Marc Jacobs: Is fashion back? Maybe not at retail. Maybe not for the countless designers who are playing it oh-so-safe with fall collections steeped in shades of greige. And maybe not for all the consumers who are watching their portfolios in free fall. But chez Marc Jacobs, fashion is back big time. Last season, the designer was the only major player in New York to have a normal show, and this season, while staffers tried to stay focused and work on the collection, they kept fielding questions as to whether weird feelings about September’s bash-before-Armageddon were getting in the way of the process. Apparently, they didn’t, because the collection Jacobs showed at the New York State Armory on Lexington Avenue was wonderful, and in its own pretty-undone girly way, gutsy to boot. It harkened back to the infamous Perry Ellis grunge collection, the one that got Jacobs and Duffy fired, and that many critics still view as the poster show for a bleak early-Nineties moment in the business of fashion.

Something else harkened back to the old days, as well — the ridiculously late start time. Jacobs still has a peculiar relationship with time, and he’s not getting better with age and experience. As a trio of editors arrived at 9:20 for the 9:00 show, Ed Filipowski, fashion’s global guardian of organized activities, greeted them ominously: “Take your time.” That meant: Settle in, folks. Showtime is no time soon. In the meantime, everyone could enjoy some good old-fashioned people watching.

Remember the Nanny? No, not yours, Fran Drescher. Fran is what passes for A-list these days, and she worked it to the hilt, all blown-straight hair and pushed-up, heaving breasts. She posed, she smiled, she posed some more. She waxed intellectually fashionable with Ingrid Sischy and Amy Spindler. But then in came the competition. No, not Mary Poppins, but Derek Jeter, and the photographers dropped Fran like a hard-hit grounder. Jeter smiled and signed autographs for people usually far too cool for such exploits, and when a young woman several rows back passed him a note, presumably with her phone number, he looked back, checked her out, nodded, and pocketed the paper. At one point, he crossed the runway to chat with Mo Vaughn, the newest Met, who didn’t merit the same crowd reaction. But then, Mo, what have you done for us yet?

Finally, even the Derek watch grew old. Filipowski lieutenant Rachna Shah was heard to say into her headset, “Anna Wintour is going to leave. Clear the runway, pick up the plastic and let’s go.” (As it turns out, Shah worried over nothing. Backstage after the show, Duffy apologized to Vogue’s notoriously prompt leader for the delay. “Don’t worry,” Wintour said. “I made you sit through the VH-1 Awards.”)

Finally, the girls took to the runway, and the show was a delight: a grunge attitude shown to a Nirvana beat, but the look now cleaned up, luxed-up and sans aggression. The collection is all about piling on your favorite, disparate pieces, as long as they achieve the right balance of structure and flou, of insider hip and innate gentility. While the jackets and coats were cut characteristically slim, even the leanest tailored pieces stayed soft. That’s because everything on the line was washed for rumpled comfort, from the chunkiest tweeds to the most ethereal embroidered silks. There were painted velvets and metallic brocades, comfort flannels and cashmere sweats. Sergeant Pepper put in an appearance in bandleader passementerie, but so did urchin angels in raw-edged silk dresses and tops. One of the most beautiful closed the show: Ann Catherine in a sequined dress with raw edges over a big, pale washed silk T. She and all of her runway cohorts sported the kind of messy, waifish beauty typical of latter-day grunge girls. Lovely though they were, at least one audience member looked a bit dismayed. “These aren’t Derek’s kind of girls,” someone observed of Jeter, who seemed to have zoned out. “He probably expected Gisele.”

Gisele Bundchen was nowhere in sight on Tuesday afternoon, either, when Jacobs presented his Marc by Marc collection. Once again, he showed why that line has become the ultimate wardrobe cornerstone for cool girls everywhere. He distilled the huge collection down to 35 looks, filled with everything a girl needs to get up and go: the right coats, jackets, jeans and mile-long mufflers to get her through the day, army gear here, a heart-motif sweater there. Still great-looking, yes, although by now, the look is familiar. And should this girl ever shed her Seventies fascination, she might have to romp around nude. But for now, the beat goes on.

Bill Blass: The name Bill Blass means a lot to a lot of people, and Lars Nilsson is still finding out what it means to him. Nilsson has in his trust one of the great franchises of American fashion, honed to precision over the decades by a man who knew his customer and her wardrobe musts. Everything else was nonsense, and Blass had little time and less regard for that. Nevertheless, he could take that woman’s needs and turn them into magic on the runway. Obviously, Nilsson is a student of the Blass approach. But while he has embraced the master’s belief in style over folly, he has yet to capture Bill’s magic.

The collection Nilsson presented on Tuesday morning offered some good clothes, and ultimately, these will make for solid building blocks. He cuts a smart suit, and has a strong enough feeling for separates with panache — a lace-appliqued kimono over wide black pants; an embroidered anorak over citified ski pants. Such looks should appeal to the traditional Blass customer; after all, she’s no fashion filly, but a respectable thoroughbred of a certain age. Similarly, the evening lineup offered some graceful, fluid gowns interspersed with a few clunkers. But what the lineup lacked was that strong, connective thread that makes a group of clothes hold together into a collection with a decisive, coherent point of view. Case in point: Nilsson closed the show with a model done up in a skirt and sweater, worn with a hokey patchwork apron that made her look more like an escapee from the Olympic Swiss pavilion than a divine doyenne of the Blass ilk.

BCBG Max Azria: There are two reasons for a husband and wife to dress in coordinating outfits: Either they are skilled competitors in the pairs figure skating competition or they’re Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Assuming that Max and Lubov Azria are neither, one has to wonder, what was with the mutual black-with-peekaboo-white getups they wore for their bow? Perhaps the Azrias should spend less time matching up their own ensembles and more time focused on keeping their BCBG Max Azria collection current.

True, there is always a customer who lusts after something from the latest hot designer, say, Nicolas Ghesquiere, but can’t swing the price tag. And it’s fine for contemporary houses to come to the rescue. For spring, Azria’s Princess of Darkness contingent marched out in layered and tattered dresses and skirts paired with shearling coats, fur jackets or gauze tops. And though he’s usually partial to beads and embroidery, this season, he switched to grommets, adding a cool, tough-girl slant to pants and floaty chiffon or gauze dresses. Certainly, some of it looked quite lovely, but by now, the witchy-Stevie-Nicks-graceful-urban-warrior motif has been played out.

For women who work for a living, Azria showed a few of those office-worthy pinstriped suits that BCBG has always done well, and once again, these will most likely keep the customer coming back.

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