If young New Yorkers are constantly faced with the sartorial challenge of being both sexy and chic, then salvation may have arrived in the form of Bruce. Nicole Noselli and Daphne Gutierrez -- Bruce's founders -- say they simply design collections that they and their friends want to wear themselves. The results always offer a distillation of a season's obsessions: The perfect leather jacket that you might only have found after searching the flea markets for months, or the dress you remember your mother wearing out to dinner in the seventies that you'd kill for now. This season, Bruce's emphasis is on a shapely hourglass silhouette (a leather corset and matching pleated skirt); crochet knits (worked into tops that look like capes); and an ever-so-subtle dash of eighties styling (such as the cap-sleeve tops and cropped pants worn with spike-heel boots). Noselli and Gutierrez, both 28-year-old alumnae of Parsons School of Design, live in and work from the same Lower East Side apartment. The two met at school before going off, post-graduation, to a variety of anonymous industry jobs. Come 1996, when Gutierrez was at DKNY and Noselli at Isaac Mizrahi, they realized that they wanted to start working together on their own line, which appeared in the spring of 1998. They're still perfecting their look (Noselli calls it "feminine yet hard-edged") and are optimistic about what's coming next. "The climate in New York is changing," says Noselli. "There are lots of little stores springing up who want to stock young designers. That provides an invaluable support network."
During the Paris shows, there's always a buzz about some new name who has just shown to a tiny audience in some far-flung part of town. Last October, it was Bernhard Willhelm who was causing a stir. A 1998 graduate of Antwerp's Royal Academy (alumni: Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Martin Margiela), Willhelm was barely out of college before praise was being lavished on his work. His take on fashion draws on the fantasy of fairy tales and folk stories, which in turn are cross-referenced with the traditional dress of his native Bavaria. His graduation collection was an ode to Little Red Riding Hood; this spring's effort, "Life Is a Picnic," features naïve cutouts of cats appliquéd onto jackets and skirts, dresses cut and draped from cottons that could have been tablecloths in a previous life, and an abundance of floral-sprig prints that have been in mothballs since the days of Little House on the Prairie. If this strikes you as appallingly cute, there are also plenty of wearable offerings. The printed-tank-top-and-lean-pants combination would be great for drinks at Canteen, and the narrow-shouldered jacket with a hook-and-eye-fastening cummerbund waistband is begging to go to dinner at Cello. Sometimes, it seems, the most outrageous fantasy can be tempered with a little reality.
Consider what the acronym Orfi stands for -- the organization for returning fashion interest -- and you might think that this young New York label stands for Constructivist-like notions of worker solidarity, civic duty, and a seriousness about fashion that borders on the obsessive. The truth of the matter is a little different. If the people behind Orfi -- Donald Hearn, Scott Kruger, and Ana Gonzalez -- are obsessed with anything, it's with producing collections full of sharp clothes for urban living. And while they're still inspired by what Hearn calls "hard-core sportswear," Orfi has grown into a polished, wearable line that would be just as at home in a corporate office as at a hipster karaoke night. The standouts from the women's line (Orfi also does menswear) include fitted jackets, crisp shirts, pleated skirts that could have passed muster in a fifties secretarial pool, and some particularly good skirts and dresses pieced together from bands of grosgrain. The kinds of clothes, in other words, that require stilettos -- not sneakers -- to carry them off. Orfi was born after Hearn and Kruger, two architecture graduates from the Rhode Island School of Design, opened an experimental art-and-performance space on 14th Street in 1995, started dabbling in the fashion world with consultancy work, and then committed to it full-time with the launch of the label in 1998. Gonzalez came on board around that time. As with so many collaborative efforts, what each member of the trio does is a little unclear: Suffice it to say that -- true to the spirit of those early Soviet art collectives -- the collections are a result of pooling their ideas and inspirations. There's one muse, however, that they all agree on. "We love being in New York," says Hearn. "It stimulates you like no other place."
