Downtown Lowdown

New York has always had its nook-and-cranny designers, the ones who either are or fancy themselves avant-garde. They're usually based downtown and get by on a shoestring and -- if they're lucky -- a mini-cult following.

But this season there seems to be a whole new dimension to that genre, one that's more polished and more serious than in the past. No doubt inspired by the crossover success of the Belgians in recent years, these designers are getting their acts together.

As a result, starting with Lola Faturoti's Friday show at the Museum of African Art and continuing through Saturday with a number of shows in SoHo, fashion week took on a refreshing new attitude. It was relaxed to the point of cozyness, with models and editors wafting in and out of shops between shows. And it pointed out the merits of alternative venues for collections not suited to the tents.

Faturoti played to a packed house with clothes that were downright elegant -- not what you'd expect from a dyed-in-the-wool deconstructionist. But then, the designer seems to be evolving -- quite a few of her outfits actually had hems. Her Empire drawstring dresses in wool and crinkled satin were terrific, and her tulle coat over a long satin slip dress had a not-quite-finished elegance.

J. Morgan Puett, who showed in her Wooster Street shop, is a Georgia girl, and her clothes are about as earthy as they come -- rough fabrics, crinkles and sobriety. So much so, in fact, that they have the makings of high pretension. But Puett still managed to pull the whole thing off and did it with the raw charm of a Bruegel canvas.

Chicagoans Miriam Kaufman and Luisa Gasiewsky, the Milu design team, are into plain Jane fare as well. And many of their clothes, especially the coats, looked crisp and clean. But enough, already, with tired lineups that don't bring anything new to Sobriety Chic.

Not everything down in SoHo was dour, however. Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth showed her X-girl collection outside, on the corner of Wooster and Grand. OK, so the clothes didn't amount to anything more than little striped Ts over minis, shorts and lots of belly buttons. The show was emceed by Donovan Leitch, and how many designers snag Francis Ford Coppola for their audience? Kim did, maybe because Sofia Coppola hostessed the event. (He and his wife will also be in the audience when their daughter takes to the runway for Donna Karan on Wednesday.) "She's been involved with fashion since she was a little girl. I can't even keep up with her," said the proud dad, who was nevertheless confused about Sofia's X-girl involvement. "What's happening here?" he said. "What's she got to do with it?"

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