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PAUL SMITH: “It can be a big weakness to want everyone to like you.” At least in business, according to Paul Smith. The British designer spent the weekend in New York, meeting with retailers and press to show his fall women’s collection. After 17 years in men’s wear, Smith launched women’s three years ago, and he readily admits that there were problems from the start. The biggest one, he says, was that he lacked confidence. As a result, he listened to too many people, took too much advice and the collection became too big and schizophrenic. “To be completely honest, I didn’t understand the world, and it’s taken me three years to learn it,” he says.
For fall, however, Smith has gone back to his roots in men’s wear and relied on staffers — including “a lovely cutter who worked with Walter Albini in the Seventies” — to help him with the collection’s feminine side. Though the approach works quite nicely in a season strong on gender play, he says it happened “purely by chance.”
But Smith’s collection is no study in gray and black. Instead, he perks up gray flannel with a huge fuchsia windowpane print and pairs brown checked pants with a loud floral print shirt. On the girly side, a velvet dress is printed with portraits of giant cats. It’s not for everyone — but Smith doesn’t expect it to be.
“In the Fifties and Sixties, dressmakers made clothes for specific people — at that point it was all about the individual,” he continues. “Now, there is so little of the individual in fashion. Everybody is buying into a look, rather than an expression of self: ‘Look at me, I’m fashionable.’ Everyone is so conscious of being a member of a certain club, with the right label. I want my clothes to appeal to individuals.”
Smith’s distribution is worldwide: the men’s collection sells in 40 countries, the women’s, which is produced under licensing agreements with Onward Kashiyama, in 35. The company’s turnover is $103 million — “huge in Britain.” Its largest market is Japan, where there are licensing deals for watches, underwear, eyewear and bags. U.S. accounts include Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys New York, Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus.
“To have a big business here is so difficult,” Smith says. “You have to have the huge marketing machine, markdown money, co-op ads and lots of deliveries a year.” Nevertheless, he considers this the right moment to expand. He hopes to increase the number of doors here and to open a women’s store, either by reapportioning space at his men’s shop on lower Fifth Avenue or by finding another site.
But he wants to expand without losing the individuality he cherishes.
“I’m not naive. I want the business to grow,” Smith says. “But I own my business. I have a lovely lifestyle and a very nice wife of 30 years. I don’t need more, more, more.”
CAROLINA HERRERA: Carolina Herrera insists she doesn’t give a hoot about trends. But you couldn’t tell that by the collection she showed on Monday — a veritable celebration of Tough Chic. Well, not Tough Chic exactly — a lady is as a lady does. But that doesn’t mean she has to be a wimp. In fact, Herrera’s woman has always had a healthy dose of bravado, one she’s recently had to temper at times, trying to fit in to fashion’s quieter moments.
But now she can strut her stuff as flagrantly as propriety allows. Black leather? You bet — in coats, jackets and the bodice on a jersey evening gown. Mugler-McQueen shoulders? Bold as could be — although Herrera would note that she revived them last spring. “I love strong shoulders,” she said last week. “They make a woman look great.” She also loves assorted animal prints for evening dresses, and racy little dresses in black lace over red silk.
On the quieter side were cashmere suits and tweed coats in relaxed proportions, often with fake fur trim. This collection, though, was not really about the quiet moments, and sometimes Herrera took bravado a step or two too far. But then, that’s just what a lot of women have been waiting for.
TSE: They say that timing is everything, and for Victor Alfaro, this is the perfect moment to have turned out a strong collection for Tse. For the first time since he launched his firm, Alfaro will not show a signature collection this season, and the hunt for a well-heeled backer is clearly on.
But Alfaro seems not to have been distracted. He delivered a Tse collection that was both controlled and smart, infusing the sportswear with a lightness it has often lacked in the past. The collection is built around pieces — a sporty jacket or car coat in doublefaced cashmere, a lean sweater, baggy pants — worn in all sorts of offhand combinations. Throughout, Alfaro worked with relaxed, mannish pants and trouser skirts, which he put with everything from skimpy beaded tops to cashmere sweatshirts, staking his claim to fall’s masculine-feminine mood along the way. The palette was subtle but interesting, and the sweaters, simply beautiful: lush tweed turtlenecks, felted cashmere cardigans, a skinny thermal tank.
Alfaro wasn’t content to stay with sportswear, however, and his dresses, though not unattractive, were often peculiar, especially the strapless cashmeres that don’t make a great deal of sense.
But this collection was really about a mix-and-match approach to dressing at a luxe level, and while the idea may not be new, Alfaro made it appealing and fresh.
BOB MACKIE: They don’t call him Mr. Show Biz for nothing. Give Bob Mackie a stage — in this case, the “Chicago” set at the Shubert Theatre. Let him loose with yards of crepe, satin and lace, not to mention a truckload of beads. Throw in a bevy of models and one of the dancers from the Broadway show, and you have all the makings of a spectacle to rival a Flo Ziegfeld production.
