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Jason Wu, Maria Pinto Kick Off New York Fashion Week (PHOTOS)

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NEW YORK — Celebrities? Check. Over-the-top fashion? Check. Unlimited expense accounts? Well, not so much.

New York Fashion Week kicked off Friday with a few concessions to the economic downturn, but for the well-heeled crowd and even better-heeled models, it was mostly fashion as usual.

Top fashion editors including Anna Wintour jammed into a packed show for Jason Wu, the young designer who was little known before he designed first lady Michelle Obama's inaugural gown and the dress she wears on the March cover of Vogue.

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"The fact that Michelle Obama is wearing Jason Wu makes him hotter than hot," said Suze Yalof Schwartz, Glamour magazine's fashion editor at large. "I've never been to his show before, but it was the only show I wasn't going to miss this season."

Mrs. Obama was a no-show, but her impact was clear. Retailers also stopped by the showroom of Obama's favorite Chicago designer, Maria Pinto. And other top designers cited the Obamas as a source of inspiration and optimism as they prepared their fall collections.

"It's not fair to pin the hopes of the whole industry on one woman, but she has proven she can fuel excitement and optimism, just like her husband," said Constance White, style director for eBay.

There were signs of the sour economy, though not as many as some had anticipated. Monique Lhuillier and Carmen Marc Valvo skipped their usual runway shows for smaller presentations outside the tents of Mercedes Benz Fashion Week. Some fashion editors grumbled about hailing taxis instead of hopping in their usual town cars.

But there was no lack of glitz. The Heart Truth show to raise awareness about heart disease had plenty of star-power from the likes of Hilary Duff and "90210" stars Jennie Garth and Tori Spelling. Later in the day, Lindsay Lohan watched girlfriend Samantha Ronson deejay at her sister Charlotte's show.

And after several somber seasons, the fashion crowd was ready to embrace something that for their industry, Mrs. Obama embodied: hope.

"There's a fine line to what's respectful to what's going on in the world and being inspiring," said designer Rachel Roy. "I chose to focus on strength."

HEART TRUTH

The Heart Truth fashion show _ with its parade of celebrities in red frocks _ is the industry's Valentine to the public, Tim Gunn of "Project Runway" said as he officially kicked off New York Fashion Week.

Katie Couric, Patricia Arquette, Hilary Duff and Olympic gymnast Nastia Liukin were among the "models," who donned red dresses to help raise awareness about heart disease. It's become a tradition to open Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week's fall-collection previews with this collaborative, charitable effort.

Jane Kaczmarek, wearing a strapless, fan-top gown by Rafael Cennamo was a first-time catwalker. She told the AP ahead of the show that her biggest concern was tripping.

She did fine, though, collecting cheers and applause, and she scored a coup for her charity Clothes Off Our Back, which auctions clothes worn by celebrities to raise money for children's causes.

Former "Wonder Woman" Lynda Carter, in a one-shoulder Caroline Herrera gown, was another crowd favorite as were Jennie Garth and Tori Spelling of "Beverly Hills, 90210," who shot down the runway one after another. Garth was in flowing Badgley Mischka gown with peek-a-boo white beaded straps and Spelling wore a flirty strapless dress by Betsey Johnson with a black-sash waist and tiers of pleats.

RACHEL ROY

Rachel Roy's muse for fall is a strong, no-frills woman who gets things done.

Roy previewed her collection Thursday on the eve of the official kickoff of New York Fashion Week. The clothes had a forward-thinking vibe _ so much so that some silhouettes, including a gray flannel coat with a stiff collar and a black bustier dress adorned with a necklace made of square-cut mirrors, had a space-age edge.

Strategic cutouts made dresses sexy. The simplicity of the monochromatic looks, done mostly in black, gray, winter white and steel blue, drew further attention to their formfitting shape.

MONIQUE LHUILLIER

The dresses Monique Lhuillier is offering for next season are pretty, but it seemed Lhuillier didn't want them to appear too pretty.

Models in the fabled Oak Room of The Plaza Hotel on Thursday wore distressed black bodysuits under their lovely dresses, which were inspired by the Ballet Russes, which had hints of surrealist style.

It was a limited collection with only 12 looks. Among the best were a cream- and nude-colored ombre gown with beaded tulle petals and pleated ruffles, a burgundy jersey draped gown and a ballerina-style cocktail dress with embroidered waist.

MARIA PINTO

Maria Pinto's recession strategy is to give consumers something of "perceived value."

"You have to keep things fresh and new. Why add anything that's average? You want something special," said Pinto, the Chicago-based designer who is more on the radar of fashion insiders after dressing Mrs. Obama.

Pinto showed her fall collection to editors and retailers Thursday in intimate one-on-one previews that allowed her to explain her design philosophy and inspiration. She starts with luxe fabrics, she said, and is currently fascinated with the endless loops found in Rococo art, as well as the idea of "control and release."

She created several pieces that used the basic silhouette of a fitted front and a cascading back, a style that looks entirely different in dressy navy satin than in cozy alpaca wool, yet equally chic.