Donna Karan: Reading between the lines — there’s a lot of that going on these days, all over the fashion map. That’s certainly the case at Donna Karan, where the new ownership is making itself known in more ways than one. For the collection Karan presented on Friday back in the intimate, newly comfortable confines of her showroom, the European delegation turned out in full force — Bernard Arnault, Yves Carcelle and Pino Brusone. How much Karan is influenced in her creative process by the LVMH presence in her life only she knows. But if one buys the theory circulated since the sale of the house, that Arnault saw Donna Karan as the ultimate still-underdeveloped American brand ripe for explosion on a global scale, then the designer’s renewed celebration of her roots in Gotham could be a fashion harbinger. Have we seen the last of Karan’s artsy, spiritual wanderings on the runway? Perhaps.

Donna Karan had said before the show that this was an ode to Manhattan. “New York at its most sultry, steamy, sizzling, sensual,” Karan proclaimed in her program, an affirmation many in the audience were delighted to read. So forget the live didgeridoo and Deepak Chopra’s pithy pearls on the soundtrack. Who needs them when bluesy tunes offer advice for living as well, with a lot more urban grit?

None of which is to say that Karan has squelched her inner artiste entirely, only that she has reined it in considerably. So no more warrior princess, no more wired wedding cake shapes. Instead, for fall Karan favors a sleek, citified look. She kept almost everything long, lean and very soigne, a point made with one of the first exits, a black suit, worn with a fedora that dipped down over one eye. Karan is fascinated with the way clothes conform to the body and here cut them for sensuality and quiet sizzle. To this end, she took last season’s out-there wiring and put it to good use, imparting shape and structure to jackets and some of her terrific coats.

But Donna’s great fascination was with collage dresses and skirts that skim the body as they swathe it in sophisticated swirls and patchworks of fabric. As she sent them out in relentless numbers: one after another after another — two things became certain: The success of these clothes depends upon the body they’re on — but then, don’t all things sophisticated look best on Erin O’Connor? — and on the placement of the various fabric pieces. Despite the one-note concept, the differences made for a range from beautiful to tricky. As for the latter look, last week when asked a question about common fashion faux pas, Karan responded that real women should never show body parts not intended for open viewing. Fair enough; so why insist on doing it even on the runway, where deliberately exposed breasts have little positive impact and can look tacky?

While Karan carried the collage motif into evening, she offered a lovely alternative as well, in graceful chiffon gowns with diamante flourishes. Her models then took their runway stroll to Billy Joel’s musical reminder that she’s in a “New York State of Mind.” And although in the end, the show fell considerably short of its promise, it was still good to see Karan’s emphatic embrace of urbane chic once again.

Calvin Klein: If Donna Karan revived and modernized an icon from her past, Calvin Klein also revisited a girl he has cloaked — or some would say shrouded — during the early Nineties, when he first took the monastic route. While Karan went for the city sophisticate, Klein is much more interested in her younger sister, a girl as charming and single-minded, but one whose post-adolescent reveries have taken her to a very sober place. Not to mention complicated. This young woman’s in a quandary: Clearly she loves beautiful clothes, but she’s afraid to look like she’s enjoying them.

It wasn’t that Calvin’s models seemed disgruntled or as if they were testing a return engagement of heroin chic. Instead, they appeared beautiful and healthy, with fresh faces and their hair back in simple ponytails. Nor merely that the designer kept everything black, black, black with that occasional jolt of gray. But the attitude of studied monasticism felt wrong. In the first place, such a look has limited appeal, either very young or way out on the artsy, I-mourn-my-alt-youth fringe. But more importantly, do women really want to look so dour now? Are they supposed to advertise the horrible economy or heavier sorrows like Hester’s scarlet ‘A’? Heck, no. Let’s face it. There’s only one reason to buy fashion right now — or ever, really — and that’s for a little superficial pick-me-up. And the irony is that many of these clothes could do exactly that — some, gasp! even have potential for sexiness — if one can only get past the schoolgirl sobriety.

Like so many others this season, Klein likes to work fabric insets in contrasting textures into his clothes, especially the coats, most of which looked great. His shearlings are both cozy and cool, and he showed some of the best pants of the season, neither of the been-there, super-tight or the extra-wide, nobody-wants varieties we’ve seen elsewhere, but easy men’s cut trousers worn with feather-weight sweaters. His main focus, however, was on long, swingy skirts and dresses. The former he showed pleated or printed with circles; the latter, with remarkable diversity, given the collection’s unwavering focus. They came box-pleated, pin-tucked or in the form of a lovely flyaway halter, but always worn with flat, heavy boots

The weight of solemnity seldom lifted, even at night. Case in point: the floor-sweeping jersey dress with a high neck and long sleeves — stunning, if pure padre. Once or twice, however, Calvin allowed his girl to break out of her faux-anti-fashion cocoon. Then, she sexed herself up a bit in a fabulous gown with subtle argyle cutouts, and you could feel her aura, and that of the collection, lift instantly.

Kenneth Cole: Kenneth Cole opened his fashion show on Friday morning with the same post-Sept. 11 film he showed a week earlier at his men’s presentation. Long committed to such issue-oriented campaigns, Cole at times has had real impact, as when he embraced the AIDS cause in the very early going when most of the industry was still frozen in silent shock. But sometimes fashion and socio-political platforms make for strained relations, and Cole’s current media effort — the film is just one part of a larger advertising campaign — falls into that category. At worst, linking the two feels oddly cold and opportunistic; at best, it makes even the most serious business concerns seem woefully superficial. So after watching a still film shot that read, “On September 12, fashion was the last thing on our minds,” it was difficult to hunker down and focus on meaty tweeds and knitwear.

Nevertheless, when the focus turned to business, Cole sent a singular message, and this one was sound. Instead of another too-editorial effort reminiscent of his spring collection, he now focused on good, wearable clothes, with a casual, sporty attitude. No, there were no bells or whistles, nor any major fashion statement to be extracted, except for an embrace of an upbeat, outdoorsy attitude. That made for plenty of good, attractive pieces, the kind that work seamlessly into a young woman’s wardrobe. Layering held the collection together, and a feeling of comfort and security prevailed. Shrunken blazers, striped sweaters, distressed moleskin pants and an assortment of coats infused classics with the right touch of fashion, collegiate-style. And if a few of the trendier looks, such as cargo knickers, went awry, well, even the most together co-ed goes for the odd indulgence now and then.

Boss Hugo Boss: Great suits have always been a mainstay of this collection, but classic pairings aren’t all the company has to offer this season. After a few trips to the drawing board, the firm has hit upon a winning formula. Creative director Lothar Reiff punched things up for fall with interesting layered effects. In some cases, for example, he combined fabrics with different finishes — something matte, with something shiny — in a single garment to create the illusion of layers. He kept the color palette simple and soothing with neutral black, brown, burgundy and white. Reiff also offered updated takes on simple shapes, including a seamed leather shift with a muscle T, a deep V-neck leather top layered over a skinny V-neck dress and an array of clean-cut coats in plush fabrics.

This season’s suits, too, were particularly smart: A brown double-breasted jacket and classic pants were paired with a deep V-neck silk blouse with a bit of sparkle, and a white cropped jacket and pants with a fun openwork sweater. And whether you’re a ceo or a hip girl on the go, Boss has all the bases covered.