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THE Return OF Romance : In an atmosphere of gloom and doom, low-power pantsuits, poet's shirts and lace trimmings lighten the mood


MILAN — What is it about Karl Lagerfeld? Everywhere he goes, it turns into a scene.

In Paris, the crowd at his Chanel fashion shows always seems in danger of crushing itself to death. Now Lagerfeld has the Italians after him--but not because they love him.

On Wednesday, he unveiled his fall '93 collection for Fendi, Italy's leather goods, fashion and luxury fur label, as part of Italian Fashion Week. Animal rights activists were at the gate. They waved "rich bitch" posters from the sidewalk and, during the show, a protester scrambled onto the runway flashing her "crimes of fashion" sign.

In some ways, the hullabaloo, and the wildly creative collection that caused it, were just what Italy needed. Anything to distract the Italians from a national kickback scandal that has government officials and big business types toppling left and right.

It was obvious that the national crisis has affected the mood of many Italian designers. Runways sagged under the weight of outfits meant for penitential monks, drugged-out hippies and rained-on paraders.

Fortunately, there were some clothes to covet in this week's shows. Plenty of them appeared in a fanciful frolic by Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, Italy's current fashion pets. In their Sunday morning show, Admiral Perry jackets with big velvet cuffs gave a romantic spin to pantsuits. Menswear-striped jackets, trimmed in marabou feathers, were anything but serious. Velvet granny dresses that skimmed the body to the ankle were paired with boas and floppy, brimmed hats. And blouses with lavish lace collars and cuffs caught the softer mood that is very much where fashion is headed.

The Dolce & Gabbana show highlighted several major trends:

* Graceful, ankle-length skirts.

* Low-power pantsuits.

* Poet's shirts with drippy lace cuffs that cover the hands.

* Bits of costumery--especially military, dandy and latter-day hippie looks.

At Fendi, Lagerfeld's Laplander lassies wore capes in fluffy layers, decorated with garlands of leftover fur bits rolled into pompons and fringes. