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The Sweet and Lowdown – Calvin Klein, Vera Wang, Anna Sui, J. Mendel

The New York shows hit the homestretch, with collections from Calvin Klein, Anna Sui, Vera Wang and J. Mendel.

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Calvin Klein: Francisco Costa’s got one of the toughest gigs in fashion. Not only did he succeed a major god, accepting the mantle of expectation inherent therein, he did so just after that god had cashed out to new owners with their own set of hopes, not the least of which is to push the bottom line, sooner rather than later. Then of course, he faces a third set of expectations: his own.

It is the role of any designer taking over a house to maintain its integrity while putting his own mark on its aesthetic. Klein created one of the most unequivocal viewpoints in all of fashion, and in his first three collections, Costa started from a vantage, if not of pure reverence, then at least unwavering solidarity. The fall collection he presented on Thursday revealed his first inclination to break ranks with the master in significant ways, at times even a bit recklessly. The effort pulsed with the essential ingredients of experimentation: surprise, mistakes, and most of all, confidence.

Either by design or accident, Costa chose to limit volume at a time when many other designers here are puffing up big time. While in past seasons he has favored fluid, even billowing proportions, this time he opted for stricter shapes, some with a Sixties Space Age look, until now completely alien to the house. A shirred mink coat flaunted a grid motif; origami decorations trimmed tops and dresses; shiny patent leather tiles and strips glistened from skirts and coats. It was, in fact, in this penchant for decoration — and a harsh moment in brassy citron — that Costa strayed most boldly from the revered Klein purity. And though a few looks felt too tricked-up, many were lovely, as when he wrought subtle havoc on men’s wear grays, with tailored patchworks of herringbone and wool lace. He also showed some graceful evening frocks and here he gave a nod to volume, most notably in a short, airy bubble of an evening dress.

Sometimes during  the show, one felt the age-old struggle between art and commerce. And there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s a designer’s job to reconcile the two. Hopefully, Costa will be allowed to do so in a manner in which tricks won’t overshadow the essence of the house.

This story first appeared in the February 11, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Vera Wang: As was reported in WWD just days before Vera Wang’s Thursday show, company president Susan Sokol referred to the growth of the luxury label as “fast and furious.” With a number of expansion plans on the drawing board for Wang’s burgeoning divisions (opening stores in San Francisco and Los Angeles), it’s a sound assessment. But finding success in the business of high-end clothing isn’t merely a numbers game. Luxury fashion can be just as much about evoking emotion as it is about the bottom line. The designer’s romantic fall show certainly did its best to tug at the heart of what women love about clothes.

Wang’s color palette was a gorgeous and painterly mélange of rich but subtle hues — mossy green and gray, cobalt blue, burnished gold, deep wine, to name a few — that practically required poetry to describe. She imbued dresses, tops and skirts with a wonderful fluidity using filmy tulles and chiffons, draped and pintucked into place, though Wang sometimes worked the details to distraction. Two standouts: a forest green and burgundy dress and a deep violet one-shouldered gown. On many of the dresses, a length of velvet ribbon or a jeweled band at the waist often provided a chic counterweight. On the more structured side, Wang worked pale brocades and stiff silks into skirts with softly ballooning hems. Jackets were also richly appointed, mostly in velvet and fur, and many were shown in abbreviated shapes to complement the stream of dresses. Although translating beauty into dollars is an inexact science, Wang and her team are on their way to a winning formula.

Anna Sui: Just when the midweek blues start to creep in, along comes Anna Sui’s Wednesday night show to chase them all away. “Last season was just so quintessentially Anna Sui — ruffles, prints, very girly,” the designer said of her spring cowgirl romp. “This time, I wanted to go to a different place.” Like many designers this season, Sui went indoors to the world of interiors. But not for her those fussy, Old-World tapestries. Instead she took her cues from the graphic patterns and colors of David Hicks and the textiles of Jack Lenor Larsen and Dorothy Liebes, whose work in the Sixties made groovy colors like turquoise, orange, brown and moss green a part of the decorator’s lexicon. Read: the colors of your childhood kitchen.

Nevertheless, the visual and textural riot was still Anna’s party. She worked each look with a focused palette, from Day-Glo combinations of oranges and pinks to more reserved ochres and browns. Within each cohesive color scheme, she wove in a walk-in closet’s worth of elements: adorable dresses in Hicksian prints, skirt suits and coats in tweeds both roughly woven and flat, satin and Lurex bow blouses, knits both intarsia and bejeweled. As if that weren’t enough, the whole lot got topped off with matching printed tights, Erickson Beamon beads and Adrienne Landau fur hats. And if it was ever too much, Sui’s earnest spirit made it a show to love.

J. Mendel: There’s much that makes a J. Mendel fur so special, and it was all there in look number one: a white broadtail princess coat with a bullion-trimmed bib. Designer Gilles Mendel knows how to gild the lily better than anyone, this season with jewel or bullion trim on his precious furs. His program notes cite his youth in Paris and the effortless chic of Charlotte Rampling and Romy Schneider as his inspirations. And their influence shows in this collection that’s all about romance heightened with luxurious decoration.

There’s also the slim factor, which most women crave, no easy feat to achieve in furs. Mendel does it beautifully, managing to minimize the volume even in down jackets. His versions are down-filled sheared mink, showing that luxury needn’t always be so serious.

Mendel first introduced ready-to-wear a few years ago as an accompaniment to his furs, but he’s been adding more each season. For fall, he showed some terrific coats, especially the mink-trimmed gray tweed, paired with a charming silk corset top and metal-trimmed bubble skirt. There were also plenty of lovely evening looks, short and long, including a porcelain silk chiffon gown with bullion trim and the embroidered nude tulle Empire number. His ready-to-wear offering may not be considered a complete collection with its own voice, but it makes perfect sense for Mendel to offer his customers clothes along with furs in his New York and Paris boutiques. After all, you always need a pretty frock to go along with your drop-dead fur.

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