The 1999 Spring Collections: Where's the New Isaac Mizrahi?

by William Norwich

For as many people as get dressed in the morning, there are opinions about fashion. Some hail dressmaking as an art. "Art steps in where nature fails," enthused writer Laura Jacobs on Nov. 6 at a two-day conference titled "Fashion: The Newest Art" at New York University, which for some 250 fashionistas capped a week's worth of New York spring 1999 fashion shows. For others, it's a less lofty pursuit.

"Fashion is spinach," countered Grace Mirabella, borrowing the title of a 1938 book by Elizabeth Hawes. "Fashion is not art," she said, this time quoting Yves Saint Laurent, the subject of her talk at the conference, "it is poetic craft."

Never mind art: Salability is all the rage. In Paris, even John Galliano's latest collection for Christian Dior was commercial. And throughout New York's fashion week, "utility chic," sporty dressing and color trotted down the runways, to the pleasure of retailers, who have discovered something they can market to consumers made dizzy by fashion at the millennium.

And salability is the only antidote against what Constance C.R. White, a writer for The New York Times, calls "the failure virus." This is the ailment that in the last six weeks prompted Isaac Mizrahi to close shop; Todd Oldham to get out of the wholesale clothing business so he can focus on his jeans line; Adrienne Vittadini to retire early; Nautica International to discontinue its women's collection; Richard Tyler to forgo a fancy show and instead receive the press by appointment only; and the Anne Klein company to go up for sale. To name a few.

Even best-dressed ladies and the writers who chronicle them have been felled in recent days. Arts patroness Jayne Wrightsman sprained an ankle when she tumbled at the Paris atelier of designer Josephus Thimister on Halloween weekend. Suzy Menkes, writer for the International Herald Tribune, broke her knee after a fall in London several weeks ago and was unable to cover the recent New York collections.

But, of course, this was only part two of the New York spring collections. In the past, New York was the last stop on the grand shopping tour, but this September, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Helmut Lang and other designers showed their spring collections before the fashion flock set off for shows in London, Milan and Paris. The splintered New York effort made the recent Middle Eastern peace talks in Maryland look as uncomplicated as a Pillsbury bake-off, while fashion show organizers in Milan and Paris met to decide what to do about the revolution caused by the American designers who want to go first, rather than last, in the schedule. What a mess.

The fall 1999 men's and women's New York shows will happen under co-ed conditions from Feb. 11 to Feb. 19, six weeks ahead of last year's schedule. For designers such as Michael Kors and Marc Jacobs, who also show in Paris for Celine and Louis Vuitton respectively, their millennial gypsy pace is now accelerated beyond repair.

The fall collections begin showing in January, with men's shows in Milan and Paris, in that order, followed by the spring women's couture shows in Paris. Next are the men's and women's fall 1999 shows in New York in February. Then it's back to London, Milan and Paris in late February and March for the women's fall 1999 collections.

"I'm so tired," the model Maggie Rizer told a dinner companion at a party Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour hosted for photographer Mario Testino at Surya, the Indian restaurant on Bleecker Street on Nov. 4.

"Do you eat?" her companion asked.

"Yes, three times a day," laughed Ms. Rizer, a recent nominee for model of the year at the VH1 Fashion Awards, digging into the Indian cuisine.

As Ms. Rizer discussed various engagements with models Shalom Harlow and Karen Elson, their schedules proved there was no paucity of social events during fashion week. For instance, writer Marella Caracciolo and artist Sandro Chia gave a dinner at their loft Nov. 3 for Mr. Thimister. That same evening, Tatiana von Fürstenberg and Alexandre and Alexandra von Fürstenberg hosted a dinner for Diane von Fürstenberg, whose memoir, Diane: A Signature Life, was recently published by Simon & Schuster. Guests at the Von Furstenberg headquarters on West 12th Street included Barry Diller, Charlie Rose, Steve Wynn, Jann Wenner and Chantal Miller, mother of Alexandra von Fürstenberg.

