By Knight Ridder Newspapers

NEW YORK — My, oh my, but won’t it be a serious fall?

That is if the designers showing at the bi-annual seasonal runway shows in New York have their way. Many are sending down the catwalk layered, covered-up, high-buttoned styles in somber hues and conservative patterns (preppy plaids, hunting houndstooth and the oh-so-cheeky herringbone!). Hardly a piece of fluff or fashionable frivolity; this is a pendulum swing that started a year ago with more put-together country club chic looks and has been brought into sharper focus during these eight days of shows through a color palette that is heavy on grayish neutrals and light on ... well ... lightness.

At Marc Jacobs, the show was delayed about two hours because of a late shipment of shoes: chunky heels that ended in a stiletto point. You need a shoe like that to balance the clothing, which was post-apocalyptic and full of dour below-the-knee skirts and deconstructed trousers.

These are not slap-happy, let’s-go-frolic clothes. These are clothes that seem to have absorbed every dour headline in the press and oozed it back out as Prohibition-era gowns, sack dresses and cutout platforms. Not for the fashionably timid, for sure. But for the fashion-forward, Jacobs’ neutral-hued knit tops and architectural skirts will strike just the right tone six months from now.

The Max Azria Collection (they dropped the BCBG during Fashion Week) was also rather drab in the color palette department: black, gray, brown, navy. The sweaters were nubby and oversized, layering the body like a boiled-wool cocoon. High heels? Are you mad? You’ll wear ballet flats and knee-highs like a sensible woman.

Doo.Ri by designer Doori Chung showed the kind of skill that earned her a priceless endorsement from Vogue czarina Anna Wintour. She managed to put a little fabulousness and — dare we whisper it — sex appeal into glen plaid blouson tops and check suits with ruff effects around the neck. When is the last time you heard neck ruff and sexy in the same sentence? On the other hand, her colors were right in step with the rest of the fashion designers’ proposals for fall/winter 2005-2006: tan, mud, oatmeal.

It was conservative, but sexy equestrian chic for Charles Nolan. With Neil Young wailing away, models strutted around in chesterfield and hunting jackets, riding boots and high-belted skirted suits (with buckles that Nolan himself termed “Pilgrim”).

But all designers aren’t downers. Michael Vollbracht at Bill Blass ain’t having nothing of it. His clientele, the loyal and uber-rich ladies-who-lunch, want cocktail dresses, luncheon suits in silhouettes and cuts that flatter a woman who can afford the pricey label. Everything is belted (thick obi-like glossy ones for the optimum hour-glass effect) and cut generously for drape and movement. But even the Blass label has its bursts of teal, plum, red and citrine anchored by steadfast and sturdy gray and black.

Carolina Herrera’s straight skirts with 3/4-sleeve jackets and high-collars were sexy enough, but a little tricked-up. Drawstrings were threaded through slits in the fabric so that the wearer could adjust the silhouette. The plaid skirts had appliques. A deceptively simple tweed dress had sheared mink sleeves.

That seems like an awful lot of work for the wearer. Fashion is really going to need a vacation by the time the spring shows roll around in September.

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