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She ruled the world of haute couture for almost six decades, leaving behind an empire worth millions and a legacy that's priceless.

Not bad for an orphan who grew up in poverty!Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel. Countless articles, books and even a Broadway musical have been written about her. Perhaps no other designer has reached such heights.

Almost every couturier - including Yves Saint Laurent, the king of Parisian fashion - acknowledges a profound debt to this remarkable woman who introduced modernity to fashion. Homage to Chanel, in fact, is regularly paid throughout the apparel industry. But never has her creativity been recognized to such a degree as recently, and never has her influence been more obvious than in the New York spring collections.

Chanel themes surfaced virtually everywhere: in the snappy styles of Eleanor Brenner; in the casually elegant clothes of Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta; in the smart knits of Adrienne Vittadini; in the sportswear classics of Louis Dell'Olio for Anne Klein - just to mention a few places.

Sportswear classics always were favorites of Chanel, who began her career by opening a small millinery shop in Deauville, France, in 1913.

Unable to afford fancy clothes, she wore her own creations - simple sweaters, skirts, blouses and jersey dresses. The "poor girl" look started to attract the affluent who were sick of uncomfortable, corseted clothes. They began buying her designs.

A new fashion star was born.

Coco quickly became the toast of Paris. One of her signatures: outfits featuring bright buttons. And for spring '89, this glint will be an important trend in fashion.

Gold buttons parade on jackets. They trim dresses. They accent skirts and pants. They march in single- and double-breasted rows down cardigan sweaters and crisp white blouses. Some designers even feature them as the major decoration on evening attire. Without a doubt, gold buttons spell spring this year.

So do gold chains.

Coco loved them and often wrapped them around the waists of her dresses and skirts instead of belts. She also advocated long golden chains as necklaces and mixed them with fake pearls. It was a revolutionary way of accessorizing at the time. Imagine! Rich Parisian ladies in make-believe gems. And not just one discreet, tasteful strand, either. She loaded on the jewelry - three and four necklaces at a time.

For spring, leading American designers are sold on the same idea. They spice up those suits and dresses with an abundance of chains and pearls. For good measure, Maltese crosses are often added. As for belts, the quickest way to update any skirt is to accent it with a chain, Chanel-style. (Bill Blass adds chain belts to some of his spring styles in a very unique way. They're embroidered on the garments.)

Decorative braid, another favorite theme at the House of Chanel, will be seen on stylish warm-weather clothes, too. Coco liked it as the trimming on cardigan jackets. Today's designers are following suit. But they're also doing variations on the theme. (One variation: a sequinned vest accented with gleaming braid that's perfect to wear for festive formal occasions.)

For formal occasions and for daytime, too, white's an important color. Navy's another shade that's coming on strong. And in combination, the two lead the stylish hit parade.

As for pants, whether you pick them in white or navy or go with another color entirely, they've never been more popular. Everybody's doing them, just as Coco did.

In her collections, bell-bottom trousers often were shown. The bell-bottom is just one of many pant silhouettes for spring '89. Cuts run the gamut from above the ankle, to ankle length, to floor sweeping. Widths vary just as much - from narrow, to moderate, to extremely wide. Perhaps the most important silhouette is the full and flowing trouser that resembles a skirt. In sheer and filmy materials, this wide pant is beautiful for evening. In more practical fabrications and less dramatic widths, it can also work for day.

For those who don't want to bother with full-legged slacks - and they do require careful moving around so you don't get cuffs caught in elevator doors - there are dozens of other designs.

The nautical look is back for spring, evidenced in traditional blazers with crests, dresses with sailor collars and snappy stripes (Coco always liked stripes). Simple white blouses are in the spotlight, too, as are sweaters and knits - items that were trademarks at her quarters on the Rue Cambon.

The little black dress, another signature at Coco's, is making fashion headlines for the season ahead.

What about hem lengths?

Well, Chanel preferred hers at the knee or a bit below - and most spring collections follow that philosophy. For those who have liked shorter skirts, there still are a few around. But the trend's definitely downward. Some even flirt with the ankle.

After the mini debacle, designers are determined to take it easy and offer plenty of styles that have sold well and worked well in the past. But don't get the idea that everything harks back to yesterday. New forces are at work in fashion as well.

Color is being used in inventive ways - brights with brights; unusual hues together. Shapes are being mixed in creative ways - sarongs with tailored blazers, for instance. Sheer fabrics such as chiffon are teaming up with wool - something that sounds strange, yet works beautifully.