THE AMERICAN LEAGUE
THE AMERICAN WAY — EVERY DESIGNER HAS HIS OWN VIEW OF IT. FOR FALL, RALPH LAUREN AND MICHAEL KORS CHOSE TO INTERPRET IT WITH POSH VERSIONS OF EQUESTRIAN THEMES, WHILE NARCISO RODRIGUEZ INFUSED TOUGH CHIC WITH SPORTY ELEMENTS.
NEW YORK — Very American. Anyone in fashion knows that those two words pack a double punch. At best, they salute the sportswear tradition that has impacted the way people dress the world over; conversely, critics use the phrase as a code for the triumph of marketing over invention. Wherever you stand, few would disagree that sportswear rooted in classic themes is the primary contribution of American fashion.
But keeping sportswear fresh is no easy task, primarily because it is so familiar. In their fall collections, Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors and Narciso Rodriguez all grappled with that issue. Along the way, Lauren and Kors are banking on a ticket to ride, while in his return to New York, Rodriguez tempered his Tough-Chic sizzle with a fresh sportiness.
In his program notes, Lauren wrote of “heritage” and “thoroughbred dressing.” Now, one doesn’t have to have a PhD in Ralph to catch the drift. The guy loves the horsey set, and for fall he rode it at full gallop, quite literally, at that. He opted for smart, low-key clothes with an upper crust attitude, their roots planted firmly in his own archives. And many were beautiful, although the literal presentation grew redundant, and one missed the sparkle of spring’s Deauville excursion.
Working primarily in a palette of brown and white, Lauren mixed rich textures and patterns while keeping his shapes lean and sexy, sometimes under the cover of sweeping blanket coats. He cut hacking jackets and coats with considerable variety, worn over sleek riding pants and boots. Some of the best: the taupe twill officer’s jacket over matching pants and a cashmere turtleneck, and the cashmere twill jacket paired with stone suede pants. As for those pants — on models, they work. But their appeal is limited, and even the biggest fan of the look probably wants a little diversity in her pants options. In fact, it was when Lauren relaxed the riding theme a bit, with sultry leathers, as in the brown suede shirt and taupe twill skirt, or some of his indulgent cashmere sweaters, that he turned out some of his best looks.
For evening, Ralph carried the riding theme through with mixed success. His black dresses seemed a bit blah, but the paisley velvets radiated a sultry retro sensuality.
While Kors took a very different approach to the equestrian motif, the one-note theme got the better of him at times, as well. Season after season, Kors celebrates a sexy siren who, if not well-born is certainly well-heeled. She has money, social status, a lot of free time and the attitude to enjoy it all. Last season, Michael dubbed her a “desert diva,” and for fall, she hasn’t moved all that far along.
This woman takes care of her body, and she wants to flaunt it. Of course, she keeps things tight — except for the occasional digression into gauchos, yes, gauchos, she favors skinny jodhpurs or stretch britches, with little sweaters often worn under the sweep of a huge blanket coat. Here, ladies, it’s what’s your pleasure, from tattersall checks to the most casual sheared mink, banded in bright colors to look like a Hudson Bay blanket.
As is often the case with Kors, such items were the strength of the collection. His cozy Aran knits, for example, were spectacular, his “wellie” handbags, amusing, and you’ve got to love someone with the moxie to dye an already-flamboyant mink scarf to look like jockey silks.
Kors made a subtle transition into evening, with casual jackets over bustled taffeta skirts, a long knit dress under a coat and beautiful beaded suede pants worn with a sweater and tweed coat. What he didn’t do was package it all with an element of surprise.
No equestrian escapades for Rodriguez. He is most at home on the streets of New York, and so are his clothes. Narciso showed his signature collection here for the first time, and it seemed right at home against the concrete walls of Michael Thompson’s new photo studio — urbane but approachable.
Inherent in that combination is an ongoing dialogue between slick and pretty elements, and if the scales sometimes tip toward the former, this season Rodriguez maintained a smart balance by tempering his harder instincts just a bit. He gave more play to sportswear. To that end, he delivered a fresh practicality in belted coats, peacoats and sporty jackets that gave a little nod to the not-too-tough chic days of the Eighties. On a softer note, he worked in small, airy knits and cozy cashmere fleece that bordered on grown-up preppie.
When it turned overtly feminine, the collection lost some of its freshness. Ringy-dingy chain dresses are runway-only fare, and floaty numbers with major asymmetric action just feel too familiar at this point. The notable exception: a racy side-tied number, opened in back — diabolically sexy.