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Autumn comes softly

Haute couture may be defined as fashion reduced to its optimum degree. The dresses, suits, and coats we see at the Paris, Milan, London, and New York collections stand as the designer's ultimate view of what women should look like each season. And haute couture is also a fashion hieroglyphic, an abstract glimpse into the general direction that fashion will be taking -- sometimes for only just a season, and other times for a whole year or two. Later, this high-fashion message gets translated to the ready-to-wear market, which usually plays down the bold lines of the haute couture collections -- a less pronounced shoulder pad, a mini-skirt let down an inch or two, a simple row of buttons instead of a double-breasted bias cut, and, of course, more wearable, less expensive fabric and affordable prices.

Out of the top leading 30 or so world designers, there emerges a common thread, a collective message that, although individualized, spells out the fashion indicators, the new fashion direction, the look that millions of women throughout the Western world will be making their own, whether they're fashion-conscious or not. This fall, the fashion indicators say that the new look is soft. Supple cashmeres. Thin jerseys that hug the body. Leathers and suedes that curve and blend as comfortably as an old shoe. Rounder and softer shoulders, but with the extra lift of a shoulder pad. All in similar but subtly different shapes from last spring. The same hour-glass figure direction. The waist is a great focal point, cinched with wide, bold belts. And topping nearly everything is the all-purpose 7/8ths-length wool or cashmere coat, often in pick-me-up colors that contrast with the black or muted tones of the dress or two-piece design underneath. Skirts and dresses are still more favored than trousers, but the new pant suits are slowly making a comeback. Trousers are mostly tapered and fall just under the ankle. Thin lapels or none at all. Grays, browns, neutrals, and, for color and contrast, -lacquer reds. Skirt lengths vary, but the short or just below the knee look is dominant. The jacket is hot. And it's short, for body curving, or long, to create the long/short look over a short skirt. The jacket is also the latest fashion tool in dressing up a sporty look, or transforming a simple skirt-and-blouse number into a business suit. OUT are bold prints; loud colors for day (for evening, the mood is brighter and more festive); the boxy or man-tailored look; the full-dress cut; suits without belts; the synthetic look. IN are accessories of every kind -- wide belts, Chanel gold chains, Herm`es scarfs, bold bracelets, quilted shoulder bags; browns, grays, tweeds; rich worsteds; soft clothes; cashmere sweaters; some hats; gloves, long and short; body-fitting, tapered pants; faux crocodile; brown shoes; the matte, powdered makeup look; below-the-ear hair; and the bob cut.

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From among the new or established designers, Carolyne Roehm, Donna Karan, Giorgio Armani, Yves St. Laurent, and Karl Lagerfeld created special interest this season. Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Mugler, Rykiel, Kenzo, Perry Ellis (his last collection prior to his death), Calvin Klein, and Valentino were once again very strong this season.

Emerging names to watch for: David, a new young designer from Santa Barbara, Calif., for whom this season was his second collection; Gerald Franklin, a young Canadian designer; Francesca Sterlacci, a New Jersey-born new star.

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