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The Mod Squad, Peppy Classics and All That Glitters

Marc Jacobs created a surprising signature collection centered on the Space-Age Sixties, while his Marc showing was both naughty and nice. Meanwhile, Donna Karan favored revved-up classics and retro pastels for DKNY, Lars Nilsson did some snappy...

Marc Jacobs created a surprising signature collection centered on the Space-Age Sixties, while his Marc showing was both naughty and nice. Meanwhile, Donna Karan favored revved-up classics and retro pastels for DKNY, Lars Nilsson did some snappy sportswear for Bill Blass, and Badgley Mischka went ultra-glam.

This story first appeared in the February 12, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Marc Jacobs and Marc by Marc Jacobs: 2003 a space odyssey — accent on the odd. Because while the collection Marc Jacobs showed on Monday night was filled with wit and whimsy of a daring sort, it presented a basic problem, one tough to transcend: These were girls’ clothes at women’s prices. Rich women’s prices.

Delightful — without a doubt. Last week, Jacobs identified the quality he sees as most essential in his current work. “Charm is so important to me right now,” he said. This collection had charm by the bushel. Jacobs also said he was looking to play to the future, but instead referenced “that cliché of the future that looks like Courrèges, Cardin and Gernreich. I just think it’s kind of funny that, when thinking ahead, we always look back to that cartoony, animated version of the future.”

Exactly. But is that cartoon — that cliché — however charming or carefree by today’s ominous measure, a place where anyone really wants to live? And even if we do, can we? Despite fashion’s omnipresent fascination with all things Sixties, so literal an interpretation — both of the designers of yore and their own cartoon muses by someone usually so deft with his references — rang peculiar indeed.

One could not help but be taken in by the color, the life, the wit of a retro theme so beautifully presented, and with such care, from Guido’s masterful Penelope Tree wigs to Marc’s latter-day go-go boots, finished with geometric buttons. The clothes — fresh as a daisy. Or more correctly, fresh as an Orange Julius and Blueberry Freeze Pop, as those electric shades dominated, a dizzying departure from spring’s Eastery pastels. The shapes, too, went 180 degrees, from that season’s Fifties starlet sexiness to those sturdy, graphic shapes that have, since the days of Cardin, Courrèges and the Space Race, defined our vision of the future.

Yet for all its spunk, who will wear these clothes? True, they seem perfect for Letterman appearances by the legions of young actresses who comprise so public a part of Jacobs’ ultracool fan club. But that’s a limited group. Just as true, the greater sphere of the designer’s customers is hardly populated by fussbudgets looking for practicality with every purchase. (And to be fair, anyone seeking a great coat, snappy suit, mini or two, need not go home disappointed.)

Nevertheless, cuteness is not a look even most young women seek out when shelling out for clothes; they’d rather look more overtly sensual, sexy. Those for whom the theme would work — teenagers — a) cannot afford it, and b) are seldom savvy enough to appreciate the charms of dressing their age. Like their 28-year-old cousins, they, too, want to look sexy. While Marc should be applauded for his brass, this time the tune got lost in space.

Not so the melody at Marc by Marc Jacobs, shown on Tuesday afternoon. This collection remains the cool fashion girl’s Nirvana, and could — and should — be blown out to mega proportions. All of the elements are there: the lure of the cool designer name, the approachable edge, the something-for-everyone (even the fashionably nerdy) depth. This time, the look on the runway spanned decades, from the Sixties to Eighties, with the aura of a good girl pretending to be bad. She favors skinny capri jeans with legs zipped for extra snugness, flippy little skirts and patterns galore — checks, squares, animal spots, hearts. And when she wants to get cozy, she pulls on pastel Aran knit sweaters and fingerless gloves. Talk about grasping a trend.

Badgley Mischka: Mark Badgley and James Mischka pumped up the volume on glam this season, eschewing anything that smacked of sportswear in favor of a glittering evening collection. And that meant shaping sexy tailored suits and sleek short coats in shimmering gold and black metallic tweeds or beading simple plucked mink coats and easy cardigans.

Badgley and Mischka both love jewels, and often use them lavishly. They chose Stephen Russell’s diamond jewelry to accessorize the collection, and they beaded and printed their fluid georgette, satin and velvet gowns to reflect their inspiration — Art Deco jewelry. There were fewer long gowns and prints than in past seasons. And, in fact, that editing in turn gave focus to the strongest looks: a rose velvet slipgown and a black satin off-the-shoulder version, both with spare beading. The best of the shorter dresses included an Empire cut in lilac satin, gently puckered and crystal-embroidered at the bodice and back, while a stark, taupe plucked mink coat was perfectly chic over a simple putty satin top and short chiffon skirt.

DKNY: There are good girls and there are bad girls — it’s one of the perennial dramas of dressing. And then there are those who play it both ways. Take Donna Karan’s DKNY girl for one. Karan served up peppy classics for fall, pairing a boyish blazer with a scalloped-edged miniskirt in gray flannel or a pink bouclé jacket with plaid pencil pants. Then she cut the sugar with some tougher stuff — shrunken leather jackets and zipper-embellished pants that play to every good girl’s dream of life riding on the back of a motorcycle.

Though she dreams of the grit and grease of rebellion, the DKNY girl isn’t necessarily running with the fast crowd. A lot of Karan’s collection worked a retro pastel theme, with floaty Fifties skirts in lemon yellow, lavender and seafoam green shown with simple sweaters or fur stoles. From the next decade came Courrèges-like stiff coats in orange and shocking yellow. Both ideas fit nicely into the mood of this season with sweet Fifties looks and bold Mods filling the runways. And if those good girls do what is expected of them, the DKNY collection will suit them to a T.

Bill Blass: Transition is tough; transition weighted by legacy even tougher. But sooner or later, every designer entrusted with the creative direction of a storied house must claim that house as his own, and mark a clear point of distinction between what was and what will be. Lars Nilsson is now in his sixth season at Bill Blass, and while he seems to carry the Blass mantle with greater ease than at the outset, he has yet to define his own signature. Unfortunately, with the collection he presented on Monday, Nilsson did not move far in that direction.

The show offered plenty of good clothes, but without the personality to reach out and clutch a new customer, and only that kind of aggressively established identity can ultimately secure for the house a long-term future. Nilsson simply seems unsure of what exactly he wants to say to pitch those potential customers, which is too bad, because he is clearly a talented designer and shows plenty of promise, especially in his daywear.

For fall, he started strong, with smart, snappy sportswear that had a waft of that unprissy refinement to which Blass himself played so brilliantly in, for example, a belted cashmere sweater and herringbone skirt. He then varied his moods — terrific, for the sake of diversity, yet unfortunate in that he did not announce any one point of view distinctly enough — moving from classic sportif to racier offerings, and even playing a bit to the well-bred diva with a green sable coat over jeans.

For evening, a similar caution ruled, not in the looks themselves, but in the voice. While a pair of little black cocktail dresses exuded a certain sultry sophistication, some of the grander evening gowns had a ponderous feel. On the other hand, when Nilsson paired a little sweater with a long, graceful skirt, one could almost sense Bill Blass bestowing a little smile.