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Hurricane wind in fashion sail

New York, Sept. 12: The sight of designer Kenneth Cole taking his runway bows dressed in a Red Cross T-shirt went a long way to take some of the sting out of the start of the spring 2006 fashion show season.

Fashion is a billion-dollar business that helps fuel the economy, but its biannual ritual of splashy presentations, cocktail parties, celebrity-ogling and straight-faced conversations about the importance of bubble skirts and belts troubles the soul when so many residents of the Gulf Coast are suffering.

It is a daunting challenge to reconcile sharp-jawed models in suits that will sell for $ 2,000 with thousands of displaced souls who’ve lost everything except the flimsy shirts on their backs. Perhaps it is egregious even to try.

Still, it was fortunate that Cole’s show officially marked the start of spring 2006, as he can always be relied upon to put fashion into perspective. Over the years, Cole has made a tradition out of opening his shows with a wry video vignette poking fun at fashion victims, the editors filled with hot air and the colourful hangers-on.

Friday morning, with the aid of comedian Whoopi Goldberg playing the role of a belligerent style offender arrested by the fashion police, Cole made the industry laugh at its own inflated self-importance.

His video also pointed out the pervasiveness of hunger, not only in the aftermath of Katrina, but on a daily basis around the world.

It noted that the participants in the show had donated a percentage of their fees to hurricane relief, a sum that Kenneth Cole Productions would match. It was not so much a moment of corporate bragging as a sign of leadership: Cole’s immediate response to the damage wreaked by Katrina was laudable. And in some respects, he had gotten the fashion industry off the hook.

This is the second time designers have had to consider how their shows could and should go on at a time when the country ' that is, their customers ' are in no mood to consider hemlines and “it” bags.

On the first anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the industry struggled to find the right note of sobriety while carrying on with the business of marketing and selling clothes. For the first two years after the attacks, few designers were even willing to mount a show on 9/11.

Now, whenever the runway shows fall on that sombre anniversary, an American flag hangs in Bryant Park, says Fern Mallis, executive director of 7th on Sixth, the organisation that produces Fashion Week in New York. This season, she says, the flag is bigger than ever.

In the weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the fashion industry created “Fashion for America” T-shirts, with sales benefiting the Twin Towers Fund.

Now another T-shirt is in the works ' Fashion Bridges the Gulf ' to benefit victims of Katrina.

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