Mix to the max Separates star in fall Fashion Week shows in New York. Why buy a whole outfit when one or two new pieces will do?

Posted: February 11, 2004

NEW YORK — Keep that three-quarter-length wool peacoat you bought this winter. And the puffy cream ski vest, the pink-flecked gray mini, and the maroon opaque tights.

The power of separates - items that go with the pieces you already own - was the focus of many Fall 2004 collections shown here during Fashion Week at Bryant Park.

Designers deftly mixed and matched textures and colors in the cold-weather ensembles they debuted.

That doesn't mean the easy-to-slip-on shift dress will be relegated to the bargain basement. It is proof, however, that designers are listening to trend forecasters, who for two years now have said that fashion bugs are more interested in emanating personal style by mixing eclectic pieces into their wardrobes, rather than buying brand-new outfits.

For the most part, designers took their hints from young people who have embraced layering to the max this winter. Think ski vests and short-sleeve T-shirts over long-sleeve tees. Our friends under the Fashion Week tents just refined and put higher price tags on them, of course.

Thinking outside the ski lodge, Cynthia Steffe showed us how to wear corsets over starched white shirts. BCBG Max Azria let us know, however aesthetically painful it was, that teal can be worn with chocolate brown. And Oscar de la Renta mixed heavy wools with satins and jewels, proving that Baby Phat's styles have lots of influence.

The silhouettes the designers used were familiar: herringbone pencil skirts; silk blouses; short blazers that nip at the waist. The result so far: very few surprises. The shows were so laid back, even the tents were darkened. Nothing popped off the stage.

Here is a glimpse at what the runways offered:

Carolina Herrera. The audience was warmed by the use of raspberry, navy and orange. But what made Herrera fantastic this year was the beautiful way she blended fur into everyday outfits. She also showed us how to pair a clingy striped sweater with soft black riding pants or a bright-orange wool skirt. Our eyes bounced around pants with a subtle geometric weave, and we were surprised at how she paired bomber jackets and ski vests with lace, whether it was in a shirt or cocktail dress.

Most of the 47 pieces were smooth and tailored, including an ivory jacket fashioned from ermine paired with a long skirt, and black beaded lace dresses. Herrera still focused on evening wear, showing pieces short and long with beading and jewels. But she stepped away from safe black and chocolate brown, experimenting in evening wear with the fuchsias and orange she used in her day wear line, for a true sense of jazzy sophistication.

Cynthia Steffe. This line will make the everyday fashion onlooker wish she had enough cash to buy each piece. Steffe was the most creative with her ensembles, a collection of you-never-thought-they-could-be-worn-together separates. Her pieces, she said, "were a play on silhouettes that recall images of England throughout the ages."

That meant blending elements of long gowns with riding fare. She cinched corsets over blouses (a play on this year's vest look, but successful nonetheless) and bustiers over cashmere sweaters. She flung corduroy blazers over them at times.

For the most part, Steffe stayed in the working woman's vein, showing solidly built models - not rail thin, that is. (I can hear artists at Ann Taylor Loft sketching already.) She used pretty tans and greens, but the best color combination included a coral crushed-velvet coat, a caramel shirt, a chocolate cashmere cardigan, and a pomegranate velvet riding skirt. Her black pinstriped maiden shift over a tuxedo shirt was fabulous for 9-to-5; her ribbed black-leather dress over a cashmere sweater moved delicately with the model and was kiss-the-air-beautiful.

Oscar de la Renta. As usual, this show was standing-room-only, and the star-studded audience included Laura Bush, Barbara Walters, Billy Joel, Donald Trump, and R&B singer Mya.

What was nice was that de la Renta fans got a different kind of show. Most years, he works within a theme and often will make one outfit in several different shades. This year, each ensemble was different. And instead of muted hues, de la Renta offset his gray tweeds and brown suedes with crisp fire-engine reds, kelly greens, and aubergine.

Some hits: a sleeveless, gray tweed jewel-neck dress with a green alligator bag and brown suede pumps, and a burgundy cashmere twin set with feather trim and gray tweed flare skirt with suede pumps - notice how pieces can be worn together or paired with jeans. As Outkast's "Hey Ya" blared, a model waltzed out in a black suede shearling and brown silk gown that garnered shouts of "Ghetto fabulous!" Bet that's a first from the de la Renta crowd.

His greatness was once again revealed in evening wear that included floor-sweeping dresses adorned in Fred Leighton jewels, for a collection that did not lack flounce.

Diane von Furstenberg. We liked von Furstenberg's styles, but her busy patterns were a smidgen off-putting. The queen of the wrap dress - surprisingly, this collection included only two - featured her usual make-me-want-to-fly quality.

Von Furstenberg paired each outfit with elfinlike booties. In some cases, the busyness of the patterned dresses was seen in the tights. We suspect women will wear the tights with black or camel skirts, lest they be called "too busy."

Hoods made these looks a little gothy, but that was OK, as they featured wide sleeves and drapey accoutrements updating the peasant look. Our favorites: a gray hooded dress worn with ribbons and a shiny, long-sleeve, black collared dress.

Tracy Reese. Reese definitely felt the power of separates. But instead of using oranges, greens, maroons and chocolate browns, she fashioned her tweed suits in mint green and sparkly yellow.

A former designer for Perry Ellis, Reese didn't leave out evening wear: Her golden floor-length dress with red pumps was very Beyonc-like. Her floral suits were pretty, but they said Easter more than Thanksgiving.

Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com.

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