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Fall Fashions: New Mix of Old Ideas

New York collections feature A-line dresses and skirts, twin sweater sets, fake furs, bright colors

AS Calvin Klein said backstage after bringing fashion to its knees for fall, ``I don't want anyone to panic. You can wear my knee-length skirts and dresses at whatever length you want.''

Those knee-hovering skirts, also shown by Donna Karan and Marc Jacobs, who mixed them with other lengths, are the subject of some consternation with retailers wary that any talk of a hemline change will trigger another fashion backlash in the stores. If they would look around they would see that this ``new'' length is the one the majority of American women are wearing right now. Only the most fashion-involved are in very short or very long skirts.

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Most of the ideas coming out of the recent New York shows - A-line dresses and skirts, kilts, skating skirts, parkas, twin sweater sets, pea coats, long redingotes, Hollywood wrap coats - have been in the public domain for decades. So have many of the fabrics - mohairs, angoras, vinyls, fake furs, coverts, and satins. But the presentation, and the way the oldies but goodies have been reassembled and re-colored, is what makes the season.

The single most important change for fall reflects a shift in society. As the streets become more violent, designers are leaving their favorite resource center, urban America, and heading for the suburbs. They have updated the classics with an edge. For example, Marc Jacobs, who pioneered grunge in fashion and showed ballgowns with denim work shirts, actually has a printed knee-length dress made of polyester. He shows it with fishnet stockings and a real diamond necklace. Klein risks vengeance from the ``Serial Mom'' by showing white shoes for post-Labor Day wear. The shoes accessorize his Mary Tyler Moore suit for CK Calvin Klein (his less-expensive collection) and come with a matching bag.

Michael Kors reintroduces twin sweater sets not too different from the ones Grace Kelly used to wear, showing them with bare legs and Manolo Blahnik's high-heeled pumps.

The high number of preppie-looking clothes also reflect fashion's new conservatism. Fair Isle sweaters, kilt skirts, white shirts, jumpers and car coats are all back with a schoolgirl swing. Argyles and plaids are also part of this look. Christian Francis Roth's penultimate preppie wears a pleated wool plaid pinafore dress and white cotton shirt with white knee socks.

Todd Oldham brings plaid to new highland highs in full-length evening kilt dresses with trains, and majorette dresses combining black fake fur puffballs with a sequined red-and-black bodice. Knee boots and a towering stocking cap complete the look.

Vinyl and fake fur, especially mock Mongolian lamb and chinchilla, turn up in many collections, often together. Anna Sui and Isaac Mizrahi show them in the bright neons of the season and Jacobs trims his acid vinyls with real Mongolian lamb. Even designers such as Carolina Herrera (who dresses Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) and Oscar de la Renta (whose front-row faithfuls include Barbara Walters, Nancy Kissinger and, when she's in town, Pamela Harriman, US ambassador to Great Britain) endorse imitation furs. Herrera uses pretend Persian coats and trims and De la Renta's sequin-embroidered evening jackets and brocade coats boast imitation-cheetah appliques.

The most stunning fake of the season is Oldham's full-length ``Polar Princess'' coat that looks like make-believe polar bear. He showed it with a Marilyn Monroe-worthy long blue-spangled gown.

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Color is major news for fall, especially the neon brights and the pastels, plus brown, gray, and cranberry. Donna Karan's contoured turtleneck jackets and coats in neon-pink and neon-yellow wool angora look especially wearable combined with black (she calls it tar) wool or cashmere turtlenecks and jersey skirts. Karan's neon orange down-filled coat belted in reptile looks like the parka of the season, and her pale greige taffeta down coat over an Elizabeth Taylor-inspired satin ``Butterfield 8'' slip-dress had the photographers snapping.

Bill Blass wins kudos for his pulsating double swing-coats combining such shocking chromatics as purple over orange, fuchsia over French blue, and orange over green.

The pastels of fall are significant not just for their hues, but as continuing proof that the seasons are blurring and colors and fabrics once limited to fall or spring are now OK all year long.

Lavendar is a favorite color, looking pastel-perfect at Mizrahi and Kors. Pink, green, blue, and coral are also part of the pastel sell, especially in neat A-line dresses with matching jackets, which are replacing - or redefining - suits. Black is being replaced by browns and grays as well as ``spring'' navy. Yeohlee combines brown with black in her weatherized quilted double-coats worn over turtlenecks and black gabardine pants. Her spring versions were the best-selling coats in many stores throughout the country.

The only standing ovation of the week went to New York design dean Geoffrey Beene, who presented his collection on dancers as well as models in a brilliantly staged production that proved this mega-designer's contention that clothes must move and fabrics must be light. In a season of mohair, his magnificent mohair coats set new standards, their fullness marked at the waistline with crisscrossing ties, which joined to vest-like backs. Picture a waist-length apron worn backwards, and you've got it.

* Geoffrey Beene is the subject of a museum retrospective, ``Beene Unbound,'' at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. The exhibit will be reviewed in Monday's Monitor.

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