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?"Marc Jacobs: Funky Chic

He's back! And Marc Jacobs gave himself some kind of birthday present on Saturday when he launched his new company with a collection that sizzled.

In an interview last week, Marc said he likes clothes that are "a little funky, a little trashy and a little chic." And that's exactly the way he played it for fall. Perhaps it was the laminated red sequined jeans that caused a peppermint-striped Donatella Versace to stand up and cheer. (She and Gianni watched from the front row along with Anna Sui, who took a respite from fittings to turn out for her pal.) There were minuscule skating skirts so short that only Tonya wouldn't blush, sweaters sporting zippered peep holes, neon rubber for everything from halters to raincoats and a vinyl Prince of Wales mini.

At least half of Marc's skirts were cut to the knee, and he put them together in charmingly oddball combinations that could veer toward the awkward. But there was nothing off-kilter about his pinstriped pantsuit with stripes mitered across the tush, or the beige poodleknit knockout with a fake fur hood, possibly the best suit in New York. Marc has a new license with Birger-Christensen for which he's focused largely on shearlings. His couldn't have been better, especially the little shaped jackets in yellow or orange. It was all shown on mega models who looked more beautiful than they have anywhere else, with refined Francois Nars makeup and that off-hand, messy hair that everyone here seems to love, this time by Orlando Pita.

And of course, the whole show sparkled with humor, as well as with the faux rocks Jacobs did for Charles Turi Jewelry. His finale featured Shalom and Amber as a tuxedoed bride and groom, the latter wearing the company's phone number in sequins on her breast pocket.

CK Calvin Klein: All Grown Up

The roll continues. Calvin Klein had it all together once again on Sunday when he showed a CK that was young and hip -- but not unsophisticated. While this show may have lacked the theatrics of Calvin's last CK romp -- remember the hundred or so "real kids" who stormed his spring runway? -- the clothes were all as good, and much more versatile.This isn't the CK of cutoff jeans and ribbed tank tops. Now, Calvin's school girls have graduated into smart little suits, suede minis and some terrific dresses, from neat little tweed jumpers to the dress of the season -- a cuddly stretch of pastel mohair. There were also shirts over matching skirts, great shearling and the obligatory vinyl moment.

Most of Calvin's skirts were short, and they looked fabulous. But Calvin also dabbled in newly lengthened, pencil skirts. His just covered the knees, and while they're definitely of the moment, they sometimes looked more schoolmarm than coed, especially over bare legs.

But, for the most part, the show was styled like a gem, with over-the-knee socks, argyle tights and lots of patent leather, for handbags, bright white ankle boots and tap shoes with polite little heels.

Cynthia Rowley: School Days

Leave it to Cynthia Rowley to inject a little humor into fashion week. The collection she showed wasn't as much about fresh ideas as it was about giving current trends a wacky twist. It didn't always work, but the designer gets top marks for her charming schoolgirl tweeds, balanced with book hats by Lola. Her satin-piped mohair slip dresses over matching sweaters and the "baby blanket" group were sweet. But the jury's still out on those kooky ribbon and tulle ball skirts

Finis: Wholesome

No fishnets or stilettos here -- just white cotton tights, wingtips and good, clean American sportswear. At Finis this season, designers Mark McNairy and Antoinette Linn gave a schoolgirl twist to little suits, jumpers and dresses, trimming cheery buffalo checks with shearling and pairing fake leopard with loden. Their pleated pinafore dresses and slouchy tweed trousers also had a fresh, honest appeal. The black lace numbers seemed a bit stale, but the satin looks -- especially the little black suit -- were just fine.

Fernando Sanchez: Homebody

Fernando Sanchez ditched the tents this season, opting instead for the more civilized and intimate setting of his home. With just 24 looks, Sanchez proved that it's possible to develop a lot of ideas without showing a lot of clothes. He used black and midnight blue velvet for sexy Madame X gowns and suits with fitted spencer jackets and pegged pants. He worked his patented color magic, pairing a garnet organza shirt with a dramatic layered skirt in midnight blue and purple. And there was even something for those who like a touch of the ethereal: a cobweb-like, bias-cut Chantilly lace number and a pair of cloud-like iridescent chiffons.Joan Vass:

Joan Vass has always had a way with knits, and this season was no different. She continued the angora fixation she began for spring, this time for terrific jumpers, tank tops and miniskirts in neon brights, navy and mink brown. What also looked great were her wool and cashmere coats, especially a long velvet-trimmed number. She kept accessories to a minimum, and best were her little angora caps in bright contrasting or matching colors.

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