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Fashion’s Joy Ride

NEW YORK -- Whoopie cushion bustles. Vibrant colors. Feathers, fuzzies, pompons, plaids and plastic pants. There was an undeniable sense of joy on the runways this season that made for great showtime entertainment while holding out the promise of a...

NEW YORK — Whoopie cushion bustles. Vibrant colors. Feathers, fuzzies, pompons, plaids and plastic pants. There was an undeniable sense of joy on the runways this season that made for great showtime entertainment while holding out the promise of a happy fall at retail.

The ringleaders of fashion’s joyride — designers as diverse as Karl Lagerfeld, Vivienne Westwood, Gianni Versace, Anna Sui and Isaac Mizrahi — have never been known for whipping up downbeat duds. But now, they’re anchoring a season in which wit and frivolity are widespread, standing in brash opposition to last year’s dominant sobriety.

As for why, all sorts of reasons are offered up — everything from sociological musings on the need for levity in a depressing world to hey, women will only buy so much black.

“People have an undeniable urge to be happy,” says Todd Oldham. “I’m happy to see store buyers and editors getting a bit more cheerful.”

“Yes, there’s a new, upbeat mood,” says Marc Jacobs. “It’s also true in life. Depression, the bad economy, AIDS — we need relief from these things. We all have things to worry about, we all work hard, and we want to play hard. It’s bigger than fashion; it’s life.”

Mizrahi says he feels good about his own work, and the overall mood of fashion, for the first time in two years. “I was totally thrown for a loop,” he explains. “I was very afraid of the dour side. I get it. I totally understand why somebody would want to look like that — I live in this city. But I think you have to make a concerted effort not to look like a bag person. I can look happy even if I’m not, and just doing something for the way I look can absolutely make me feel better. It’s very spiritual.”

Mizrahi links fashion’s recent minimal, downbeat mien with an antifeminine attitude that baffled him: “I don’t understand the idea of a woman purposely trying to deny being a woman. I’m with Camille Paglia, who says, ‘If you’ve got it, work it.”‘

Ditto Vivienne Westwood. “I’m trying to idealize the potential of women,” she says. “Each of my garments has a dynamic and a rapport with a woman’s body. It enables her to have the greatest of times. If a woman wears beautiful clothes, she has better experiences in them — and more pleasure.”

Retailers say all of this should translate into pleasure at the cash register. “There had to be a movement toward spirit, toward fun,” says Kal Ruttenstein, Bloomingdale’s senior vice president of fashion direction. “Customers were looking for it. They have regular clothes in their closets. For spring, everything was simple, flowy and, to a large degree, interchangeable. Fun fashion is an impulse buy; it’s like a yoyo: you can’t help but go to it. Years ago, that was the success of Perry Ellis, and more recently, it’s been the success of Marc, Isaac, Moschino, Todd, Versace and Chanel.”

Come fall, Bloomingdale’s will feature “a lot of color, a lot of shape, fake fur, mohair, all the fluffy stuff, rhinestones for day — things you take notice of.”

Last week, Macy’s East installed a junior trend shop, “Into the Brights,” in all 59 doors, with pieces from about 20 resources including Necessary Objects, Rush and Smash. There are corresponding windows at the New York flagship, and within a week, the brights will be upgraded to neons.

But not all of the store’s spunk is reserved for juniors. Fashion director Benny Lin expects fake fur, especially with patterns, and mohair to be hot at different price points, and cites the fakes from Versus, Sui’s neon dresses and feather-trimmed mohair and Oldham’s patterned chenilles.

“Everybody’s had it with down clothes,” says Ellin Saltzman, senior vice president, fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman. She points out that upbeat doesn’t have to be over the top, citing subtler expressions such as the clean, vibrant coats at Bill Blass and Donna Karan’s shocking pink shaped jacket over a black skirt. Saltzman also loves Mizrahi’s bright colors and little suits, Jacobs’s shearlings and grays mixed with brights and, at contemporary prices, Sui, Jill Stuart, ABS and Item.

Saltzman adds that while some of the season’s more overt expressions of playfulness — neoprene for example — make more sense in contemporary than designer, she thinks vinyl has viability at both levels, citing Versace’s slick stuff.

For some, just being around these clothes makes work more enjoyable. “There is a joy to the season, and you feel it when you’re buying,” says Joan Weinstein, president of Ultimo in Chicago, whose stock is largely European. (For fall, she doubled her order at Galliano.) But this time out, Weinstein found so much in New York, she upped her budget and told her accountant to “just deal with it.” Among her favorite collections: Mizrahi, Jacobs and Isabel Toledo.

But those who are eager for the Hallelujah Chorus to silence fashion’s dark side should take note. Karl Lagerfeld says the Sober Set’s not down yet. “At the moment, there seems to be more fun coming into fashion,” he explains. “But the other side won’t give up without a fight. The Japanese and the Belgian attitude is still very strong, and there’s a big group who will say that anything else is frivolous and not politically correct.”