Cool and the Gang

The Fall '99 Collections

What makes the few short years of late adolescence resonate so powerfully in the collective imagination? The visual code that's learned in high school— our ideas about what's dorky or preppy or slutty or arty, what shifting combination of clothes constitutes the elusive category of "cool"— dictates the way we think about fashion for decades to come. So it was that the fall 1999 collections, shown last week in Bryant Park and other venues around town, seemed to have more to do with the formative experiences of the designers than the specter of an already-hackneyed millennium just around the corner. You could almost pinpoint the age of a designer by the stuff he or she put on the runway.

That's not to say fin de siècle anxiety didn't inform the catwalks on some level. There were plenty of harbingers of doom: heavy army green felt, lumpy hand-knitted sweaters, arm and leg warmers, raw hems, motorcycle boots, turtlenecks pulled up guerrilla style to cover the models' faces, Something About Maryhairdos, and a bevy of blanket-capes, blanket-shawls, or just plain blankets. (One editor chirpily described John Bartlett's matted ponchos as "homeless Eskimo.")

But for the most part, designers looked backward, not forward. Stephen Sprouse may have handed out 3-D glasses and printed pictures of the surface of Mars on his outfits, but the outfits themselves— narrow reefer coats over trousers— evoked the Mod movement of the mid 1960s and the concurrent rise of Andy Warhol's Factory, where Sprouse once cavorted. Anna Sui glanced back slightly further, mounting a collection that was an homage to the Newport Folk Festival. (Sui even projected Murray Lerner's documentary, Festival, at the head of the stage, which was probably a mistake since the movie proved more compelling than the runway show.) The models had long, straight Joan Baez­Mary Travers hair, wore neo-Marimekko smock dresses, and carried guitar-case handbags, impersonating earnest social justice types who no doubt would have been appalled by the blankets showing up on so many runways.

Those coverlets were particularly prominent at ORFI, a Downtown design collective that showcased two models huddled together under one monstrous comforter, shivering in the face of an impending nuclear winter. ORFI, which stands for Organization for Returning Fashion Interest— an acronym that promises a lot— also offered denim dirndl skirts, a nutty hand-knitted red twinset with a cape instead of a cardigan, and button-down velvet dresses over Foxy Brown T-shirts. It all looked like something a very young person, perhaps cruising the art galleries on West 22nd Street for the very first time, might consider the height of coolness.

Tommy Hilfiger went to high school long before there were any art galleries in Chelsea, or even Soho, and it shows: what hestill thinks are cool are flared denim pants with studs marching down their legs, patchwork snakeskin jackets, and tweed suits accessorized with zippers at cuffs and ankles. His rock-and-roll vision is worlds away from Marc Jacobs, a far more sophisticated practitioner, who offered an interesting collection that dismissed the turn of this century and recalled the last one: belle epoque long skirts with rouching at the bottom and peplum jackets with giant buttons that looked like the sort of thing Sister Carrie might have bought with her first paycheck. (Jacobs wasn't the only one who persisted in showing ankle-length skirts and coats, though it's hard to imagine that women's reaction to these floorsweepers will be any different now than it has been for the last 80 or so years.)

Some designers not only foisted their teenage fantasies on the audience, they also expected editors and buyers to indulge them in their quest for what they considered cool venues. For the second season running, Daryl K held her show at a community room over a Fine Fare supermarket in a housing project on Jackson Street, farther east and south even than the newly colonized boutique neighborhood around Orchard Street. Those able to find the place (no hardship for limousine-ferried Condé Nast employees, but a challenge for the rest of the audience) were rewarded with narrow olive dresses, drawstring-fastened army coats, padded jackets, and Ms. K's own punk rock memories manifesting as hand-knitted sweaters with sleeves attached to shoulders by big safety pins.

Daphne Guitierrez and Nicole Noselli, who call themselves Bruce (and were too shy to peek out at the end of their show, leaving the audience to wonder if and when it was over), exhibited at the relatively more accessible Bowery Ballroom on Delancey Street. In a period when the absence of an avant-garde in fashion is so keen that any flicker of creativity, no matter how faint, is pounced upon by packs of editors, there are high hopes for these Brucies, who have a penchant for skirts with tails and know how to sew. This time they favored fringe, somber gray trousers with puckered sweaters, and dresses that had fur-trimmed bodices. (Has Downtown fur wearing taken up residence in the same transgressive territory inhabited by chain-smoking and heroin sniffing? In addition to Bruce, everyone from Mark Montano, who has a shop off Avenue A, to Rebecca Danenberg, likewise ensconced in the East Village, used pelts.)

Fur certainly didn't bother Michael Kors, either. Kors, the heir apparent, now that Todd and Isaac are out of the way, to the crown long shared by Donna, Calvin, and Ralph, called his collection Sundance Chic and favored such novelties as a rubberized riding cape lined with sable and a sheared mink serape, though there were also plain wool blankets— beige with stripes— for those who don't like animal hair.

If there was any sense to be made from the melange of ideas on the runways, it was perhaps unwittingly articulated by Susan Cianciolo, the undisputed princess of Downtown demimondaine fashion even as Kors is Uptown's Prince Valiant. This season, she showed in a Gramercy Park tearoom, with dying roses and crumpets on the tables, a switch from her previous venues, which have included abandoned storefronts and park bandshells.

Before the show even started, the audience was a feast for the eyes: men with heads full of braids and necks hung with strands of dime-store pearls; tiny women in leg warmers layered over pants topped by skirts, miniature leather jackets, and raggedy fur scarfs. The models, when they finally emerged, were dressed in Cianciolo's tucked and tied, patched and pulled, coltishly charming outfits, which had been cleverly reconstituted from older garments picked up in thrift shops or trash bins. Her mannequins seemed like the prettiest girls at RISD, of which Cianciolo is an alumna, and they joked easily with the audience, who were clearly friends and fellow artists. None of them looked like they ever went above 23rd Street, so in all likelihood they will never see the little group of Cianciolo dresses presently hanging limply on a rack on the fifth floor of Barneys, sporting four-figure price tags.

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