NEW YORK — Give it a B.That was the grade retailers gave Mercedes-Benz show week under the tents at Bryant Park, meaning they didn’t absolutely love it, but they didn’t hate it, either. There was enough modernity and fresh items, with some retro creeping in, to generate some much-needed optimism for spring selling.The general view was that peasant blouses and low-slung pants are out and dresses are in. The mood is feminine, much less bohemian, and with all those tight waists and fluid, full skirts and long lengths, the season exudes a kind of sexy innocence, reminiscent of Kim Novak in "Picnic." Marc Jacobs, Calvin Klein, and Narciso Rodriguez were rated among the highest collections, while the buyers and fashion executives contacted by WWD were more subdued about Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta, Ralph Lauren, Miquel Adrover and Bill Blass. They saw improvement in Tommy Hilfiger’s women’s collection, but felt the men’s wear, as one retailer put it, "was the same old Tommy.""Frankly, I was very happy with the week," said Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction at Bloomingdale’s. "The collections could have been gloomy because of the economy and the aftermath of 9/11, but there were some strong collections and really strong items. It was the first year in a long time that dresses were the outstanding category in all collections. Silhouettes were short or long, and a few in between.""The season was really about glamour and feminine clothing," said Robert Burke, vice president and senior fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman. "Everyone has the peasant blouse, so retailers and consumers needed to see more elegance.""They pulled the fat out of the fire," said Joan Kaner, senior vice president, fashion director of Neiman Marcus. Top designers have moved from "bits and pieces to more pulled-together looks. It’s a more femme and female approach, rather than girlish."For spring, "Designers all have a distinct signature. That’s very healthy," for business, said Sue Patneaude, vice president of designer apparel at Nordstrom. Patneaude characterized the season as feminine, fluid, fun, with a prevalence of chiffon and slip dresses and shifts, lace work, crochet, lightweight suedes, silks, canvas, cutout work, black and white contrast and polka dots. "I saw a number of short cardigan silhouettes with full cotton skirts, reminiscent of the Fifties sweater girls — a little touch of innocence with a twist," she said.As always, most collections had items to like, even if the collection in their entirety didn’t score big.Patneaude and a few other retailers liked Karan’s strong shoulder jacket with unstructured fabric." It should be influential," Patneaude said. Among other collection highlights, Michael Kors’ deerskin bomber and Klein’s cream lacquered silk satin micro-fiber cotton, reversible coat were outstanding, she noted.Jaqui Lividini, senior vice president, fashion merchandising, at Saks Fifth Avenue, said, "One of the biggest trends on the runway was the sexy trench coat, with beautiful ones by Marc Jacobs, Oscar de la Renta, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, and Narciso Rodriguez. Lividini noted that several designers created standout close-to-the-body skirts. "It’s a nice change from all the volume we’ve seen before," she said.Lividini observed that many collections emphasized the waist, rather than the hips, which previously had been important. Others said the hip factor is more confined to the contemporary market.For example, Lividini noted that Michael Kors had "a great khaki cargo jacket tied at the waist, and Marc had great jackets belted at the waist. Narciso also had a defined waist." For evening, Lividini said she saw a lot of silk charmeuse and silk satin and particularly liked evening dresses from Klein, Karan, Jacobs, and Carolina Herrera. Another trend for fall is short pants cut off at the knee as seen in the Kors, Rodriguez, and Bill Blass collections. "They are an alternative to a skirt, worn with a jacket," Lividini said. She also liked Badgley Mischka’s "great evening blouses over white jeans. It’s a real departure for them and it’s nice to see newness on the runway." She also liked Vera Wang’s "great little evening separates, such as a pleated skirt with a cashmere sweater, and Oscar’s embroidered tulled skirt in ivory."Lividini thought Lauren’s collection "further enforces the idea of boudoir, feminine looks and feminine icons being perpetuated all week. I thought the printed gold leather and all the upholstery fabrics were really beautiful." In addition, Lividini said Adrover’s "evening segment was unexpected and very refined. He’s an original."For Neiman’s Kaner, the season had an abundance of dresses — sun, shirtwaist, chemise