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Originally published Friday, February 17, 2012 at 11:57 AM

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Freedom in fashion startups for up and comers

The big names at New York Fashion Week who are watched for trends include Marc Jacobs and Proenza Schouler. But now, Jacobs and Proenza designers Jack McCollugh and Lazaro Hernandez have more on their minds than mere creativity and innovation.

AP Fashion Writer

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NEW YORK —

The big names at New York Fashion Week who are watched for trends include Marc Jacobs and Proenza Schouler. But now, Jacobs and Proenza designers Jack McCollugh and Lazaro Hernandez have more on their minds than mere creativity and innovation.

They have big businesses to run, and that has to enter the decision-making process at some point. When you're more of a startup, there's freedom.

And there might not be much money, so fashion shows are done on a much smaller scale. Models might work for clothes and other freebies. Fashionable friends might help with the styling. The shoestring approach worked for Zac Posen and Alexander Wang - and look at them now.

For Jason Wu it was more about a single dress: the first lady's inaugural gown. Prabal Gurung became the toast of the town with support from his old boss Cynthia Rowley and his appointed mentor Carolina Herrera.

Who could be next?

As part of Fashion Week, The Associated Press attended a handful of shows by designers who seem on the cusp. They are not household names, unless you live among the hipsters of SoHo or Brooklyn, but based on the buzz they had among front-row players, they seem to have potential as the next big things:

- Joseph Altuzarra is at the top of the list, winning in the past year both the Council of Fashion Designers of America award for up-and-coming talent and the Vogue/CFDA Fashion Fund prize, which gave him mentors and some seed money for his business.

In the first collection since then, Altuzarra drew on a gypsy's life, a wandering woman wearing jangling coin sequins and high leather boots.

There were other references, too, and they were oh-so-global: There was a bold, black-and-white African-inspired print in dresses and on a chunky, fur-trimmed jacket that would serve at a ski lodge or for every day.

He used wide panels of Moroccan blues and reds on some fronts, small red pompoms in a V design on others, along with shaggy fringe on heavy white knit tunics.

"I'm really thinking about my roots, what it means to be French and to be multicultural," he said backstage. "The fantasy really came from travel and this idea of an imaginary world traveler who kind of picks up things everywhere they go. From Morocco, North Africa, India, China."

The Swarthmore-educated Altuzarra, whose father is French-Basque and mother Chinese American, also had a favorite `70s comic book rapscallion in mind, Corto Maltese. Some of his strong shoulders and military tailoring were references to a "Viennese military cadet," he said.

"He's a half-gypsy, half-Venetian sailor who goes around the world and who has these adventures in the Middle East and North Africa and America. He's like a womanizer and he's very full of life. His mother was a gypsy witch."

While Altuzarra's past collections have been about deconstructing classic notions, this time he wanted to start with fabrics, shapes and tailoring that were "quite classic and quite French and very austere and strict" and make them new through the bits and pieces his imaginary traveler picked up along the way.

He played with fabrics a lot. "We were really interested in fabrics that could have a crispness and a strictness but that wouldn't necessary wear that way," Altuzarra said.

He went for 1950s and `60s silhouettes, some of which had very small waists, while emphasizing hips and shoulders.

- Parisian-turned-New Yorker Sophie Theallet spent four years working with Jean Paul Gaultier and 10 with Azzedine Alaia, but she feels settled into her own atelier, which she set up in 2007.

We continue to grow in a nice way, in a subtle way," over the last year or two, she said backstage. "I'm good. I'm happy. More and more people know about me."

She said her customers are "uptown clients, but it can be also the cool clients. It's like the same kind of woman, uptown or downtown."

Michelle Obama has on several occasions been spotted wearing Theallet.

For next season, Theallet bucked the Fashion Week trend and offered a wide range of color. A classic sleeveless cocktail dress in midnight blue was fitted through the waist but full at the bottom for a lively swing when walking.

She was inspired, she said, by an aristocrat "disowned" by her family. "She lives in the mansion, but she doesn't have any money. She just has a pension from an old uncle and with that money she spends everything on fashion, and she drinks champagne in crystal glasses."

Like her eccentric muse might have done, Theallet paired a knit turtleneck in burnt sienna under a vest of teal done in a large leaf motif with a shimmery skirt of the same pattern but in a deep purple, slit high on one thigh.

