An event like a city officially kicking off the biannual international catwalk collections can be likened to the opening act of a rock concert - they both need to be inspiring and exciting. The New York fashion industry had that unprecedented privilege the other week, by winning the right to hold their designer shows ahead of London (which usually launches the season), Milan and Paris. The idea, according to the fashion brands and organisers who lobbied for the change of schedule, was to allow New York designers to win a greater share of buyers' budgets and capture the attention of the international media.
So, if anyone went to New York looking for revolutionary ideas for what is, essentially, the last fashion season before the new millennium, they would not have found it. What they would have found instead were savvy interpretations of popular design aesthetics and, of course, a bent towards the genre of sportswear that is almost endemic to New York fashion. Not that sportswear should be confused with basic street-wear.
The looks that came off the New York catwalks were sporty in undertones, luxurious in treatment. Fundamentally, the most prevalent trends were simple, wearable pieces transformed into high-ticket items. How else could one describe, say, the sable-lined parka jackets (fur is back, and big, for next autumn) that showed up on many catwalks? Or the cropped Fair Isle sweaters teamed with bouffant taffeta skirts at Randolph Duke's or Michael Kors' utterly simple black leather shift dresses? Max Azaria's BCBG showed basic honey-coloured velvet sheaths enhanced with glittering beads on the bodice and leather butcher-apron dresses teamed with cashmere sweaters. Hot young designer Marc Jacobs sent out felt sailor pants and striped cashmere tops while Ralph Lauren adhered to a safe combination of luxe fabrics, succulent colours and simple shapes.
Anna Sui, inspired by the music documentary Festival, about the Newport Folk Festival, shot in the mid-1960s, has created a folksy feel to her collection, with models wearing headscarves and toting guitar cases. Beyond that, however, there were some strong, highly individual pieces, such as shadowed mohair skirts and grainy black-and-white prints. The collection was slightly grunge revisited and featured less polished pieces - the long fleece skirts with floral appliques, for example.
Even Vivienne Tam was hoping to fuse together elements of her Oriental ideology with a millennial feel for her latest collection. The designer who created monster hits with Buddha-print dresses and Mao-decal T-shirts instead sent out a much more serious, self-indulgent line. There was the token Chinoiserie like a fung shui mirror embedded into a cropped T-shirt but otherwise Tam chose the path of futurism, with humourless neoprene high-necked dresses.
Calvin Klein did what he does best: a collection that featured virtually all-black clothes (with a smattering of ivory and camel), unfettered shapes and as little fuss as possible. His latest line must have been his vision of serendipity: a rich, skinny look in clean shell tops, lean pants with a tiny bootleg flourish and below-the-knee shift dresses. New fabrics added an edge to these basic shapes: lacquered wool which looked like leather, cotton and radzimir, which combined to look fresh.
So what are the biggest autumn 1999 trends? Take a tip from Duke, who showed his collection to a jazzed-up Ravel's Bolero, and Kors, who sent out supermodel Naomi Campbell in a sexy yet quirky wrap-front calfskin skirt (a spirit of celebration and triumph was prevalent at the Kors show, as it came a day after the designer announced that French luxury goods empire LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton had taken a significant stake in his company).
These designers, like most others on the New York circuit, have basically set in motion what is turning out to be autumn fashion's new set of rules. Felt and felted fabrics (cashmere, light wools) will be everywhere. Colours are predominantly ivory and sand with some sorbet shades thrown in for good measure. Designers re-introduced the below-the-knee length, mostly in a gentle A-line, paired with funnel-necked rag-wool sweaters. Like it or not, fur featured on plenty of catwalks - everything from sable trimming the hood of a jacket to mink turned into shrugs and coyote fur into vests. The poncho/cape will be this autumn's most important buy.
There were also plenty of puffer jackets and vests, fleece used on both the inside and the outside of garments and some very light embroidery. This may sound an awful lot like the autumn season just gone with a couple of exceptions: shapes are even more architectural (think of origami folds tracing the surface of dresses), the long skirt (big for two seasons) has definitely bid adieu and chewy, chunky sweaters have replaced light knits and twin-sets. Also, by autumn 1999, grey will have become unarguably last season's look.