and blouson — as well as slim and pencil skirts. She said there’s a movement toward clothing that’s more sophisticated and sensual, using fabrics such as satin, matte jersey, georgette and chiffon, and many designers gave a lot of attention to details, such as tucking, seaming details, ruching, ribbons and ties.Discussing spring colors, Kaner said there was a lot of black and white, mixed with a beige story that was very strong. "Pink has been dominant, and there have been hints of green. I loved the blue-green that opened Calvin Klein’s show." For evening, Kaner sees lots of lingerie looks, slip details with lace trims and chiffon.Ruttenstein saw several designers improving upon their signature looks. Wrap queen Diane Von Furstenberg added new silhouettes to her repertoire, Zac Posen moved his signature silhouette in a totally different way with "amazing dresses and fantastic construction," and Jacobs showed strong colors, new shapes, presenting "one of his strongest collections to date," Ruttenstein said. Ruttenstein said Lauren had "a serene lifestyle show with very exciting dresses and modern but nostalgic touches." Donna Karan, he said, "stepped out with flirty sexy clothes, a lot of prints which she never did before, for a new glamourous look."Adrover, said Ruttenstein, "had a great comeback with an interesting segment on executive dressing for women, something he’s never done before." He also saw intricately cut jackets, and unusual takes on tuxedo dressing. "Calvin surprised us," Ruttenstein added. "He didn’t stick to his simplicity theme, but he did marvelous dresses in chiffon and matte jersey with intricate seaming." He also liked Anne Klein’s skirts and fabrications, and Proenza Schouler by Jack McCullough and Lazaro Hernandez.Burke agreed that Klein looked "quintessentially Calvin, but with up-to-the-moment modern, feminine, fluid, wonderful fabrics, and sophisticated colors. It was a tough balance to draw, but he did it." Although many buyers thought Karan was mixed, Burke of Bergdorf said the collection was sexy, alluring and retro yet still modern, particularly with her print dresses and skirts. "She doesn’t always have to be about career clothing," Burke said. "The idea of what people wear to work has evolved."Among his favorite collections, Burke listed Calvin Klein, Jacobs, Rodriguez and Lauren, who he said had some of the best jackets on the runways. "They were shorter with some flounce to the tail, and feminine, not man-tailored. He also did some of the best cardigan sweaters with jewelry closures that were sheer and sexy." On trends, Burke cited cutout detailing on pants and skirts; florals and paisleys; a soft color pallette, such as pinks, light blues and whites (crediting Jacobs with fabulous shades), and some good coats — but perhaps too many, since he would have liked to have seen more evening separates.He also cited Rodriguez for "femininity with razor-sharp modern cuts with softer fabrics, showing a lot of interest wrapping around the waist," as well as DKNY as young and fun with full skirts and lots of polkadots.Brian Bolke, owner of Forty Five Ten, a Dallas specialty store, said, "We liked Narciso because it’s a really great evolution of what he’s been doing. That was absolutely a great show. We liked the whole black and white with pops of color, because having so much color, pattern, ethnicity and prints from other designers for so long, our customers want something new.""It’s spring, so we’re looking to do a huge dress business and there are great ones from Zac Posen and Stephen Burrows," said Ed Burstell, vice president and general manager at Henri Bendel. "I also liked Diane Von Furstenberg’s St.Tropez/Rome feeling with the long flowing scarves, as well as Rick Owens and Catherine Malandrino."Kirna Zabete owners Sarah Easley and Beth Buccini were taken with Luella Bartley’s "adult play clothes," Rick Owens’ thin jerseys for layering and Behnaz Sarafpour’s great tailoring and colorful hand-painted pieces. But it was relative newcomer Peter Som who drew unexpected raves with strong vacation clothes, inspired silhouettes and drapey pieces with cheerful color, according to the duo.Stefani Greenfield, co-owner of the Scoop boutiques, said that while she wasn’t overwhelmed by the fashion overall, the skirts, dresses and colors looked good. "There aren’t many standouts thus far, but from a retailer’s approach, there are a lot of very salable things this season," she said.Greenfield’s favorites include the day dresses at Jacobs, slouchy trousers and cardigans from Owens and the long skirts and great colors at Som."We haven’t carried him yet, but he will definitely be part of the Scoop buying matrix for spring," said Greenfield.

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