Ralph Lauren: The right balance of tradition and modernity — the more established and powerful a designer, the harder it is to capture. But right now, Ralph Lauren is doing just that beautifully. In the collection he showed on Thursday morning, he once again charged into one of his favorite themes — the sporting high life — and made it look fresh and unself-conscious, at least most of the time. What it lacked was the lightness, of hand and spirit, of last season’s blockbuster, in part for an obvious reason. While Lauren dressed spring’s dreamy angels in ethereal whites, his autumn blue bloods wore all black, often in hefty weights appropriate to the season. Although the effect was striking, it sometimes became too much. That’s not, however, to say gloomy; he is a natural optimist and his clothes reflect that attitude.

Instead, refinement reigned. After several seasons of showing in SoHo and last season in a tiny showroom presentation, Lauren returned to the stately grandeur of his headquarters at 650 Madison Avenue. This time his models walked in front of a huge painting of a hunting scene in the library, all dark wood and very Englishy. These young ladies looked quite at home in such quarters; their style is all about polish. It starts with a shapely jacket — redingote, tails, cutaway — and the designer worked those horsey shapes he loves every which way, in double-faced, felted cashmere or melton. While subtle mood swings delivered adequate diversity — a sleek smoking for seduction; sweats and sneakers for a touch of the street — an aura of romance carried through, and it only occasionally veered toward the costumey. (Oops! to the jodhpurs.)

But that made for only a minor problem, because what Lauren has done here is come up with a range of fabulous pieces, some great basics, others wonderfully special, that will appeal to a lot of women whether they buy into the horsey mind-set or not. Examples abound: the intricate, curvy patchwork skirt; the glorious off-the-shoulder beaded top with long, pointed sleeves; the spiffy Art Deco-pattern sweater dress.

For evening, Ralph showed similar range. Gentle types will love the yoked velvet gown with a Seventies-Victorian connection, while his black gown with a jeweled halter is divinely diva-esque.

Helmut Lang: He’s back on the runway. When September 11 undid the fashion schedule last season, Helmut Lang gave in to his techy tendencies and scrapped plans for his much-discussed, controversial return to Paris. Instead, he stayed put in New York and showed in the quietest way imaginable: on a CD-ROM that he sent out to editors and retailers.

This season, Lang kept everyone wondering until last week: Paris or New York? But then, he feels at home in both places, his sensibility always a fusion of European editorial flair and hard-core function; nobody combines the two with greater surety. The collection Lang showed on Thursday was no exception. His look is as specific — and yes, limited — as it gets. For fall, he showed plenty of his classics — the great pants, the jackets with inset satin banding. But here, to keep it fresh, he delivered spectator with a street beat, with graphic combinations of black and white. And he did it at rapid-fire pace — blink, wasn’t that Carmen in a spectacular shearling coat? Alek in a brown apron over tight layers of black and white?

Sure, there were the odd appendages, the flyaway flourish here and there that Lang employs to juice up the runway, along with some new twists and turns of cut. And Helmut turned out some looks of very limited appeal, for example, the black-white-and-foil looks with that extraterrestrial elan. Except, of course, for the knife-pleated silver foil skirt, a sparkly charmer even if it did look like a giant cupcake baking cup.

But the fashionable legions flock to Lang for his stellar basics — the anorak with a thick knitted hood is a cold-weather must — and for wearable innovation. Case in point: his takes on Aran sweaters, twisted and looped but still wonderfully inviting. And while on the sweater topic: how ’bout those shag rug sweaters, right on the heels of Balenciaga’s mop motif? As the saying goes, twice a coincidence, three times a trend. So let’s keep our fingers crossed. Then again, maybe not.

William Ivey Long: In theater, an 8:00 curtain means 8:00. So it wasn’t surprising to see star costume designer William Ivey Long greeting guests to his townhouse for the debut show of his first evening wear collection. Champagne and tea sandwiches, anyone? How about a Broadway melody? Oh, Broadway showmanship and Southern hospitality, a winning combination.

Early guests milled about, taking in the paint-barely-dry renovation of Long’s parlor floor while waiting for the fashionably untimely to arrive. And finally, a motley group, including Caroline Kennedy and Edwin Schlossberg, Molly Ringwald, Kim Cattrall, Mario Buatta and Arnold Scaasi settled into their chairs. (Long kept his best friends, including business partner Wendy Wasserstein and florist Cathy Graham, whose Miss Havisham-ish creations decorated the room, in a little anteroom in back.)

Then it was show time. Enter m.c. and triple-Tony winner Boyd Gaines, who announced that the event’s models were not your typical lineup, but dancers on break between matinee and evening performances. He then engaged in a series of witty Wasserstein-penned profiles of the first six, who came out in remarkably constructed, elaborate evening gowns worthy of a Watteau painting or of Long’s mentor, Charles James. But that was as over-the-top as Long got, and while the next sections of the show featured equally amusing vignettes, the clothes gradually got simpler, and more in line with what most women want to wear out at night. There were bias dance dresses that floated like a breeze and fit like a dream, thanks to Long’s remarkable construction; variations on the smoking; a jazzy little slip dress; a flowing white peignoir perfect for a letter-day Ophelia, a vampy all-red finale.

Throughout the models worked the floor like the show girls they are, at one point each offering a witty vignette: “I was an overnight sensation.” “I stopped the show.” And, from a woman in killer black velvet, perhaps a humorous warning: “I shot the critic.”

Long made some bold statements not only with the drama of his clothes, but with his choice of models. Dancers yes, but of varying ages and body types, many plenty curvy. His lineup thus sent a message about the clientele he hopes to attract. And he’s off to a strong start, especially since everyone knows that his cut and fit are impeccable. Now, Long must develop his point of view as a designer, and make the leap from the one-on-one intimacy of the theater to designing for a broader audience.

Bob Mackie: When it comes to show business, there’s no business like Mackie’s business. And for fall, it was Broadway from beginning to end, starting with detailed program notes of the history of each musical the designer celebrated on the runway. Mackie even threw in a smattering of “real” clothes, and good-looking ones at that: pinstriped pantsuits, little black dresses and some smashing suits. But Broadway Bob is not especially interested in reality. Glamour, sizzling sexiness and couture-as costume inform his collections. And how could it be otherwise, since he spent most of his career as a designer in Hollywood and for Broadway?

Mackie’s Fair Lady wore an extravagant black cloque coat over a white pearl-and-crystal-beaded gown. There was Annie (the one who got her gun) in white ostrich chaps over a black velvet catsuit, feather-trimmed gauntlet gloves and a diamond-trimmed western hat. Mame camped it up in beaded chiffon pants with a fox-trimmed cocoon top and Dolly burst forth in her red and fuchsia gown. What Mackie does for the show-weary fashion crowd is to give it a shot of adrenaline — part fun, part fantasy and an unapologetic ode to sex and glitz.

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