Spring Ahead

At the just-finished run of fashion shows in Europe, there was a new name on everyone’s lips: Cipro. People who used to swap dates of the latest shipments to the Balenciaga store on the Avenue Georges V were busy trading the numbers of Parisian doctors willing to hand out prescriptions. Welcome to the spring 2002 collections, where X-ray machines, metal detectors, and gun-toting security guards were as prevalent outside the show venues as romantic frills and furbelows were inside. Members of the audience – last seen vigilantly charting the turf wars between LVMH and the Gucci Group – were sharing the latest reports from CNN, and passing around tattered thirdhand copies of the New York Times.

But if the new world order was difficult for the front-row set to digest, it was even tougher for the designers. In New York after the tragedy, collections were shown, with little fanfare, to scattershot – and shell-shocked – audiences. While many editors and writers made it to Europe, there were only a handful of New York store buyers in attendance. (A big round of applause, then, for Kal Ruttenstein of Bloomingdale’s, Julie Gilhart of Barneys, and Anna Garner of Henri Bendel.) Plus, designers had to grapple with a seemingly unanswerable question: Do people even care about fashion these days? The designers conceived and created their collections before September 11, but they can only be seen in a post-tragedy framework. Given the difficulty of predicting the clothes-buying public’s mood – or the economy – it’s hard to know what will look appealing on store racks a few weeks from now, let alone when spring comes around.

Nevertheless (and at the risk of sounding superficial), there was a lot of great, easy-to-enjoy fashion out there. The looming recession had already made designers scale back on the theatrics and focus on delivering clothes that women could actually wear. Now that impulse seems all the more appropriate. The collections that were the freshest fused the passions of the season – romantic, ethnic, and pastoral looks – with a slick urban sensibility. Artsy-craftsy details like smocking, patchwork, embroidery, and fringing got an extra jolt when paired with the season’s backbone-of-the-closet pieces: masculine blazers, wide-legged pants, classic shirts.

Over the next few pages is the best of spring: the trends, accessories, and must-have basics that – if the designers, retailers, and Mayor Giuliani get their way – you’ll be rushing out to buy in a few months’ time. There is, however, at least one purchase that’s worth making right now. The CFDA/Vogue Fashion for America T-shirt, which went on sale last week at department stores and designer boutiques citywide, costs a mere $22.50, with the proceeds going to the Twin Towers Fund. It may not be the most expensive sartorial splurge you’ll make in the coming months, but it will undoubtedly be the most meaningful.

Designers draw inspiration from a melting pot of world influences, taking a creative road trip from the American Wild West to Northern Africa, from Eastern Europe to the Indian subcontinent. Pay attention to the richly handworked details: folky patchwork chiffon, suede fringe, beaded leopard-skin silk, and Moorish-patterned cotton.

WHAT TO BUY: Obviously, a little takes you a long, long way. Best to invest in a key item – the hand-laced skirt from Tom Ford for Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche or Balenciaga’s luxe hippie patchwork top – and mix with simpler, neutral pieces.

These aren’t the full-blown blossoms of yesteryear (or even last season): The pick of spring’s floral prints features either bold, graphic, Marimekko-style flowers (at Marni, Celine) or tight Victorian blooms (at Chloé, Marc Jacobs).

WHAT TO BUY: These prints are a great way to get spring’s ultrafeminine look without resorting to a fiesta’s worth of frills. Look for simple cotton shifts, flounced Karen Carpenter-esque dresses, or peasant tops and shirred-waist skirts. How to wear them? Take a cue from Michael Kors, who mixed the naïve sixties florals he designed for Celine with simple cashmere tops, striped pants, and blanket-stitched suede jackets and skirts.

Nobody does monochrome better than New York designers. This season, they’ve taken the classic black-and-white path, offering up cool combinations that will make you look pulled together – with the least amount of effort.

WHAT TO BUY: The runway was stocked with urban classics – slim-waisted jackets, knee-length skirts – many of which you probably already have. The trick is to find new pieces that’ll give your wardrobe an instant update. Three worth investigating are Oscar de la Renta’s beautiful white lace shirt and black tulle evening skirt, which can be split up and worn with more pared-down partners; Calvin Klein’s twist on the vest, deconstructed into a “corset” that sits over a tank and pants; and Helmut Lang’s inventive layering of white suspenders over a white shirt or chiffon top.

According to the designers, the all-white outfits they showed on the runways symbolize faith and hope. In real life, you’ll need to have faith and hope in your dry cleaner if you want to wear it head to toe. Best to think of it as a cool tonic to mix with spring’s peasant tops or classic-cut pants.

WHAT TO BUY: It turned up in nearly every collection, but white definitely says spring ‘02 when it comes trimmed with rows of little ruffles, as seen at Valentino, Richard Edwards, and Versace.

It all started with this winter’s peasant blouse by Tom Ford for Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche. Now the loose, easy hippie top is one of next season’s star items. The hippest way to wear it is with a groovy pair of striped pants.

WHAT TO BUY: Anything that has a tie neckline and is shirred, smocked, or embroidered. But remember not to go to extremes on the volume front: An oversize top works best with a more fitted bottom half, or vice versa. An overly puffy shirt runs the risk of making you look like a pirate, and that style isn’t in fashion – this season.

Thought designers had forgotten that you have to work in an office? Think again: The pantsuit is back, and now looks newest worn with a matching vest. Also at the top of the agenda: a simple shirt and belted pants worn with a three-quarter-length coat or blazer.

WHAT TO BUY: Classic black and white is a smart purchase, but shades of brown and beige are the most fashion-forward. Those hues were brilliantly used at Véronique Branquinho.

The simple pairing of a shirt and pants never looked better: It’s the perfect no-fuss, no-nonsense urban uniform. And this season’s must-have blouses make it a snap.

WHAT TO BUY: In particular, look for shirts that are striped, whether monochrome or brightly hued. Or try Prada’s new basic, a blouse that resembles a slimmed-down, tucked-in version of a man’s pajama top, which was shown with everything from buckled pants to brocade skirts.

Voluminous, flyaway chiffon is the dress-up fabric of choice this season. Think it looks too, well, pretty? This Tom Ford for Gucci gown comes with a corset-lace back to up the sex factor, while Chanel’s exquisite dress is partnered with va-voom biker boots.

WHAT TO BUY: Try chiffon two ways: either twisted and draped into proper Empire-waisted dresses that could take you to a simple spring wedding, or layered into flowing, very Marisa Berenson evening gowns.

Spring Ahead