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c.2013 New York Times News Service

No one saw it coming. The men's fashion collection that Dries Van Noten showed for spring was a cavalcade of camouflage.

He paired it with a clashing palette of white and safety orange that would make a crossing guard proud. The various camouflages might have been cribbed from the Army, but the patterns and fine tailoring were far from military issue.

''I sought to use camouflage as any other print or motif," Van Noten said, "to demilitarize it and use it as a stripe, a floral or a paisley might be used. It was purely decorative and in no way political."

But how camo can you go?

Pretty far, actually. Van Noten's impressive show was just the tip of a brown and dark-green mottled iceberg. There were spring collections with heavy camo slants from Comme des Garcons, Kenzo and Valentino. Then came the men's fall collections, the aggressive pattern marching across Perry Ellis by Duckie Brown, Patrik Ervell, Phillip Lim and DKNY before crossing the gender border in women's shows like Christopher Kane, Michael Kors, Rebecca Minkoff and L.A.M.B.

The designers, a disparate lot, shared one sentiment with Van Noten. Their inspirations varied but, at least consciously, the messages were apolitical. Nary a desert pattern appeared to comment on years of combat. Nor, apparently, were any of the designers inspired by reality television shows like "Doomsday Preppers."

''My goal was to make a camo that was beautiful and romantic," said Patrik Ervell, who created original shadowy photo-realistic prints. For his men's line, he used ivy and bark; for women, closed night flowers.

Mark McNairy opened his spring show with an overcoat in a pattern of daisies overlaid on a bed of camouflage.

''It started with G.I. Joe as a kid," said McNairy, who acknowledges an obsession with military camo. "Certain ones are like art. When I go to another country, I go to military surplus stores and buy camos from all over the world. The colors and patterns are just beautiful."

McNairy was clear that it is not just any pattern that piques his interest. "I don't care for hunting camo," he said. "Tree-bark camo doesn't appeal to me at all."

Military is a perennial go-to theme in menswear, but the utilitarian aspects of the design are usually emphasized on the fashion runways; camo patterns have been predominantly a street and skate-wear staple.

''Camo is the leopard print of menswear," said Nick Wooster, the recently named creative director for men's clothing at J.C. Penney, who owns camouflage swim trunks, tailored shirts and an iPhone cover, among other items. "It's a safe way for a guy to feel a little bit radical without actually being radical."

As for the new patterns on the runways, Wooster is scarcely surprised. "The unorthodox use of something is what fashion is all about," he said.

Most of the womenswear interpretations were brash "kooky camo," halogen bursts of acid color that erase the very purpose of camouflage: that the wearer is not to be seen. Anti-camo, if you will.

One impetus seemed to be the 1980s, but not Rambo. Warhol's late-period camouflage paintings and self-portraits, and Stephen Sprouse's neon 1980s collections riffing on the artist's series, set the tone.

''The collection was based off the electric colors you find in the city," Kors said. "Taxicab yellow and neon orange. The bright takes on camo were a wink to '80s nights at the Mudd Club, where you definitely wanted to be noticed. Camo is about blending in, but this is fashion, after all."

Kors, whose collection included items like a royal blue felted wool camo coat and a matching jacquard camo jacket and pants, was also influenced by Hurricane Sandy. "We were surrounded by a spirit of survival," he said, "and camouflage is a hallmark of that."

Camo has its practical merits, like disguising stains and allowing you to stealthily lie in wait for your enemies. There is also its paradoxical handiness: It goes with nothing, so therefore it goes with everything. But it can lead to an unsettling confusion when encountered outside of an urban center.

On a recent trip to Kentucky, I wore a vintage Army camouflage coat. I fielded the question, "What do you hunt?" several times. Then, in the airport connecting to my next flight, I was surrounded by four ladies of a certain age who profusely thanked me. One even hugged me. Confused, I asked if it was because I sat in the exit row. She responded, "For putting your life on the line for our country," and tapped the "Airborne" patch on my sleeve.

At least I wasn't approached by a veteran.