Esteban Cortazar is the fourth heir to take the throne since Emanuel Ungaro retired from ready-to-wear in 2001. After a season in which the troubled house didn't mount a show, the 23-year-old replaces Peter Dundas, a designer who has at least 15 years' experience, as well as stints at Cavalli, Gaultier, and Lacroix to his credit. By comparison, Cortazar is relatively untested. He touts himself as the youngest designer ever to have shown at New York fashion week, but in the five-plus years since his debut he hasn't attracted the same level of attention that other up-and-comers of his generation have. To say that the young man has his work cut out for him is an understatement. The fact that he knows it—he sent a save-the-date card bearing the words "Pressure, What Pressure!!"—is, unfortunately for him, no guarantee of success.

That's the backstory. As for Cortazar's first go at Ungaro, it had an altogether softer feel than what the label was famous for in the go-go eighties. In a nod to Mr. Ungaro's legendary love of color, there were, among the neutrals and pale pastels, a couple of hot-pink pieces, including a fitted sweater dress with an oversize ropey neckline that became one of the collection's motifs. Cortazar wove in a few prints, too. A rose-and-thorns pattern was more true to the house than the beach-rock photo print, but neither was as pretty as a grayish wood-grain silk chiffon that he draped and swagged into a standout gown.

Soft draping was the focus, be it a one-shoulder silk blouse and jersey skirt, a goddess gown, or a slouchy hoodie worn over a ruffle-neck dress. It was all done more quietly than in the founder's day, but, to Cortazar's credit, the hushed mood was in keeping with the season. Is he the right man for the job? His audience, as well as Ungaro's owners, has been notoriously impatient. But when he ran out for a bow and swiped his brow in mock relief, you couldn't help but root for him.