View Slideshow

As the adorable Lil’ Kim arrived at the Jennifer Lopez show on Friday night, her hair a marcelled plaster fastened by monster diamond bows matching her cartoon-sexpot indiscretion, she caused the inevitable paparazzi madness. Taking in the scene, one couldn’t help but register how strange indeed these times are in fashion, especially in New York, mired in the frenzy — some would say folly — of the celebrity launch-a-minute. Here was the fashion crowd turning out in droves at 8 p.m. on Friday after a week crammed with collections, waiting for a credential-free designer to raise the curtain.

Certainly Lopez has done her part as an ambassador of fashion. She owns a strong style, as do Beyoncé Knowles, Jessica Simpson, Gwen Stefani and all the other pop stars lined up to cash in on the images they’ve developed with the help of countless designers, stylists, hairdressers, makeup people and other handlers. But does the mere act of working a fashion look with bravado qualify someone as a designer? Probably no other profession, including other design-related fields, gives off a vibe as welcoming as fashion: “I wear clothes well, therefore I am a designer.” Would the same confidence, some might say hubris, transfer to other disciplines? “I sit in modern chairs, therefore I am a furniture designer.” “I have a chic roof over my head, therefore I am an architect.”

Granted, fashion doesn’t involve designing a building that won’t fall down. But lest we forget, it is hard. It requires talent, skill and, at its highest level, years of dedication and toil, a notion all but buried in the obsession to keep up with which pop star will launch when. Which is not to reject the possibility of crossover success; the Sean Jean collection, for example, is a rare hit, although even P. Diddy has learned that women’s is an entirely different reality.

Success as a designer — not as a fancy figurehead, but as a designer — requires more than the ability to dress one’s self flamboyantly, or, more likely, to find the right advisers. How about a point of view, a vision, that brings something distinctive to the party? That notion was brought home beautifully in the trio of major shows held on Friday. Because, while Lopez staged a fabulous show, its production of a level that one would expect from an entertainment superstar, Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren both showed beautiful collections that radiated their signatures with confident currency.

This story first appeared in the February 14, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Orthopedic adversity notwithstanding, Donna Karan delivered a breathtaking collection, her best in eons. In it, she wrapped many of the themes she loves into one big, bold, oh-so-glamorous statement of chic. She titled the show “Manhattan Rush” in this latest chapter in her career-long obsession with the city, and wrote in her program notes, “It’s as new as it is old, as much reality as it is fantasy.” She was spot on. For fashion to work beyond the presentation phase, it must be as much about the reality of getting dressed as the possibility of fantasy fulfilled. And for a designer collection to work, it must reflect its creator’s core beliefs with an essential spark of the new. 

Thus, Karan brought together elements of men’s wear, ultrafeminine draping, intense details and a soupçon of the artiste in near-perfect expression, starting with a palette that worked the romantic side of moody, its dominant grays laced with violet, fuchsia, teal. Karan opened with haberdashery gone girly — or more correctly, womanly — with pinstriped stretch wool twisted, pulled and curved into alluring jackets and skirts, their femininity heightened by a color-drenched shirt or outsized rosette perched on the shoulder. Volume? Donna made it an option rather than a mandate in full skirts worn with jackets or under the swagger of a cape, and indulged in an editors-only moment with a puffed-up violet cocoon that looked like Erte on steroids.  

That digression aside, the collection featured a compelling counterpoint of formality and ease. A military motif came devoid of strictness, while shirts with Elizabethan grandeur gave soft tailoring a whiff of haughtiness. Dresses included full-skirted, micropleated charmers with bold Xs that defined the bodice while mimicking the straps of the shoes. There were also new versions of Karan’s beloved curvy jerseys, now with ruffled shoulders and poet’s sleeves. Some trailed dark ribbons for that touch of the artiste — but only a touch, lest they stray too far from the designer’s glorified reality.

About midway through Ralph Lauren’s show, those guests sitting nearest the models’ exit heard the din of backstage commotion over the music. Apparently, dressing the girls had presented unusual challenges because, toward the end, they emerged out of order, upsetting the intended finale. Which is worth mentioning merely to restate the point: Every part of this business is harder than it looks. Behind the cool, a-million-bucks-says-you-can’t-ruffle-my-feathers attitude of every model who took to the runway, there might have been some well-masked, unexpected snafus. But there were also 30-plus years of development and devotion to a highly evolved aesthetic, one changing ever so deftly as the years demand, while staying powerful in its clarity.

For fall, Lauren again rendered that mood impeccably. He said he was inspired by his collection of vintage racing cars, on view starting March 6th at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Yet, except for the occasional flourish of an aviator helmet and goggles (likely culprits of the mayhem backstage), he kept the references discreet, once or twice even veering into the dull lane. But no matter. This collection still offered plenty to love, starting with the youthful elegance the girls projected as they glided past.

Since he’s thinking racy, Lauren went for lean shapes, a hint of provocation percolating beneath perfectly manicured flannels. He loves gray, by day as well as its evening evolution into silver, and worked both in countless variations. He sent out mannish fabrics galore, dolled up in a light gray vested skirt, mixes of glen plaid and houndstooth, chicly belted jackets and coats. Sometimes, he punched up the tone-on-tone gentility with a fab leather jacket. And his series of curvy knits flagged an oft-forgotten truth: That refinement and sexiness are not mutually exclusive, a point driven all the more forcefully at night in goddess-worthy gowns shimmering with the glow of beading and of Lauren’s confidence.

Friday night, of course, belonged to Lopez, who showed both her Sweetface and JLo lines. “This should be looked at as the real start of our company,” she told WWD in an interview last month. “Now we’re really going to show the world what we stand for.” She also copped to a certain humility. “Let’s be real — I’m obviously not at the level of a John Galliano. There is an art to what he does that I admire.”

You can say that again. This show played like an homage to Galliano (with digressions into Versace, Dolce and Cavalli lands). With its maze of deck chairs on a glitter-strewn floor, the expansive set pulsed with Galliano theatricality, and, no slave to subtlety, Lopez even signed up John’s favorite makeup artist, Pat McGrath, and frequent music collaborator, Jeremy Healy. The styling, too, invoked his mixed-metaphor, pile-it-on m.o., especially in the opening jeans section.

In the midst of it all, there were some perfectly appealing clothes — lots of jeans, short-shorts, belly-baring tops, baby dolls, capelets — a lexicon of the here-and-now of cute-girl dressing, the kind of fashion that derives its point of difference almost exclusively via the wearer, or in this case, the stylist. One could extract, as well, more grown-up, dressed-up clothes from the riotous offerings lavished with runway-only diamonds and fur, and shown in full wind-swept, Avedon-cum-music-video glory, thanks to a fan positioned just so at the end of the runway. Although it’s tough to imagine a run of the hoped-for J. Lo-generation thirtysomethings on the Sweetface department, many of these clothes could find viability among younger women and teenagers, if well-priced and well-marketed.

What the Lopez extravaganza did not even approach, however, was anything resembling a true designer collection, or at least what this industry has traditionally thought of as such; that is, something inclusive of genuine innovation or at least distinction. Whether that matters, or whether the “celebrity designer” phenomenon will ultimately reshape the American fashion industry, remains to be seen.