The first outfit to appear on the runway at Ralph Lauren's fall, 2008 show last week a plain, gray cashmere tank dress told the whole story of New York fashion week: Play it safe. At a time when the economy is plunging and the euro is soaring against the dollar, fashion designers and retailers are quaking in their Marc Jacobs crushed mid-heel boots. With some European fashion houses reporting a 22% increase in prices and with consumer confidence and spending way down, this is not the time for designers or retailers to take fashion risks. Even pop culture's risk-taker extraordinaire, Madonna, looked downright conservative in her gray jersey cocktail dress at the blockbuster Raising Malawi fundraiser she co-chaired with Gucci on Wednesday night.
Back on the runways, perhaps the biggest risk of the season came from Mr. Jacobs himself. The designer, known for starting his shows up to two hours late, began his Friday evening show only 17 minutes late (in fashion speak, that's like starting on time) and surprised his audience by showing a weirdly conservative collection of long, cocoon-shaped pastel-colored coats, full pants and draped velvet evening gowns. Jacobs called it a "calm" collection. It was a complete about-face from his last collection, which dabbled in sexuality, taking transparency and lingerie as its two main themes. Maybe even that old adage about sex selling is wearing thin.
Like Jacobs, many of the stronger showings of the season featured toned-down looks that were almost absent of any sex appeal. Instead of baring skin, designers chose to cover up drawing on that great American staple, sportswear, to bolster their images on the runway. Ralph Lauren showed crisp, bright double-faced cashmere coats over long skinny skirts; Michael Kors reached back to the ultra-conservative 1950s and 1960s and pillaged Jackie Kennedy's White House wardrobe for fur-collared car coats and a few metallic jacquard evening entrance-makers. And Francisco Costa, the designer of Calvin Klein, carved beautiful hammered navy cashmere into scalpel-sharp tailoring. A blue blazer and an inventively cutaway tuxedo jacket were stunning in their simplicity.
So, tough times might require simple solutions or so New York's ever-growing crop of designers would have led you to believe last week but simplicity in fashion is one of the most difficult things to achieve. In his debut collection for Bill Blass, Peter Som did a pretty fine job of evoking the late American designer's effortless nonchalance with gray flannel pantsuits and swingy jackets over full skirts. Donna Karan also mustered a sense of simplicity and ease with a shrugged-on silhouette consisting of a charmeuse wrap dress. As the models sauntered out in slinky dresses that were knotted and tied in the back, one could almost imagine Karan draping the dresses herself in her studio the night before a comforting thought in tough times. After all, doesn't any consumer of expensive clothing want to feel the designer's gentle hand?