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NEW YORK — Over-the-top seems to be over this season, abandoned in favor of a softer, more subtle approach. The spring runways were full of easy, clean looks from various designers who either made a departure from the looks of previous seasons or continued to build on their earlier efforts.

Mary Ping’s show, for example, was a soothing reprieve amidst the hustle and bustle of fashion week. Her collection, mostly in white and off-white, was clean and Zen-like, featuring soft, subtly textured silks and cottons. Shapes, for the most part, were loose and easy — such as a tank with a knotted scarf-like detail that was paired with white cotton jeans and topped with a calfskin vest. Gustavo Arango also went understated for spring with a beautiful collection that included elegant dresses and gowns such as a turquoise-and-white-striped silk one-shoulder dress and a delicate, hand-painted silk layered gown. But he should have edited out the vests that looked like pieces of armor.

Gary Graham, who’s known for his ragged, undone looks, went soft for spring with distressed dresses and skirts in tulle and draped silk that had a romantic, almost fairy-like quality. This wasn’t one of his stronger lineups, but there were a few standout pieces, such as the little pink sweater and sparkly skirt and a handful of sweet, breezy silk dresses.

Mara Hoffman replaced the overly theatrical styles of past seasons with a group of polished looks perfect for a breezy night out on the town. Highlights included a red eyelet minidress with kimono sleeves and a white cotton dress with bright red embroidery. The pants were great, too — high-waisted to create a long, lean and clean silhouette. Her only mishaps were the peekaboo, hand-dyed pieces with bandeaux underneath.

At Harmon, men’s wear designer Andrew Harmon’s second showing of women’s looks was a nice progression from his first effort. The designer stuck to what he does best — his tailoring — which showed up in such looks as his great high-waisted trousers worn with a fitted safari jacket. Unfortunately, however, the second half of the collection veered toward the gimmicky with too many red pieces.

This story first appeared in the September 14, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Vena Cava duo Sophie Buhai and Lisa Mayock also proved that they’re refining their collection with a strong third showing. Casual looks in jersey, cotton and denim with lipstick orange and burnt brown tones were perfect for an exotic vacation. And Hanuk, for his part, delivered more of his beautifully simple, one-piece monochrome clothes, punctuated by a splash of color here and there.

Elsewhere, former DVF design director Samantha Treacy showed her three-seasons-old collection for the first time at Mao Space. The designer attempted the trend du jour of eclectic chic. She mixed country-girl florals with stripes — which worked about half the time. The few simple printed jersey dresses were a great addition, although one that suggested the line of her former boss.

Nicole Romano, meanwhile, took her inspiration from the Italian seaside this season with a lineup that included a handful of supersexy, colorful minidresses with draped asymmetric panels or handkerchief hems — looks only the most svelte of Italian vixens could pull off. And Lloyd Klein’s inspiration came from the mistress of classical draping and pleating: Madame Grès. There were some appealing little black jersey numbers, fit for a modern-day Diana, but what were all those distressed-denim amazon looks? Not only were they repetitive, they were simply unappealing.

And in his first New York show, Ruben Campos made his appeal with an array of lightweight leather looks that included leather evening gowns for spring. While some of the looks were quite beautiful, such as the column of beaded lace, many others were just plain tasteless, such as the supertight, fringed pink bouclé leather minisuit and the chiffon and satin dress in eight colors and assorted lengths that also was paneled, flounced and had streamer sleeves.