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NEW YORK (AP) New York Fashion Week kicked off a day early Wednesday with a heavy breathing show of strength and style from the performance brand Athleta, a salute to the fashion challenges of returning U.S. servicewomen and models tucked into the horse-drawn carriages of Central Park.

More than 100 designers are scheduled to show their spring-summer 2015 collections in the Mercedes-Benz tents at Lincoln Center and other New York venues. The eight-day event kicks off the season, with the industry moving on to London, followed by Milan and Paris, when the New York shows conclude.

At Wednesday night's "Salute the Runway," little black dresses took on a military twist as female veterans took to the runway in frocks designed by Donna Karan, Carmen Marc Valvo, Mara Hoffman and eight other designers.

Several of the women jauntily saluted as they finished strutting the catwalk; Capt. Kelly Smith, a helicopter pilot in the Air National Guard from Los Angeles, danced down the runway in a full-length Mara Hoffman gown. The show was part of an initiative to raise awareness of the fashion and style challenges these veterans face when transitioning back to civilian life.

At Athleta's show earlier in the day, a flying female tethered to wires did some air running above a stark white stage at the activewear company's first-ever and high energy show. She was joined by break-dancers, yoga stretchers and mini-trampoline jumpers in printed and solid tights, running pants, athletic bras, sweatshirts and a new dry-down technology the brand has just put into quilted vests and bomber jackets.

The idea, Athleta officials said, is to give active women more options for all-day dressing as they transition from workout to grocery shopping to school pickup or the office.

"Her life is always constantly in motion and so she wants a more versatile product that is not overtly fashion or overtly activewear," senior design director Nancy Taylor said backstage of the company's core customer.

Versatile performance wear is on trend as more fashion houses experiment with high-tech fabrics.

One sound example for Athleta is the company's city jogger pant, which would transition well through evening if paired with the right top. On the performance side, the company has put stretch insulation into jackets and other outerwear for warmth and better mobility in the arms, said Athleta President Nancy Green.

The typical Athleta customer "wants to be relevant. She cares about style but she doesn't want to change her clothes five times a day," Green said.

Soft pants are a big part of the trend, she said. The city jogger pant is high-stretch and lightweight, made of a fabric Athleta had already been using for shorts. And they've added more lightweight jackets to last season's moto quilted down, using a proprietary feather treatment Green said will stay dry against sweat.

Also Wednesday, the Couture Council of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology honored Carolina Herrera with the 2014 Couture Council Award for Artistry of Fashion. Ralph Lauren, Renee Zellweger and Lucy Liu were among the attendees at the Lincoln Center luncheon.

Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Carmen Marc Valvo and Mara Hoffman were among designers who contributed wardrobe staples for the show, including the iconic little black dress. The "Salute the Runway" initiative has put on fashion shows on military bases in Texas, Washington state and elsewhere.

A last-minute addition to Wednesday's early bird slate: Victor dE Souza, who has dressed Rihanna, Madonna and Lady Gaga, put seven models in horse-drawn carriages Wednesday night for a moveable fashion show through Central Park. But they were promptly met by a loud, vociferous group who view horse-drawn carriages as quite unfashionable.

About 30 to 40 animal rights protesters who are seeking to ban the horse-carriage industry in New York City surrounded the models yelling "shame on you!" and "dE Souza is an animal abuser!" Some of the protesters even followed the carriages through the park, heckling the models.

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AP writers Nicole Evatt and Shelley Acoca contributed to this report.

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Follow Leanne Italie on Twitter at http://twitter.com/litalie

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Associated Press Writer Nicole Evatt in New York contributed to this report