She sent out sheers in black and ice plum with dainty velvet dots. The party dress done that way in the plum tastefully draped for a deep V at the front and had the high thigh slit.

Her silhouettes were "kind of chic, strict and at the same time very free, that nonchalance, to present the education in fashion and the eccentricity," Theallet said.

- Carly Cushnie and Michelle Ochs have gained attention the past two years for their sexy, clingy dresses. Between the two women, they have an impressive list of designers they've learned from, interning at Proenza, Marc Jacobs, Ralph Rucci, Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta and Issac Mizrahi.

They say their newest looks were inspired by Pedro Almodovar's "The Skin I Live In," in which Antonio Banderas plays a plastic surgeon who lost his wife in a fiery crash and is determined to create a stronger, synthetic skin.

Their runway stood out at Fashion Week because it went against the conventional wisdom that it would be a very covered up season.

They went wild with slits and cutouts: In the front, back, on the sides. At times, as in an emerald silk crepe "aperture" dress, the slit was right in the chest. In an azul blue number, also in crepe silk, the aperture - like the opening of a camera lens - cut right across the waist.

There were also striking "open-eyes" dresses, where eye-shaped slits appeared under the neckline.

Dress lengths were often at the knee, perhaps to counteract the sexiness quotient of what appeared above.

And if you were looking for the plastic surgery references, you had them in the "wrapped bandage" dresses, and zippers, zippers, zippers - down the front, down the sides, even under the breasts, as in a bone-colored dress that had the effect of a brassiere on top of a dress.

- Suno is a brand that since its start has wanted to start a trend, but it has nothing to do with hemlines. Max Osterweis and design partner Erin Beatty had the loftier goal of teaching Kenyans a sustainable craft that would boost local economies when it sold its first outfits made of vintage fabrics in 2009.

The company has grown and so has its mission: It now makes clothes and embraces local techniques and expertise in India, Peru and New York. Because of its roots, prints have always been important to this collection, and fall had plenty, including those with stripes, florals, toile, fish and one of people holding hands.

There was a more-the-merrier message and sometimes multiple prints were worn at once.

But that's for the runway. Peel back a few layers and there were a lot of wearable pieces that covered a fashion-forward woman's needs from day to night. The people-print boatneck T-shirt dress looked great with a felted wool gray jacket, and so did a gold pleated top over a plain tan one with a pleated mini made of metallic wool.

The finale look was a statement in how far the designers have come since those first easy cotton looks. A model wore a wool military-style vest over black leather top - with its peplum peeking out - and a black skirt with gold beads that created a feather pattern.

- Bibhu Mohapatra's specialty is eveningwear, and he'll often highlight the colors and luxurious fabrics associated with his Indian roots. This season, however, he found inspiration in imperial China, specifically a Chinese opera called "The White Haired Girl."

In his notes, he explained the look revolved around "the protagonist's strength, courage and passion for love."

On the runway, Mohapatra expressed his interest through his prints - red silk printed pants and a blue silk pencil skirt, for example. But he also couldn't ignore the luxury customer he began courting as an assistant designer for Halston, and later at J. Mendel, where he eventually became design director.

With that background, working with alligator and pony fur, blue-dyed fox fur and leather seemed to come easily.

The breakout looks included a pleated chiffon ombre gown that went from black to beige, and a metallic silk dress covered in red ribbon embroidery. If he could get his ivory crepe gown with a plunging sheer panel and ivory embroidery on the red carpet on the right star, it could be his big break.

- Since partnering last year on Nahm, Nary Manivong and Ally Hilfiger (yes, daughter of Tommy), the duo already has a signature item in the shirtdress. But how to put your own twist on such a basic? With double collars, dropped waists, contrast pleats and conversational prints in silhouettes that evoke the 1920s and `30s.

Manivong's favorite print this season certainly was a conversation starter: It featured ancient Egyptians doing tasks of 2012 - skateboarding, shopping, mowing the lawn and sipping tropical cocktails.

"The Nahm girl is growing up, as we are," he said.

In her closet, she'll add for fall schoolgirl-style pleated skirts with a sheer blouse and an extreme A-line navy maxi skirt and plum-colored chiffon-loop blouse under a zip-front tuxedo coat.

"Our customer - she thinks, she's smart, she's well read," said Hilfiger.

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Follow AP fashion coverage at http://twitter.com/ap-fashion

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AP National Writer Jocelyn Noveck and Associated Press Writer Leanne Italie contributed to this report.

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