Alexander Lewis is interested in the way women dress. That may seem like a master-of-the-obvious statement—the guy is a designer, after all—but his interest is of a particular kind. He’s an observer, an ethnographer, an empathizer. In essence, Lewis is interested in the use women get from their clothes, both on a practical level (where can I wear this?) and on an existential one (if I wear this, what does that say about me?). Previous seasons found him posing those questions to hypothetical East L.A. chola girls and invented Palm Springs doyennes. His strategy is to ask, and then extrapolate a playful collection from the answers his make-believe muses provide.

For Pre-Fall, Lewis tread into potentially touchy territory, as he dreamed up a “frisky fummer”—a woman from a conservative Jewish background, still bound to those traditions, but who simultaneously maintains a seeking, experimental, sensual side. This is not an implausible character. And though some of the motifs in this collection—like the seven stripes, drawn from the tallit, the men’s prayer shawl—were Jewish-as-can-be, Lewis was correct when he pointed out that the tricky balance of tradition and experimentation is common to cosmopolitan religious women of every kind. And so other notions here, like the pomegranate-inspired embroidery and the hamsa hand embellishment, had a non-religious, pan-Middle Eastern feel.

Anyway, the clothes. Perhaps the defining quality of Lewis’ aesthetic is his sense of the “appropriate”: Even his sexiest designs have a certain reserve to them; ditto the ones that read as the most youthful. This season’s ultra-short, box-pleated skirts were a case in point. Never mind the minuscule hemlines—the skirts’ weight and rigorous construction made them seem modest somehow. The terrific velvet looks played the same trick, coming off as decorous despite the louche feel of the material and that not-safe-for-synagogue wink of midriff. Lewis’ painterly color-blocking was his nicest touch. But other details stood out, too, such as the asymmetric pleating on short and knee-length skirts, and the subtle bell of a sleeve on an otherwise understated silk dress. Also worthy of note: The boater hats, which Lewis made in collaboration with Piers Atkinson. A woman heading to shul would be glad to have one of those. But then, so would a woman who knows no god but style.

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