It's the season of the hopeless romantic. Pretty chiffon, airy organza and other light-as-feather confections are sure to cause the heart to skip a beat.

Calvin Klein: Anna Wintour and Patrick McCarthy walked out. Which is a shame, because this was Francisco Costa's best show yet for Calvin Klein, and clearly one of the highlights of the New York season. But it was staged in a manner that offered a microcosm of all that's out of control about the fashion show system.

We all know that the rules, the focus, the entire reason for fashion shows had shifted dramatically from an insider focus to an outsider focus. Once upon a time, fashion shows were really about unveiling new collections to retailers and editors so that they could plan their upcoming seasons. Now, it's all about the Lindsays, Ashleys, Mary-Kates, Parises and, should one be so lucky, the Umas, Catherine Zetas and Nicoles. And it's about letting in the legions of media, print and television, who cover those people as their primary role, pushing, shoving, stomping over anyone (especially unfortunate, given the editorial set's current impending baby boom) who might come between their lenses and Clay Aiken. (One show regular suggested that steel-toed safety shoes should replace the stiletto sandal as the front-row shoe of choice.)

"It's over, this overwrought fashion show, it's over," said André Leon Talley after the show. "I'm sorry, we cannot have celebs in the front row. I love celebrities, but it's over. It's for people doing their job. Retailers and editors are being treated like they're second class. This is unfortunate for Francisco. It marred and diluted his message. Press people need to address the situation and invite fewer people."

While the celebrity-obsessed design houses are primarily responsible for the change, we have all played into it gleefully at one time or another. But those whose job execution is hindered by the situation have long since cried "Uncle," while the designers expect us to continue on like the old days, business as usual. And like Pavlov's dogs, we do it. Add into the mix, fashion's traditional idiosyncrasies. In the theater, an 8:00 curtain means 8:00. In football, a 1:00 kickoff means 1:00. One can even guess with a fair degree of accuracy what time Alanis Morissette would finish last night at Giants Stadium, and the Rolling Stones would take the stage. Only in fashion does a 5:00 start mean, at best 5:20, at worst, somewhere near 6 p.m., but never, ever does it mean 5:00. And in what other industry do major players routinely throw events at which they expect people to get all dressed up in their au courant best and then push and shove their way into a venue — perhaps in an old, creeky, dangerous elevator, where they will sit in sweltering heat and sweat like pigs on overcrowded benches until the main attraction gets under way? On the flip-side, where else do people throw open-air bashes in January and February, leaving their guests to freeze while they're backstage with the heating units?The world has many problems, and in the big picture, disgruntled fashion folk are not a sympathetic constituency. In our small world, however, we all know that the show system has spun into chaos; did you happen to catch those poor goats on Sixth Avenue on Thursday? What's needed is for cool-headed industry leaders to convene for some serious, constructive reevaluation.

The process should start with the Calvin Klein show at Milk Studios, the worst venue in New York, and among the worst anywhere. The elevators have long been a nightmare, and this time out, the busted air-conditioning contributed to the foul smell that ebbed and flowed through Section C. Still, after the show, Tom Murry, president and chief operating officer of Calvin Klein Inc., said it was too soon to comment on whether the firm would finally change locations. As for the frightening paparazzi commotion, Murry said: "The frenzy is part of the show, and the heat…I don't know what went wrong." Murry was unaware that Wintour and McCarthy had departed, but when told, said only, "I am sorry they left. They missed a great show."

Costa, meanwhile, seemed open to a move. "Maybe the space should change," he said. "I know that the elevator situation has always been an issue. But it's such a Calvin space, and being here, there is such a connection with Calvin."

Perhaps so, but while he was channeling Calvin, Calvin himself was in Rio. And in truth, Costa has moved on from the folly of trying to get into Klein's head, finally proving himself a designer of considerable weight. Thursday night should have been his time to celebrate, because he showed a fabulous collection. All about lightness and air, it featured two ongoing themes — circles and cables — which he integrated in both construction and decoration while focusing on shirt shapes and a white-based palette. In working those elements so precisely, Costa achieved something quite difficult: maintaining a minimalist integrity in quite complicated clothes.

