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The runways were a study in contrasts for spring, from beachy chic to “Deadwood” rustic to MoMA refinement.

Ralph Lauren: We all know about Ralph Lauren’s perfect world. But would that it were just a little less that way, because perfection can be dull — knit cap tilted just so, bandanna in a meticulous knot at the neck, wide and skinny stripes paired with Garanimal exactness. In the collection Lauren showed on Friday, a whole lot of spit, polish and precision-distressed denim worked against his claim of “chic contradictions with rich individual style” and “rustic joie de vivre.”

Or so it seemed in the sea of perfection that washed across Lauren’s runway. Few cool girls — or for that matter, few grown-up women — would wear most of these outfits as presented. Yet break it all up, de-match it and subtract the labored calculation, and you’ve got another story altogether. Item by item, the clothes were stunning in a manner that validated once again Lauren’s intrinsic sense of decorum while hinting at its range.

The designer spun several moods around a core of refinement. He went beachy in Deauville-ish knits, as well as rustic, as he called it, and dressed-up, sometimes combining unlike elements. His patchwork denims, a pastiche of Italian indigos pieced together and distressed in Kentucky, were amazing, and if the chi-chi suit was perhaps overkill, the jacket alone — a work of art. Ditto the cozy yin-yang shawl-collared cardigan with its fluffy tiered peplum: too precious with the flimsy flounced skirt, but fabulous still. As for Lauren’s gorgeous ruffled blouses, isn’t spring’s “Deadwood” theme just a variation on his Southwestern classics?

What worked beautifully just as shown was the eveningwear. Happily, Lauren left the usual red-carpet suspects in the showroom, preferring to focus on the news, which, in a word, was cotton. It came in a short tulle party frock with gold embroidery, and more surprisingly, in curvaceous blue-and-white shirting stripes that will infuse spring glamour with a delightful waft of fresh air.

Donna Karan: Donna Karan has always been crazy for counterpoint — feminine-masculine, softness-structure, industrial-artisinal. For spring, her dichotomy of the moment felt like two separate entities sharing runway space, its range less a natural flow from, as her program notes claimed, “the spontaneity of street graffiti to the foreverness of MoMA and Dia,” than a turf war between serene refinement and forced overstatement. Guess which one won?

This story first appeared in the September 19, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Karan’s new dresses are drop-dead gorgeous, quintessential Donna at her height of elegance. Their languid pour of fabric over the body created a provocative aura of elegant sensuality; these girls looked sultry with a pedigree. It’s a mood that should appeal to women of all ages, right down to the girls who walked the show. (Karan took her bow looking great in a black-trimmed brown version under a jacket.) The key shape, cut characteristically in supple jersey, is belted high with a half-hidden sash for an Empire line with a “free fall” of fabric in back. Donna showed it mostly in rich darks banded with black, sometimes under small, intricately crafted jackets or the weightless geometry of enormous, pencil-stroke thin chain necklaces. She maintained the Empire line through some more structured shapes and a sleek coat or two, and into evening, where it dazzled in bright, pure red.

But some arguments need no “on the other hand.” Having made so brilliant a case for discreet sensuality, Karan need not have switched to the jolting abstract prints she commissioned from Elora Hardy, the daughter of jewelry designer John Hardy. Donna, it’s wonderful to support young artists, but that’s what walls are for, and you’ve got a big apartment. On your canvas of choice, the female body, those sensational jerseys trump splatter art any day.

L.A.M.B.: “I’m not in a rush. I’m here and I want to do this for the rest of my life,” Gwen Stefani said the day before presenting her L.A.M.B. collection on the runway for the first time. To that end, she showed a considerable amount of savvy, starting with the preshow calm — no paparazzi horde fighting over the likes of Diddy and the Duchess of York. As for the seating, William Lauder and John Demsey sat conspicuously in the front row (in front of Alexis Bledel of “Gilmore Girls”), and Stefani’s hubby, Gavin Rossdale, was perched next to Anna Wintour. Clearly, Stefani, never coy about wanting to spin her rock-star name into a fashion brand, was making a point about her commitment to the industry and, let’s take a shot in the dark here, a possible beauty deal.

But fashion is about more than business acumen, and even about more than a terrific work ethic wrapped up in charm — all of which Stefani has in abundance. It’s a hard gig, one in which that elusive little element called vision cannot be given short shrift. If Stefani’s goal is to parlay an everygirl-adaptation of her personal style into a business, she’s got a lot more work to do to distinguish it clearly from all of the other merch out there. Here, she, head designer Zaldy and stylist Andrea Lieberman (who surprisingly had never styled a runway before) fell short, all while toying with too many bells and whistles.

As clouds of dry-ice smoke billowed up and four lowriders with hyper hydraulics jump-started the presentation, four models stomped out wrapped in attitude, rasta colors, tracksuits and snakeskin fleece. From there, the fussy chola-meets-rasta production overshadowed the 60-plus exits, which bore elements of Gwen’s style without her superstar sparkle (and with what seems to be that essential celebrity designer nod to John Galliano).

Nevertheless, beneath the tricky cornrows, hats and overdone makeup, there was significant promise, with interesting ideas rendered in good pieces: pretty dresses printed with wisteria, Stefani’s favorite flower; coed cardigans toughened with a chain motif or glammed up with beaded fringe; appealing outerwear, including knee-length military coats and others with demonstrative scalloped edges. Stefani said she was inspired, too, by “The Great Gatsby,” but Daisy and her East Egg cohorts made only cryptic appearances.

With her infectious personality, Stefani spent much of the week before the show charming the fashion press, stressing that she’s in this for the long haul. “Fashion is about problem-solving,” she said. “It’s the process I enjoy. It’s humbling, but my ego can take it.” And in fashion as in music, you can always follow a so-so effort with a come-back smash hit.

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