Fashion Week’s Conundrum: How to Combine Art and Commerce?

With less than 48 hours to go before New York’s fashion week was to pack up its tents, the major themes of the week had emerged on Feb. 18. Can fashion successfully combine art and commerce? Can the private fancies of creative designers and their customers co-exist with the more public, commercial demands of salability?

Call it the politics of fashion. The week of runway hits and misses emerged from the heavy fog of a national, post-impeachment hangover. American designers had propelled themselves to the beginning of the international fashion calendar. Foreign retailers and reporters begrudgingly made the leap across the ocean to the country where the most important dress in recent memory is not something marvelous from Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein, but a blah Gap number pathetically stained and allegedly bound for the National Archives. From there, American fashion had nowhere to go but up.

In the beginning of Bill Clinton’s Presidency, fashion reporters actually wrote about what Mr. Clinton wore: a lot of Donna Karan. No one rushes to credit his clothing now, but the President’s year of tribulations has its parallels in the current state of fashion: a conversation about the right-to-privacy whim versus one’s public responsibilities in the marketplace. High fashion is all about privacy: To endure it one must champion the right for a man or woman to reveal themselves when they wish and as they wish at any time in any style. “Clothes are inevitable,” to quote a chestnut from British costume historian James Laver. “They are nothing less than the furniture of the mind made visible.”

Dressing is a freestyle game of peekaboo. Fashion is an engine for individual choice, even when it is just the banal vehicle for accessing social class. But the homogenizing principles of high commerce fueled by worry about the bottom line limit options. The tyranny of limited options intrudes on the private pleasures of fashion.

“It’s the paradox of every industry,” Fairchild Publications Inc.’s editorial director Patrick McCarthy said over the phone on Feb. 18. “The fashion industry. The film industry. Certainly the publishing industry: How do you combine art with commerce?”

Fairchild’s fashion-industry bible, Women’s Wear Daily , had come out that morning with a front-page story titled “Public Property.” Designers, including Karl Lagerfeld, Bill Blass and Alexander McQueen, were asked if they felt creativity, particularly any inspiration even remotely avant-garde, was threatened when a fashion house went public on Wall Street.

“I’ve never made a garment that I didn’t think someone would want to wear,” Michael Kors told WWD . “Salability is not a dirty word at all.”

Gucci designer Tom Ford told WWD : “For me, creativity and business are part of the same thing: The business side is just as important as the product. I enjoy the business part: It’s real life. And I’m that kind of fashion designer: I’m too cynical to think I’m creating art.”

The next day, it was reported that Mr. Ford was supporting Domenico De Sole, chief executive of Gucci Group N.V., in anti-takeover efforts against Bernard Arnault, the chief executive of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton S.A., who has been accumulating Gucci stock since last December. LVMH is a part-owner of Marc Jacobs L.L.C. and recently acquired a one-third interest in Michael Kors Inc.

The best collections in New York’s fashion week negotiated the paradox of artful fashion and commercial clothing. From Mr. Jacobs came beautifully comfortable tailored skirts and jackets. From Helmut Lang came highly refined, urban utilitarian looks such as a workman’s overall concocted in a double layer of organza. The sleek, slim sophisticated pants and shirts in Calvin Klein’s collection were a hip, chic woman’s dream. Fitted, cashmere turtlenecks, earth colors, and chevron needlepoint skirts were just a few of the ladies’ favorite things from Mr. Kors’ collection. Mr. Kors is the favorite designer for society’s new breed of ladies who live uptown and play downtown, including Princess Marie-Chantal Miller of Greece, Aerin Lauder Zinterhofer and Brooke de Ocampo. “Anything for my girls,” Mr. Kors said before his show on Feb. 17. “One of my many goals for the millennium is fitting into Michael’s wonderful, long gray cashmere evening dress,” said Blaine Trump.

It wasn’t a season about exposed skin. There were many fitted sleeves and sleeveless looks, enough to suggest the arm is the erogenous zone of the millennium. Instead of obvious sex, there was the romance of color beyond the confines of black or white. Experimenting with color is the new way to reveal the private self in public, or camouflage, if you like. “Color is the essence of emotion,” Donna Karan wrote in program notes for her show on Feb. 19.

Fashion editors whistled after Bruce, a collection by downtown designers Daphne Guttierrez and Nicole Noselli presented on Feb. 18. And fashionistas who in January missed the Paris show of 30-year-old French designer Hedi Slimane, Yves Saint Laurent’s recently appointed men’s wear designer, rushed to meet Mr. Slimane when he held court at the Yves Saint Laurent boutique on Wooster Street in SoHo during fashion week. “He’s brilliant,” said Ingrid Sischy, editor of Interview magazine, which profiles Mr. Slimane in its March issue.

“Very regular clothes with a different proportion,” said Mr. Slimane of his style. Responding to suggestions that the elongated proportions of his suits and coats promoted an almost subversive sexuality, Mr. Slimane said, “Yes, there’s always something going on inside the suits.” He opened his jacket to reveal a subtle geometry of red stitching.

Will it sell? He smiled. “Well, maybe the gray flannel jumpsuit will be a problem.”

Billy’s List: Quiz time!

1. Flaunt is:

a. Thierry Mugler’s new perfume.

b. the fashion crowd’s favorite new restaurant in TriBeCa.

c. a trendy new fashion magazine.

2. Where is Brooke Astor?

a. Traveling in Sicily with John Glenn.

b. On retreat in Maine, finishing her next book.

c. Spending part of the winter in Palm Beach, Fla.

3. Who is Milan Yukmirovi?

a. The London fashion Wunderkind .

b. A buyer for Collette, the trendy Paris shop.

c. The male model recently hired to do a Calvin Klein underwear campaign with Christy Turlington.

Answers: (1) c; (2) c; (3) b.