Byline: Joanna Bober and Allegra Holch

NEW YORK — Call it touchy-feely fashion. It’s a phenomenon that’s sweeping New York as the fall shows approach. Fed up with high-glitz runway theatrics, many designers are going decidedly low-key for fall. They use words like “intimate,” “personal” and “real” to describe their collections. Some have struggled with the issue of venue, opting out of the tents or other large spaces in favor of cozier corners that allow for up-close-and-personal viewing. Even some of the big guns — who say their businesses require a big show — express a certain nostalgia for the good old days of showroom presentations. Isaac Mizrahi is a recent convert to the kinder, gentler approach. “For years, I’ve had big shows,” he says, leaning back in a white patent leather armchair in his SoHo showroom. “This season, the collection is dictating the presentation. Glitter and glue-gun clothing is not what American women need. I need to move away from that.”
Mizrahi has chosen an empty retail space in midtown to stage what he describes as an informal showing: “This collection needs to be seen up close. It’s deliberately unflashy, and thrilling in an intimate way. It’s also very American — easy to wear, uncluttered and sporty.”
Donna Karan, who will show both her signature and DKNY collections in the tents, wishes her presentation could be as personal. “I miss my showroom with 100 people in it,” she says. “If there were another way to show the clothes, I would.”
Ever introspective, Karan turned inward for inspiration. “I took a good look at who I am — a soul search,” she says. “I decided not to do anything extraneous. Every garment is something I want to wear. The collection is about ease, sensuality, comfort and luxury.”
She’s getting her trend fix at DKNY, with a funky mix of feminine and men’s wear looks — for example, a big striped satin ball gown with a fitted men’s tail coat.
Like Karan, Ralph Lauren also pines for closer quarters. But it’s merely a pipe dream, since he needs to accommodate a large crowd. “When you’re showing elegant clothes, you need a tighter, more personalized feeling to give them some identity,” he says. “But I’m trying my best to work within the rules.”
Only Lauren’s signature collection will appear on the runway. “I feel I’ve already done my active thing by sending Rollerbladers down the runway,” he says. “Now I sense a much more glamorous mood, but one that’s for a very private woman.” Lauren says his Savile Row-inspired jackets “have the look of being custom. The clothes refer to a time when a woman would go to a tailor and he’d fit a suit. It’s not about going to the couture shows to choose an outfit.”
Calvin Klein maintains that cozy shows don’t cut it when you’re running an empire. “How can I show to 1,000 people at one time in a small place?” he asks. “Intimacy is fine for small businesses, but when you need to show to lots of stores and press, I can’t think of a better place than the tents.”
Klein will show very constructed, tailored looks such as shaped jackets with pencil skirts and dresses. While he admits to taking inspiration from the Fifties and Sixties, he denies that the end result is retro. “It’s really a catch-22,” Oscar de la Renta says of over-blown theatrics. “Everyone got so involved with the presentation and drama,” he says. “One tends to forget that clothes are only a success when they reach the back of a woman.
“Finally, people are making sensible clothes now,” he continues. “It sounds boring, but it means paying attention to your customer. Fashion should be about the way real people dress. That’s why I don’t offer my dresses to Hollywood movie stars like Michelle Pfeiffer. I don’t even think she looks that good.”
De la Renta will show lots of suits in grays and bright wool tweeds, and he’s mixing taffeta with cashmere for an unexpected play of textures.
“In the past three years we’ve been oversaturated with trends,” says Bill Blass. “We’ve gotten to the point where ‘trend’ is a dirty word. We’re not at a moment where women are that involved with what they wear. The consumer’s lifestyle is more important than the fashions, and finally, this fall, the mood is about doing whatever you feel looks right for your customer.”
Blass is using men’s wear fabrics for crisp suits and dresses, but he’ll also mix them with everything from chiffon to leopard prints.
Patrick Robinson, the new designer at Anne Klein, is also rolling out strong suits with sleek fitted jackets and trousers.
“I had three months to do this collection,” he says, standing in the middle of a noisy construction site for a more spacious showroom at the company’s offices. “As a designer, you dream of how you’d approach an opportunity like this,” he says. And the true jitters, he claims, have yet to set in. “I can’t think past tomorrow. There’s so much to work through each day.”
Robinson says it’s essential that this collection presents a razor-sharp point of view. “We have to send out a clear message of what we’re about: modern, tailored sophisticated clothes that are also very feminine.” And he plans to do it with tailored jackets paired with short skirts and dresses and classic men’s shapes cut in chiffon and organza.
Michael Kors envisions a sporty socialite clientele, and says the blockbuster hype of a crowded runway has nothing to do with the kind of clothes they like. When you’re showing 8-ply cashmere sweaters that are “the price of a Volkswagen,” one touch is a major selling point. During two separate showroom presentations, which Kors envisions as “a modern take on the Paris salon,” he’ll show his cashmeres along with a slew of short jackets, soft bell-shaped skirts, narrow pants and plenty of coats in luxurious fabrics. “The whole fashion show concept has gotten out of hand,” he says. “It’s not about Mickey Rourke in the front row.”
Norma Kamali agrees. This afternoon she will present her collection exhibition style, in a gallery-type environment in her retail store. “The industry has gotten a lot of attention for extravagant shows with supermodels who are more beautiful than anybody in Hollywood, and that’s great,” she says. “On the other hand, as a designer, I enjoy the craft of what I do — the fitting of clothes, the draping of fabrics, the making of fabrics and patterns. That’s what I do best, and I want to get to presenting clothes in a way that highlights those elements,”she says.
Kamali is so into this real clothes approach, she has even invited some consumers to her presentation, and is putting retail price tags on every look. “At first I thought, ‘Oh, how tacky.’ But it’s not tacky. Clothes are about value at a given price, and you can’t judge the value if you don’t know how much it costs.”
Marc Jacobs points to pictures of Edie Sedgewick to illustrate the mood he’s striving for — “vulnerable, young, but also edgy.” While there’s a hint of the Sixties, he says he has no intention of sending out “retro girls.” “I’m putting things together in a way that looks real, normal and modern,” Jacobs explains. “The way beautiful young girls dress on the street.” He’s chosen to show in the Old World grandeur of the Plaza Hotel’s Baroque Ballroom because it provides “a nice foil for the clothes.”
Fine tailoring has always been Richard Tyler’s forte, and this season is no exception. He’ll show “strong, tailored suits” in everything from crisp nylon skiwear fabrics, leather and vinyl to double-faced wools and tweeds. There’s also a nod to his rock ‘n’ roll clientele, with a hip white patent leather jacket and glossy reptile prints.
Tyler says his split with Anne Klein has given him the freedom to work more closely with his own line. “While I was at Anne Klein, I missed rolling up my sleeves and working with the tailors and sample makers,” he says. He has no qualms about showing under the tents. “We’re quite happy. It attracts more European press than ever before, and the lighting and the sound are great.”
Victor Alfaro is also showing at Bryant Park. He says his clothes reflect a no-hype sensibility. “I’m doing shaped and sexy dresses, but it’s not so overt this season,” he says. “It’s a lot more conservative than usual. The collection is more tailored, and there’s no color.” The strapless dress is one of his favorite shapes, and he’s doing it in a pinstripe wool that plays with the masculine/feminine angle of the season. “I’m doing wearable, sophisticated clothes — nothing flashy,” he says. “I’m not into designing trendy things.”
If there’s one designer you can always count on to deliver a trend, it’s Anna Sui. And this season, she’s true to form. “It’s my mod collection,” Sui says. “I’m inspired by old and new bands like Elastica, Blur, Oasis, The Who, early Beatles and The Kinks.”
There’s plenty in the collection that a rock ‘n’ roll groupie would wear: lots of black and white leather as well as vinyl and iridescent taffeta. Yet whether or not everyone will be dying to dress like mod rockers this fall is not a problem for Sui. “I think I make wearable clothes, although other people might not think so,” she says. “I like where fashion is right now. It’s not just one thing. People are sticking with their own identity, and that’s great.”
Todd Oldham may not be going exactly low-key, but his runway will be about as personal as it gets: He’s commissioned an 18-foot painting as a backdrop for his lively printed sportswear. Oldham will show more suits than ever, in large prints that he’s cut and seamed to create painterly, colorful patterns. He’s also sending out unwashed, dark denim looks for the first time — having just signed a denim license with Sun Apparel last week. “For fall,” he says, “Mine is a happily schizophrenic point of view.”