Yet, when it rains, it pours, as they say, and a sour audience may not be Calvin Klein's only problem this season. Pre-show rumors suggested that this collection may not be produced. As part of a licensing arrangement, Vestimenta started producing the Calvin Klein Collection lines for fall 2003, and some sources speculate that the deal could end prematurely at the end of this year. The family that controls Vestimenta is said to be looking to exit the apparel business, leaving Calvin Klein Inc. with the task of finding a new manufacturer. Yet Murry downplayed the notion that the spring collection is vulnerable. "It will either be Vestimenta or, if we agree to transfer the license to another entity, it will be with them," he said, adding that Vestimenta has a long-term agreement that it is expected to fulfill until a new partner is found. "We are talking to several companies," he said.
— Bridget FoleyVera Wang: Although no one has ever accused Vera Wang of being a shy type, her collections have veered toward the discreet, if not the demure. That is, until she discovered some Wild West soul mates in the salty women of "Deadwood." Whether Vera could match those women cussword for cussword is questionable, but they would certainly get a giddy case of the vapors over her beautifully gutsy collection.

Gutsy because inherent in all that American Victoriana is the distinct possibility of costumery. But Wang didn't stop there, pushing forward with the artsy flourishes she started using freely for fall. This came not only from a palette and lovely swirl print cribbed from Matisse at the Met, but from daring shapes — voluminous skirts, twisted and bunched and gathered; corsetry worn over shirts; moody, carefully placed embroideries. "I wanted to create a tension between pioneer and artistic elements, big and small, rich and poor," Wang said.

Along the way, she advanced fresh perspectives on moody-broody dressing, making it mostly chic and at times out there. In the former camp, intricate cuts made lean dresses provocative, while daring textural and color mixes delivered romance of a toughed-up sort. In the latter, the big, shiny purple fluff of a frock would be just right for a black-tie hootenanny at Tombstone Town Hall.

Peculiar — you bet, and brashly so. But this collection's strength lay in its gall. And practically speaking, in its gorgeous, round-the-clock clothes. Perhaps the biggest news came in her dressed-up sportswear; small, constricting jackets over decorative blouses, and slim cropped pants or big skirts. Wang's gowns dazzled as well — gorgeous hybrids of high glamour and artistic eccentricity.

J. Mendel: The ladies love Gilles — Tinsley, Olivia, Tiffany, Helen. And why not? J. Mendel's Gilles Mendel delivers a specific point of view. This designer's square root of fashion is pretty, as in pretty crinkle chiffon gowns and beaded fur confections, all of which are sure to be destined for showtime on the gala and party circuit. He paired tulle with satin face chiffon and sent them skimming across the body in accordion pleated skirts and dresses; broadtail vests brimmed with airy blushed organza, and a tender deconstructive motif ran throughout the show with exposed seams, raw edges and whipstitching. And, oh, let's not forget his furs. Mendel has always been skilled at working a sense of fluid ease into them, but this time he took a step further, working them to the same wistful, romantic effect as his chiffons and silk tulles. To wit: His reversible, plum-colored coat came complete with a gossamer floral print chiffon on one side and long-haired mink lining on the other. This collection turned wintry trappings into delicate, spring-worthy fare alongside silk faille trenches, corset tops and pintucked gowns. It all proved a reminder that the man once known just for standard furs is also capable of plenty more.Badgley Mischka: They're back. After two seasons without showing, Mark Badgley and James Mischka presented their collection amidst a huge, elaborate garden of sorts, on what appeared to be an endless catwalk at The Waterfront space in Chelsea. Later, the designers hosted a champagne reception in honor of their return to the runway. And these clothes are reason to celebrate, though the scale of the venue and the 9 p.m. showtime sent the message that this was more about the production than the collection.

That said, no one does those beaded looks better than these boys. This season's embroidery seemed significantly newer, mainly because there was less of it. What did surface on their gowns was executed with a more body-emphasizing precision. Two of the best that made this point: a satin-belted, beige chiffon tank gown under a metallic tweed jacket and the Empire look in beige lace with a gray satin structured bra. But it is the way they played with fabrics that telegraphed the big news. Beaded gray linen hopsack, for example, was used for a short A-line dress and sexy suit; the snug little cashmere sweater was teamed with a gray tulle ballerina skirt. The designers also checked in on the season's shorts trend, but they did it their way by mixing a mist chiffon top with a black cotton jacket and skinny Bermudas, or putting a terrific beaded golden cardigan over hopsack shorts. This was a collection rich with wonderful clothes and ideas — some belonging to their signature looks, others a completely new take.

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