On Thursday, Nov. 5, Barneys was packed with guests of Patrick McCarthy, editor of W magazine, to celebrate the publication of Simon Doonan's Confessions of a Window Dresser. Of course, the event of the week was Sean (Puffy) Combs' 29th-birthday bash. Some scene. Who knew that Ford Explorers came in stretch versions? But several, with chauffeurs in them, were noticed purring outside Cipriani's 55 Wall Street location, the Beaux-Arts setting for the party for nearly 2,000.

"What am I doing here?" designer Donna Karan asked as she waited for admission to the party, where guests ranged from Muhammad Ali to Martha Stewart. "Wall Street is the last place I want to be," said Ms. Karan, who has gotten to know firsthand the vagaries of the financial center since taking her company public in 1996. There wasn't any great new talent discovered during the week, someone to idolize in place of Isaac Mizrahi-and everyone was hungry to find a new star-but there were some good clothes.

"Utility" is one of the buzzwords of the moment, and although that translates into varieties of cargo pants, sweatshirt-style jackets and soft-colored sporty pieces-think Doris Day meets cyberheroine Lara Croft-it also means the customer has spoken. Even better, she's been heard. There is plenty to buy from Marc Jacobs, Carolina Herrera, Badgley Mischka, Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren, John Bartlett, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Anna Sui and Daryl K. As for new designers, fashion people were interested in Kevan Hall's first show for Halston, a duo called Tuleh and news that Gene Meyer may show a women's collection along with his men's collection in February.

"Utility is an acceptable word again in fashion," former New York Times fashion writer Bernadine Morris said at the N.Y.U. conference. Ms. Morris presented a talk about Claire McCardell, the designer who is the subject of a new book and an exhibition at the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. McCardell was a champion of a "comfort first" ideology concerning clothing for women.

"I don't know why everyone is so confused nowadays about fashion," said designer Arnold Scaasi. "The role of the designer is to make women look wonderful. One of the reasons I love doing bridal dresses is it is always the same thing. The young woman arrives wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt with something obscene on it. But when I ask her what she wants to look like for her wedding, it is always the same reply: 'Like a princess, of course.'"

Art historian Anne Hollander described styles during the first half of the 20th century in terms of fashion's liberating effect on the body, the end of corseting and heavy skirts. Valerie Steele, the chief curator of the museum at F.I.T., discussed fashion history after World War II. "During the cold war, people were very strongly directed in how to dress," she said, showing an advertisement for a 1950's clothing company that read: "You're Being Watched. Dress Right!" After the youthquake in the 1960's, the fashion arbiter disappeared, for the most part.

"During the 1970's, in the Me Decade, anyone could dress as they pleased."

Designer Zoran suggested the trouble with American fashion was that Americans have too much closet space. "So they buy too much, unlike the Europeans, who only have room for a few things."

Socialite Lynn Wyatt and Hamish Bowles, Vogue's European editor at large, discussed collecting couture clothes. Meanwhile, socialite C.Z. Guest talked about her personal style. When asked if she'd ever made a fashion faux pas, she answered, "Maternity clothes." Eleanor Lambert, the nonagenarian founder of the International Best Dressed List, said: "Twentieth-century dressing is about an age of instinct. It's not about furbelows" and other useless items of clothing. The ladies on her list were not dictated to by designers, she said. Designers took their lead from them. She cited the example of the late Gloria Guinness at a fitting one day at the Balenciaga couture house in Paris.

When Mrs. Guinness was presented with an abstraction in the shape of a pyramid-very artistic-she told the vendeuse that she wanted the dress fitted below the bosom. She was shocked; Mrs. Guinness would have to consult the master. Balenciaga appeared at the door. When he was told of her request, he grew furious.

"How dare you alter my dress," he scolded Mrs. Guinness.

"I'm very sorry," she responded, "but my husband pays the bills. He wouldn't like it this way."

Balenciaga thought about it. "You're quite right," he said, and made the adjustment.

Money, always, is the last word in fashion. At least next spring, utility will mean money.

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