc Jacobs. Lagerfeld has a remarkable cultural radar and ceaseless fascination with all things new. (At the postshow dinner at Bette, hosted by Ingrid Sischy and Sandy Brant, guests left with the new video iPod with Karl’s show already downloaded for the trip home.) If Lagerfeld senses the time is right for major mainstreaming of deconstructionist motifs — well, he’s rocked our world before.

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