`Panic Time!’ De la Renta and Company Trot Out Sensible Designs for ’99

Oscar de la Renta stood in his Garment District office on Monday, Feb. 8, surveying the pre-fashion-week chaos. A model in an elegant double-faced wool coat with naked legs and Manolo Blahnik heels strutted up to the designer. She stopped and pivoted slightly; a photographer snapped a portrait. Suddenly, the model’s face flushed and the room began to fill with giggles. Mr. de la Renta had pinched her ass.

The model struggled to regain her composure for the photographer as Mr. de la Renta went into a riff about the plot of a movie he had seen recently, The Damned Don’t Cry , starring Joan Crawford. Crawford models until all of the buyers try to sleep with her. Then she quits. “It was really funny,” he said. The model smiled.

“This is panic time,” said Mr. de la Renta, who put on a couture show in Paris on Jan. 20 and will show his fall 1999 collection during New York fashion week on Feb. 16.

All over New York, fashion designers are pulling all-nighters to try to create some magic on the catwalks of the huge white tents at Bryant Park, in Grand Central Terminal, or in private showrooms. Fashion week kicks off Feb. 11 with Kenneth Cole (he now makes clothes and shoes) and ends on Feb. 19 with Calvin Klein (or Matt Nye, if you count guilty pleasures). New York designers have grabbed the lead spot in the fashion schedule: While they used to show after London, Paris and Milan, they now show first. In doing so, they have forced men’s and women’s clothing onto the same runway, for the first time in New York fashion history. They’ve also made the event a weeklong dress parade for the Oscar awards.

Based on an early look at some of the fall 1999 collections, luxe minimalism, slight asymmetrical shapes and an abundance of pullover sweaters will continue to dominate the runways. Suits? Sorry, the stuff retailers love will wait, as separates, slim pullovers and skirts continue at a length just above the knee–or occasionally at the ankle–worn with lower heels. (Beware the return of cowboy boots.)

Last season, European designers introduced athletic-inspired pieces in state-of-the-art synthetics–the Prada Sport line, for instance. It would be natural for American designers to pick up this trend, combining body consciousness with the American penchant for casual dressing. See: Betsey Johnson’s rip-stop nylon dress, Yeohlee’s membrane treated wool and Daryl K’s fitted, military-style leather jacket.

Evening clothes still haven’t matched the inflated heights of Christian Lacroix’s pouf, even if Wall Street has gone above and beyond. This week, designers will be showing sheaths in luxurious silks and jerseys, a more voluminous version of the ubiquitous slip dress. According to Women’s Wear Daily , red is the new gray. Of course, gray was the new black, which has been the new navy since Anna Wintour became editor of Vogue 10 years ago. Fred Leighton is still the favorite accessory.

Helmut Lang’s first show in Paris a decade ago was co-ed, and it was considered a revelation. Modern. Men and women together as they are in life. But fashion magazines continue to segregate the sexes, and some editors, particularly women’s fashion editors, still think co-ed fashion shows distract from the main event: women’s clothes. Men’s clothes, many fashion purists feel, do not qualify as “fashion” because, at best, men’s clothing is conservative.

With only a few days to go, designers are still choosing models, and matching shirts to skirts. Some designers, like John Bartlett, were waiting for entire lines; his women’s collection arrived in New York by plane from Italy on Feb. 8. As Mr. Bartlett’s collection arrived, Kevan Hall of Halston was still waiting for shoes, fur pieces and beads.

The making of a collection usually starts with an inspiration, then the selecting and ordering of fabric, the months of waiting, then more inspiration when the fabric arrives, then the execution–getting pieces stitched together and holding fittings. Sometimes there’s time to create some additional drama with a conceptual presentation. Sometimes there’s still sewing going on the morning of the show.

The chaos and deadlines surrounding the shows are nothing new, but this year’s deadlines are tighter than ever. “I only had three weeks to do the collection,” said Mr. de la Renta, whose evening wear is very popular with Aerin Lauder, Marie Chantal of Greece, and others in New York’s junior set. “One of those weeks I was sick.” He paused to stab an orange section off a white Limoges plate. Like some of the other designers at New York’s fashion week, Mr. de la Renta designs several lines and also shows in Paris.

Some designers–like Joan Vass–just couldn’t get their fabrics in time. Bill Blass, who has been sick, and Ms. Vass won’t show anything until April, sticking to the old schedule.

Still, other designers are delighted with the early dates. Showing before Europe versus showing after, said Mr. Bartlett, who also designs for Byblos in Italy, “We can set the pace in a way.” His dog Sweetie jumped in his lap. “If you have six months or three months it is always up to the last five minutes.”

On Feb. 19, Randolph Duke will show his first runway collection since he left Halston two seasons ago over creative differences. “I am working with four or five people on the Oscars. I can’t tell you who,” said Mr. Duke, who dressed Angelina Jolie in a sexy crystal gown for the Golden Globe Awards in January. “They are very fickle. They are not loyal.”

Mr. Duke’s preoccupation reflects the movement of New York designers away from Park Avenue patrons toward Hollywood stars–especially its New York contingent. Donna Karan has Barbra Streisand and Demi Moore. Calvin Klein has Gwyneth Paltrow. Vivienne Tam has Julia Roberts.

The other front row may be even less predictable. The unprecedented nine days of male-and-female catwalking starts the day before a three-day weekend that includes Valentine’s Day and Presidents’ Day. A completely unscientific survey suggests that a rare flu (one insider suggested “the Connecticut flu”) will hit the fashion industry Wednesday night, Feb. 10, and mysteriously clear up in time for the Marc Jacobs show on Monday, Feb. 15, at 9 P.M., enabling fashionistas to enjoy the long weekend. The seasonal disorder won’t affect Oscar de la Renta and a newcomer to New York, Vivienne Westwood, who will both show on Feb. 16; Ralph Lauren, who shows on Feb. 17; or Calvin Klein and the Donna Karan collection, which will be shown on Feb. 19.

But expected guests have been sending their regrets for Ms. Karan’s DKNY show on Valentine’s Day.

“Come on, people, why don’t you celebrate when you get home at 7?” said a publicist.