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Michael Vollbracht: Designer stages a spectacle to show his new spring line

Once having "touched a rainbow," as Michaele E. Vollbracht puts it, there is a sense of wonderment. So much in fashion is elusive. Can the same exhilarating experience be repeated? "If is isn't," the lanky young designer says, "then I go out the door."

His comments came after a spectacular show that made a triumphal coda to the American spring-summer openings. Long-established designers presented their new collections in the conventional environments of manufacturers' showrooms or Upper East Side hotel ballrooms. But Mr. Vollbracht, a relative newcomer, scheduled his 8 p.m. show as the last of Seventh Avenue's presentations and chose Pier 88, the New York Passenger Ship Terminal building on the Hudson River , as the site.

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There, after refreshments, popcorn, and animal crackers, some 1,500 retailers , press, and designer colleagues (Kansai Yamamoto, Mary McFadden) went on to cheer what Vollbracht calls his "Illogical circus." The rousing presentation combined fashion and show biz, with mimes and clowns capering down a 100-foot stretch of red felt-covered runway along with the models -- some of whom wore Marcel Marceau makeup.

Mr. Vollbracht had already proved himself as a fashion sensation. After a mere two years in his own business, he won last year's Coty American Fashion Critics Award, the top accolade in the field. By majoring in evening clothes, this former fashion illustrator and former prizewinner at Parsons School of Design had been able to express his freewheeling talents.

Buyers from the best specialty stores in the country had recognized his exceptional work with encouraging orders. Influential customers quickly discovered him. Paloma Picasso, Diahann Carroll, and Elizabeth Taylor are among the women who wear his clothes. And so they should. His stunning prints have reflected the same strong line and graphic individuality as the drawings that made him famous as a commercial artist. Mr. Vollbracht did what became known as "the face that launched 8 million shopping bags" -- the Bloomingdale's bag with a movie star- like portrait that was larger than life.

But like performers, designers are only as good as their last show, and this whiz needed to prove himself again with his new spring "Illogical Circus" line.

His particular Barnum & Bailey world includes the unlikely chic of prints featuring enlarged ice cream cones, clown faces, roosters, clouds, ducks, immense palm fronds, and a white cat riding on the back of a pink elephant. Followers of Mr. Vollbracht recognized the cat instantly as Ruth (an alley cat that is one of three felines the designer has at home), who figures in some of his earlier prints.

Other themes repeated in clean, brilliant colors on flat or puffily quilted silks include American Indian headdresses, Oriental wing-motif fantasies, and Chinese love fishes. In gold red and blue, the latter are appliqued in ponchos. His Mexican blanket coats -- one-of-a-kind hand-woven textiles he found on a trip south of the border -- are gaudily striped and brilliantly decorated with flashing paillettes.

But the shapes of his garments are simple, designed on the unconstructed, one- size-fits-all principle. The cuts -- kimonos, caftans, inverted-V halter tops, and T- square overblouses with straight wrap skirts or pencil-slim pants -- do not detract from the power of the prints.

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Under many of the colorful wing- sleeved coats, Michaele Vollbracht puts satin ribbon-trimmed moire jodhpurs and halter tops. In the most easily wearable group of silks, the mirror image of a huge blue iris goes up and down the sides of black and violet color-block prints, some of which are bordered with sparkling bugle beading.

If his clothes are high theater -- therefore limited to big-evening occasions -- they are worth their fashion weight in aesthetic satisfaction.

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