NEW YORK -- As the fashion industry looks for an alternate universe -- one that has consumers flocking to stores -- it seems intrigued by the ideas of exploration and space.
The designer collections and all the trickle-down clothes that come after them are heavy on a tough look, with strong shoulders, stiff fabrics and tarnished metallic details. Sculpted, monochromatic outfits of black, gray and copper provide the night-sky backdrop to the flashes of neon that are the equivalent of shooting stars.
There were even a few Stormtrooper helmets on the runways for fall collections. Clearly, the intention was to send a focused, futuristic warrior to do battle with the economy.
"This isn't the naive kind of '60s futuristic stuff you might think of," said Susan Cernek, senior fashion editor of Glamour.com. "This is more robotic. It's tougher. It's an android crossed with a biker."
Francisco Costa, creative director for Calvin Klein's womenswear collection, prefers to call the vibe "modernist," but he says he sees the space-age connection. "The house gives a sense of strength from structure, and that is actually nature-driven, and space is definitely a part of nature."
For the fall collection, Costa used an asymmetrical crescent hemline to soften aggressive laser cuts, and he played with fashion's equivalent of puzzle pieces that had the effect of mimicking the plates of Earth.
Cernek noted a toggling between the vast galaxy and the core of this planet as inspiration in many collections. They're opposite in some ways, she says, but similar in others: "We're looking for the light at the end of the tunnel."
The notion of exploration started a few seasons ago when designers found themselves interested in adventure travel, and fashioned that into garments made of indigenous fabrics from Asia and African kangas, says Jamie Thomas, women's editor for trend analysis firm StyleSight. Space just pushes that a little farther, she says.
"We're looking for a fresh start. Spending patterns have changed with the economy and this is a fresh start of an uncharted territory," Thomas says.
And retailers do need to turn the page: A monthly compilation of more than 50 retailers' results by The International Council of Shopping Centers and Goldman Sachs indicated same-store sales fell 5.0 percent last month compared to a year ago.
Pop culture fans those flames with the countless tributes this year to the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's moonwalk, and the alien flick "District 9" is tops at the box office.
Technology also has caught up with some of the vision. Italo Zucchelli, the menswear designer at Calvin Klein, says that much of the modernity of his fall collection came from a new stiff, repellent fabric that bonded foam with traditional textiles. It probably wasn't possible to do five years ago, and, even if it was, it wouldn't have been right for the times, he says.
"We're at a point in the collective mindset -- for men, women, all human beings -- that we're moving on, that we're at the beginning of a new era in fashion, health, spirituality, everything," Zucchelli says.
For Los Angeles-based designer Rory Beca, space represents practically a rainbow of colors. Lately, she has been interested in the work of artist Jacques Monory, who incorporates galactic hues into his work. "I have always been infatuated with space, even as a kid, because it is beyond anything we really know and understand," Beca says.
That's not to say fashion's future can't borrow from the past. Designer Rachel Roy infused her sleek collection with hints of the 1940s -- a time that she says represents "a world where women were making their own decisions and being independent."
Still, the clothes she presented at Fashion Week -- such as a gray flannel coat with a stiff collar and a black bustier dress adorned with a necklace made of square-cut mirrors -- had some space-age trimmings. And, yes, she acknowledges with a giggle, the shoulder pads are a little "Star Trek."
Don't laugh too hard. Some fashion insiders say the exaggerated shoulder will be among the most wearable trends of the season.
A bold shoulder, with or without actual shoulder pads, is a distinctive silhouette that whittles the waist and balances the hips, explains Cernek. "It's very stable."
Cernek said her readers also loved a slightly robotic Rodarte frock that Reese Witherspoon wore for a red carpet appearance.
Other wearable interpretations of the galactic look are the liquidlike metallic leggings shown by BCBG Max Azria and Alexander Wang's crystal-studded leggings. "This becomes an easy way to tap into a trend without revamping your entire wardrobe and without putting on a helmet," Cernek says.
StyleSight's Thomas, though, wouldn't be surprised if some fashion-forward types snapped up Karl Lagerfeld's helmets that had iPod attachments and matching fingerless gloves with a spot for a phone. It would give them something to wear on their Vespas.
"He really thought about how this trend will translate into real life," she says.
Moderation is Cernek's mantra here. "You don't want tinfoil from head to toe."
Calvin Klein's Costa says he's already looking farther into the future, not just at the next big trend but also at the relevancy of today's fashion for the next generations. "Children are going to experience things we can't imagine. The clothes we're offering is a little bit of that dream."