At first glance, Sicilian designer Maurizio Pecoraro's delicate confections -- exquisite wisps of silk and tulle flush with beading and embroidery -- seem to belie his tutelage in the houses of Gianni Versace and Thierry Mugler. But look again. There's an underlying sensuality to Pecoraro's work that betrays his time with two of fashion's greatest sexual provocateurs. It could be in the way he slashes the front of an acid-lime silk blouse to the navel, or in his partnering of a filmy pink chiffon shell top with an ultra-slim skirt in palest lilac. Yet despite the baroque styling, Pecoraro believes his true calling is "making a woman feel comfortable and relaxed in her clothes. They shouldn't cover up her personality. I don't want to make her look like a drag queen." This season, in Pecoraro's third collection, he's focusing on traditional, hand-worked techniques and finishes -- which show up beautifully on his luxurious decorative skirts. "Each one is embellished with different materials," says Pecoraro. "Bone, tiger's eye, wood, metal, horn, and paillettes that I made from leather or from snakeskin." They're designed to work just as well with a cotton shirt and a pair of slides as with a lace camisole and vertiginous heels. "If you're wearing one of those skirts," he adds, "you're not going to have to bother with jewelry."
While Paris has been reeling from the shock waves of new designers' taking over old houses of late, Naoki Takizawa's arrival last fall at Issey Miyake registered only a slight tremor. In part, that's because Takizawa has been designing Miyake's men's collections since 1994. Yet it's also a result of Takizawa's understated approach. Things may not seem that much different at the house of Miyake, but there are changes at work. The Tokyo-based Takizawa has brought the leaner, body-conscious silhouette that he established with his menswear to the women's line -- those pleated dresses that looked like undulating paper lanterns could be a thing of the past. In their place are sleeker, sportier shapes: dresses that have lines of snaps snaking up both front and back to make them as loose -- or as tight -- as you want; denim jackets worn with stretch shorts; and curvy fitted jackets paired with wide pants. "I think that what both men and women want most now is simplicity and comfort in their clothing," says Takizawa, "so I try and design both lines with that in mind." What Miyake and Takizawa do share is a belief in the importance of technical innovation: If the former pushed the boundaries of fabric to the limit, then the latter is doing the same with construction. Standouts of Takizawa's first collection included the simple cotton shirts, pants, and skirts whose seams were bonded together. "It seems to me," he says, "that while we've seen so many new fabrics, there had been no great new sewing techniques. What I'm trying to do, therefore, is develop those, working with processes like adhesive tape and heat or ultrasonic cutting." Takizawa claims his mission is to carry on the Miyake tradition of innovation. "However, I think it's important that I don't try to copy what Issey did," he says. "I can only move forward with my own ideas."
It has been a great season for Cyndi Lauper -- well, at least for her hit "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," which seemed to be on endless replay at the Spring 2000 shows. And this eighties flashback has as much to do with the style as it does with the soundtrack. Take, for example, the German-born, British-based designer Markus Lupfer, whose current collection was inspired, he says, more by "the fun of fashion then -- like the way that Cyndi Lauper looked -- than with that square-shoulders, short-skirt thing." But don't expect layered dance T-shirts and net tutus. Lupfer's flirtation with the eighties runs to a fluorescent color palette of pink and yellow, a penchant for gray leather (which he has prettily worked into skirts with floral cutouts), and cool graphic prints. It was one such print -- an abstract, digitized image of a crowd scene -- that brought him to the attention of the SoHo boutique Kirna Zabête. "The initial image came from the front page of a newspaper," he explains. "By the time I'd finished working on the print, it reminded me of the crowds in rush hour on Wall Street." Lupfer's label has three shows and several sellout collections at Koh Samui, the cutting-edge London boutique, to his name. He's also in the vanguard of new British talent that's eschewing the shock tactics of old (Alexander McQueen's earliest shows could be as unsettling as the finale of Carrie) in favor of a much quieter, more refined approach to fashion, where well-crafted clothes are the order of the day. "I'm constantly striving to improve what I do," says Lupfer. "I want to produce clothes which look simple but which are made special by virtue of their details. It's easy to go wild in London, but there's a fine line between doing something that's good and doing something that's bad."