A Mackie show, after all, is all about fanfare, theatrics and clothes that dazzle. They may not suit everyone’s taste — wallflowers need not apply — but for women who want to be bold, brash, sexy and out there, Mackie’s their man. And that’s the way he likes it. In his program notes, he says, “I design for women who make their own choices. I admire their independence, their strength and their fresh thinking. Perhaps that’s my inspiration.”
One of those inspirations, Carol Burnett, stopped by to see her pal’s show on Monday. What she saw were such show-stoppers as jet-edged tuxedo pants paired with a beaded turtleneck; short satin sizzlers, and iridescent chiffon or crepe gowns lavished with beads. And, true to Broadway tradition, everyone headed to Sardi’s for a post-show toast to Mackie and the launch of his new fragrance, Perhaps.
CHAIKEN AND CAPONE: They’re known for their pants, but Pamela Capone and Julie Chaiken have always done a full sportswear collection. Three years ago, the longtime friends went into business together — Capone designs in New York, Chaiken oversees the business from San Francisco — with the self-imposed mandate to make hip, wearable clothes at below-bridge price points. “There was a hole in the market for clothes that could cross over from work to everything else,” Capone says. The approach clicked — especially with those skinny stretch pants. This year, Chaiken and Capone should hit $6 million in sales to stores, including Barneys New York, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus as well as about 40 international accounts scattered from South America to Japan.
In their first show, the pair offered more good-looking takes on their no-nonsense shapes in high tech fabrics. They also added calf-length skirts in gentler materials, along with what they called “Dior jackets” with bracelet sleeves and ample touches of fake fur.
WESTCOTT: When Carla Westcott is inspired by another designer — Norman Norell, say, or Bob Mackie — she has no problem fessing up. And she does it by calling an evening dress and coat “Channeling Mr. Norell” and a matte jersey gown “Big Mackie.” These frisky labels aside, however, most of this highly polished collection was very much her own. For fall, the Westcott way is refined and young, as shown in the perfectly cut plain or jeweled cardigans shown over jersey dresses, the pinstriped metallic suits and the graphically seamed, gold, plum or wine charmeuse numbers.
BCBG MAX AZRIA: Attention, all fashion snobs: Style isn’t just a pearl of great price. And that’s exactly what Azria illustrated with his third show for BCBG, the contemporary collection in his five-line stable. It was distinctly more sophisticated than in previous seasons — as indicated by such looks as the sheer beaded tunics over tailored pants, ombre-effect leather pieces and colorblocked wool skirts worn with skinny turtleneck sweaters. And if Miuccia Prada is clearly Azria’s source of inspiration at times, who cares? Teen singing sensation Brandy — who was sitting in the first row — sure didn’t. She could barely contain her excitement, especially over the camel leather jacket and knit sailor pants.
MARY MCFADDEN: McFadden went to Russia and back for her fall collection. While it was inspired by costumes from the time of Peter the Great — as her ever-instructive program notes pointed out — she’s no slave to Slavic fashion. In fact, it was the long bias skirts in her signature pleats worn with hand-painted or embroidered jackets and the short black lace slipdresses under matching cardigans that were this season’s winners.
CYNTHIA ROWLEY: It was supposed to be a trip to Shangri-La, but not even two larger-than-life-size ice sculptures could cool off the long, hot wait. Fortunately, there was a little bit of paradise when the show opened: Fiery red maxicoats worn over the briefest of jersey dresses. Rowley’s toppers in shaped, polished leathers or embroidered shearlings and her tweed pantsuits with wide cuffed legs also looked good. But not everything was a hit — the nailhead-trimmed knits were a part of the Eighties we didn’t want to revive. And while Rowley brings a breath of fresh air to her bridge market, that’s no excuse for some of the poor quality on this runway.
HAN FENG: Hang Feng went as far away as Africa, India and China for her fall collection. And she landed back in New York with a beautiful, gutsy collection. Feng’s latest mixes were quirky but controlled, layered in rich colors and fabrics that reflected a sure hand. Pants and skirts came in every imaginable length and shape — some amusing; others serious. Chalkstripe flannels or printed Thai silks were matched as suits or mixed playfully with cropped angora sweaters, georgette shirtjackets and wool peacoats. But the long, luxurious coats, artfully rendered — but never artsy — eclipsed even her winning exotic looks. Sure, there were some of the usual tricks and excesses, but all told, Feng gave her retailers plenty to work with.
ISABEL TOLEDO: One thing’s for sure — Isabel Toledo belongs to the march-to-your-own-drummer band of designers. And while she sometimes misses a beat, she got it right this time. Toledo did it with a collection that combined elements of good sense and great style. She even had some conservative moments: tailored suits in men’s wear wools and a boxy doubleknit cardigan zipped over a matching turtleneck and bias-cut charmeuse skirt. But this doesn’t mean that Toledo’s over the odd: a sheer cassis T-shirt came with its own long, flowing back skirt over matching silk pants.

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