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NEW YORK — Each time I worm my way through the mob inside the tent at Lincoln Center, I tell myself: These are not fashion people. But I'm wrong. They are fashion, just as American Express, Coke and Fiber One are fashion. Everybody wants the love.
Still, I'm not comfortable sharing the New York collections with a snack bar, even if Fiber One has been declared the "official snack of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week." I get that fashion is a marketing opportunity, just as I got that fashion was (once) theater and in the future will be confined almost entirely to the Web — Oscar de la Renta via Netflix, an instantaneous, seasonless, highly controlled experience; an organism of new technology that will effectively eliminate the fashion system as we know it.
But I was thinking the other day, before the start of Thakoon Panichgul's show at the Dia Art Foundation, how there is nothing like the thrill of a show that promises news and@ the collective desire to wear the clothes. Since I was at Dia, I was of course thinking of Helmut Lang, who once showed there. When a designer can deliver both qualities, then he or she has real impact, as Lang did for more than a decade. No other experience can replace that. Today, in Paris, Raf Simons of Dior is starting to have that kind of traction. But in New York?
Two designers, quite different in their approach to modern dressing, exemplify that creative priority: Derek Lam and Ralph Rucci. Lam, a sportswear designer, chucked every burned-out idea we've seen since the start of Fashion Week, like those hideous round-shoulder tops and military tailoring. His fresh take on sailor pants, in black wool with a navy satin T-shirt finished in white at the yoke, made clear that sportswear is not a sociological statement for Lam. It's the only world he really knows.
That confidence, expressed in a mere 27 outfits, all of them as thoughtful as they were tempting, was exhilarating. Lam dealt with many classics, like the clean-cut camel coat or poncho, but he didn't try to manipulate them into novel shapes. If anything, he sought to simplify things as if to make us rediscover them. The poncho was now a delicate, refined dress in suede crochet. A peajacket in navy boucle wool was loosened up and given a face-flattering bit of white on the lapels. The T-shirt was feminized with silk charmeuse and given a cape back. In both fit and attitude, the outfits were relaxed. Indeed, you had to remind yourself that there was very little tailoring in the collection, and in part that's why the clothes looked so right.
Rucci also doesn't play mannish or coquettish games. I don't think I can look at another peplum and rigidly set sleeve. And while I was glad to see Zac Posen step away from fancy ball gowns, in favor of leaner styles and draped chiffon skirts with blazers or sweaters, there is something doggedly old-fashioned about his view. Rucci, by contrast, was full of surprises.
The clothes looked as sophisticated as always, but now the designs had a sense of serendipity. A coat in crinkled black vinyl looked tough and chic (with or without its sable fling). It was followed by a trio of candy-colored mink jackets, proof that Rucci has lightened up. But the change was also evident in more-conventional pieces like suits; the fit was relaxed, with a tunic in silk charmeuse or gunmetal lace to help break up the look.
In the past, Rucci's evening clothes had a too-reverent quality: a cold canvas of duchess satin splashed with a Twombly print. Now, though, it's a thin, quivering sliver of iridescent sequins on chiffon or a sparkling tunic with silk pants. Such pieces involve incredible handwork, but that they look effortless is really the achievement.
Carolina Herrera's collection was also strong, though perhaps more predictable in its uptown tailoring and earth-tone tweeds and cafe-au-lait silks. Furs seemed to daub many things, even belts, but it looked best in deep raspberry with boldly printed evening pants. And though the collection was full of browns and grays, Herrera displayed her instinctive flair for color, with a gorgeous cerulean blue and a deep fuchsia.
Panichgul once did a show around flowers; this time he evoked the thought of a garden, with dragonfly embroidery and an exploding dandelion print on a black ground. It was a clever idea, and it freed him up to inject a note of melancholy in the colors and delicate shapes.
After parting with her creative director last year, Diane von Furstenberg wanted to reclaim some wit and soul in her line. She will need to work on that. This collection, called "Life is a Party," was a mostly downbeat array of glam-rock standards (apart from a terrific suede wrap dress) in harsh colors and dull prints.
For The Row, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen opened with rather too-serious tailoring in bonded black satin and wool with panels of Persian lamb. Far more tempting was the show's second half, all in creamy white and ivory wool or antique-looking silks. These liberated shapes, with a big, sloppy fisherman knit sweater and tunics with wide trousers, reminded us why we first noticed the Olsens' style.