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New York Runways Hardly Inspire Praise

PICTURE 1,000 people sitting under a tent in the middle of Manhattan's Bryant Park, their miners' headlights flashing on models wearing glow-in-the-dark clothes made of reflective fiberglass-coated fabrics that look like liquid silver.

Now imagine the majority of New York's most famous designers telling the women of America that the single-most important clothing items for spring and summer 1994 are slips and tank dresses.

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If it sounds surreal to you, it looked surreal to many fashion-watchers hoping that this first season of American fashion under the big top would be a biggie.

Among the designers who proved they could take center stage and not be blinded by the spotlights was Donna Karan. For spring and summer she gave an inspired look into a space-age future filled with wearable, light-reflective clothes that prove fashion can be at once exciting and commonsensical.

Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, who, like Karan, normally preview collections in showrooms, joined colleagues in the tents as a show of industry support.

If Klein's ode to a tank (99 percent of his signature collection involved a tank dress or tank top, often doubled over each other) and Lauren's foray into colonial Indochina (with cropped army jackets and sarongs) perform as well with their customers as they did with their trade audiences, they will both have hits come spring.

Others did not fare as well. The two tents, which were brilliantly conceived and constructed, made this season easy for press and retailers, but turned out to be difficult for many designers.

Their general endorsement of the three-year-old fashion idea that women want to slip out of the house in a slip was not only surprising, but also disappointing to those who came to the tents hoping to find the ``real clothes'' so lacking in Europe - the believable, working-and-lunching clothes that are the backbone of designer business.

The slip slip-up and the tank trip are also indicative of the generic, Brand-X offerings that dominated many runways.

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Why buy a designer-label slip or tank when it looks just like the one in your closet or the one already available in the catalogs?

Many of the new spring clothes also show a lack of understanding of shifting demographics.

The 18- to 34-year-old market is shrinking. It is also the one hardest hit by the economy. The 40- to 70-year-old market - the core group for designer merchandise - is growing. And yet many designers persisted this season in offering clothes patterned after the little girl/Lolita/nymphet model. Unless you are Anna Sui, Cynthia Rowley, or one of the other designers with young customers and less expensive prices, the nursery has no rhyme or reason.

Isaac Mizrahi's collection was a celebration of America from such unlikely fashion heroes as Sammy Davis Jr. with his ruffled tuxedo shirts and Groucho Marx's oversized jackets. Mizrahi also delivered a recycling message with dresses, tunics, blazers, and tank tops made of paillettes cut from recycled aluminum soda-pop and beer cans collected by the homeless.

Todd Oldham used everything from Arizona Highway postcard-patchwork prints to spiders, stamps, clouds, locks, hammers, and combs for inspiration, scoring high in individuality and clothes that are fun without being funny.

Richard Tyler's first collection for Anne Klein set a younger, hipper direction for the 25-year-old company, sending the AK customer back to the classroom in schoolboy striped jackets and pleated skirts and schoolgirl suspendered skirts, tank tops, and easy jackets, including bombers and car coats.

Geoffrey Beene celebrated his 30th anniversary with a movie and a still-life presentation of his latest curving cuts and minimalist design ideas.

The mini-est for spring is a garment he calls an accessory.

It's a tiny scarf-apron- tunic that wraps to the back, where it fastens with a 2-inch zipper. Beene says it can be worn over shirts to work and over skin at night.

The one fashion sector that separates American ready-to-wear from European ready-to-wear for spring is the sporting arena. We have one. They don't.

Our new sporting heroes range from the yachting crew, the boxers, swimmers, racers, and baseball players at DKNY, the polo and tennis players at Lauren, the jocks and joggers at Isaac Mizrahi, the gym crew at OMO Kamali, the swim team and boxers at CK Calvin Klein, the Chinese baseball team at Byron Lars, the leather baseball jacket with the logo on the back at AK, and the racy racers at Anna Sui's grand Grand Prix.

Long over short, as in Mizrahi's long rubber-backed linen raincoat over a short strapless check dress, is the length juxtaposition of the season. Ankle socks with high heels, Mary Janes, or flip-flops give the legs a new proportion with short hemlines.

And the bare midsection, from rib cage to just below the navel, is the new fashion center, bringing on cropped tops and hip-riding pants. For a neo-classical touch, many are tied in crisscrossing strings.

Sheers are here - again. For day, many of the layered looks are in hosiery weights, stretched with Lycra. They look newest when paired with contrasting colors, as in black under white or white under black, instead of last year's tonal layering.

Karan's reflective triacetates, silk cellophanes, and liquid metal taffetas are the most directional fabrics of the season, putting her clothes into a new lunar orbit. Aluminum leather is also new at Karan, an integral part of what she calls ``high-tech fabrics that shine like the moon on a dark night, blurring the lines between day and evening.''

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