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Fall Fashion Week takes center stage with de la Renta, Herrera

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NEW YORK (AP) _ For fall 2003 Fashion Week, designers are mining many different muses.

On Monday, Carolina Herrera took her style cues from 1950s Hollywood, when body-hugging skirts were belted and pencil-slim, and figures were Coke-bottle curvy. Cynthia Steffe likewise plundered the past by referencing icons of rock 'n' roll, with three-quarter-length leggings and short boots to toughen up short skirts.

But Oscar de la Renta stayed firmly in the present, envisioning his well-heeled customers in enough opulent sable collars, alligator skirts and silk brocade to ratchet up the style quotient of Park Avenue denizens.

De la Renta typically gilds his collection with flourishes of embroidery, lace and ruffles. But this time he fired all the big guns, from a sable-trimmed crocodile vest on his runway to a burgundy velvet embroidered evening coat that looked princess-worthy. Evening gowns were festooned with tiers of cascading ruffles or floating feathers, covering nearly from waist to ankle.

It takes some planning to be a de la Renta woman of style, whose silk brocade print covers not only her skinny pants but also her matching ankle boots. But she will have no shortage of options for holiday balls, be it a nude and gold beaded tulle dress with a ribbon floating from the back, or one of de la Renta's signature black gowns.

``Absolutely fabulous,'' said Joan Kaner, senior vice president for fashion direction at Neiman Marcus, after the show. ``The customer is the lady whose lifestyle he understands because he lives it, he knows it. Somebody has got to dress these ladies. They have the money and the places to wear the clothes.''

Socialite designer Carolina Herrera likewise envisions a rarefied customer. Taking her cue from classic glamour queens who starred in Alfred Hitchcock films, she whittled the waist with belts or velvet ribbon ties, coordinated with shaped skirts and jackets in gray flannel, burgundy satin and houndstooth.

The suits were as long and lean as the models, with hemlines grazing below the knee. Snippets of dialogue from ``Vertigo'' and ``Psycho'' were woven into music that was put to a samba beat.

The looks were punctuated with fishnet hose and velvet open-toe high heels befitting glamour girls of the era, never crossing the line from ladylike.

The luxury of the look is in the details, not ``in-your-face,'' said Herrera, citing a caramel-colored leather coat completely lined in broadtail. ``It's for a very chic woman who wants to feel very luxurious without showing it.''

Cynthia Steffe took her cue from New York streets, where she has seen hip young women who reprise rock 'n' roll styles throughout the decades, whether rockabilly, mod or new wave.

A sliding shoulder silver blouse suggested a nod to ``Flashdance,'' while short white pointy-toed boots hinted at the go-go era. In her mostly black and white collection, miniskirts were accessorized with black leggings that stopped at the calf.

``I love the look of black opaque tights for fall,'' Steffe said. ``The legging with the short boot, it's a very young proportion.'' Steffe would know _ her customers include Mena Suvari, Gwyneth Paltrow and Britney Spears.

Meanwhile, Nicole Miller's Sunday afternoon show featured the signature prints and eclectic patterns that originally put the company on the fashion map.

With one eye on the past, Miller dipped into graphic patterns evocative of art deco, lending a swank touch to cashmere sweaters and dresses. If Miller's collection is any prelude for the rest of the week, skirts will skim the thigh, high-heeled boots will graze the knee, shapes will be skinny and the ankle will become the new erogenous zone, wrapped in crisscross ties on suede high heels.

This season's weeklong fashion frenzy marks the most jam-packed schedule ever, with approximately 150 shows, said Ruth Finley, publisher of The Fashion Calendar.

As many as four shows occupy the same time slot. About 1,800 members of the press are registered from more than 32 countries, said Fern Mallis, executive director of Mercedes Benz Fashion Week, the event's official name.
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