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FALL FASHION ALREADY? <br> DESIGNERS ARE WARMING UP TO LONGER SKIRTS, THE COLOR GRAY AND GLITTER IN THE EVENING

One young model wore insect wings -- wings so big they spanned the width of the runway. Another pulled out a can of spray confetti and accessorized the outfits of front-row guests. At one show, the last-minute arrival of former "Baywatch" star Pamela Anderson Lee caused a photographers' stampede despite the human wall of security surrounding her.

And at the end of her fashion show, the red mop-topped designer Betsey Johnson spun a cartwheel while wearing a pair of red and silver sparkly shoes that looked as if they could lift her off to the moon.

It's just another Fashion Week in New York, where almost anything goes. Except the ordinary.

From casual collections to the most glitzy, this is the time for fashion designers to showcase their fall '98 clothes. The event, which attracts hundreds of reporters, editors, retailers and celebrities from around the world, follows on the heels of last month's European fall collections.

The shows, which began over the weekend and continue through Friday, are staged at tents erected for the occasion in Bryant Park, an attractive block of grass, trees and wooden-slat chairs bordering 42nd Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues. More than 45 designers are appearing here, with additional shows scheduled all week throughout Manhattan.

But beyond the fanfare and fantasy, the fashions shown on the runways provide a sneak preview of the trends that will soon be found in all price ranges.

If the early shows of the week are any indication of things to come, long skirts, slouchy pant suits, mohair knits and glittery eveningwear of all sorts are just a few things to watch for.

And gray, it appears, is the color of the moment.

It's everywhere -- simply everywhere -- in shades ranging from light stone to deep charcoal. Carolina Herrera opened her show Monday with a long draped skirt of slate gray silk jersey topped with a matching jeweled T-shirt.

Donna Karan filled her secondary line, DKNY, with gray, using various shades for her long, cable-knit sweaters; reversible sweat shirts; molded jackets, and uniquely shaped "elliptical" skirts, which bell out slightly above the hemlines.

Mark Eisen likes to combine gray with moss green and rose, while at Ellen Tracy, designer Linda Allard mixed it with lavender, plum and celadon during her show Tuesday morning.

Her charcoal single-breasted jacket and heathered gray soft trousers, for example, topped a lavender ribbed turtleneck.

That's the way color expert Leatrice Eiseman likes to see gray. "Gray is a neutral that blends well with other shades," said Ms. Eiseman, who, as director of the Pantone Color Institute, attends the shows and tracks and analyzes the color trends.

"I love it with prune, brick red and blue. And blending it with brown is a very European take on gray," Ms. Eiseman said before the Betsey Johnson show Monday.

In its daily chronicle of color trends created for show-goers, Pantone offers this read on the popular color: "Gray not only embodies the earthy elements of stone, slate, gravel and granite, but also speaks of the spaceship technology and sleek finishes of stainless steel, chrome and platinum that will carry us into the next century."

From gray sweats to gray flannel skirts, "gray already is a mainstay in many women's wardrobes," Ms. Eiseman said. Next fall, women will just have many more options for wearing it. Not that it will ever replace black. Nor will women who bought brown -- last fall's big neutral -- feel compelled to rid their wardrobes of shades of espresso and chocolate.

"I think we're beyond that," Ms. Eiseman said.

For evening, designers still are smitten with glitter and Hollywood glamour. For the first time in years, Bob Mackie introduced a made-to-order couture collection filled with luxurious fabrics, jeweled embroidery and fancy trims. Carolina Herrera's evening offerings included tuxedo-style pants with the side stripes done in a sheer "illusion" fabric embellished with beads.

And for the woman who likes the fancy stuff but prefers not to dress in it head-to-toe, Ms. Allard combined ornate fabrics with plain ones for Ellen Tracy. She paired a black beaded T-shirt with a black velvet jersey long skirt, for example, and a black ribbed V-neck sweater with black "cobweb" beaded evening pants.

There are other trends to watch for. Though some designers show gowns that fit like second skins and Betsey Johnson filled her collection with outrageous lingerie looks (Naomi Campbell opened the show donning a gold lame quilted coat layered over matching underwear, just to give you an idea), most others are focusing on long, flowing clothes.

Longer skirts definitely are in the fashion forecast, with hemlines ranging from below the knees to the floor. Sporty influences are everywhere. Traditional jackets may be replaced by outerwear vests. Hoods put a casual spin on sweaters and dresses. And designers still are in love with turtlenecks.

But clothes aren't the only thing designers are creating this season. One-of-a-kind automobiles are another.

It's part of a special fund-raising project called ConceptCure, which was conceived two years ago by General Motors, the title sponsor of this year's Fashion Week, and New York's fashion industry. In partnership with 7th on Sixth Inc., the company that organizes and centralizes the runway shows, GM ConceptCure brings together fashion designers and automotive designers to create unique vehicles that will be awarded to consumers in a national sweepstakes.

ConceptCure has contributed more than $1.2 million to the fight against breast cancer, according to one release.

This season, Tommy Hilfiger, Nicholas Graham for Joe Boxer, Michael Kors and Cynthia Rowley designed the cars, which were on display at a party Monday night.

And unique they are.

Hilfiger took a GMC Jimmy and designed the exterior in two-tone navy and silver, with the familiar red, white and blue Hilfiger flag wrapped around it. Graham's Chevy Venture minivan not only features the Joe Boxer logo written on the side but also the same "Lickey" smiley faces featured on Joe Boxer products. Cynthia Rowley went with black watch plaid for the exterior and interior of a Pontiac Grand Prix (with matching luggage to boot). And Michael Kors' Cadillac DeVille is done in a silver metallic finish -- sort of like glittery nail polish.

The interiors, of course, are dressed to the nines as well. Which leads us to the question: What does one wear to motor around in one of these sets of wheels?

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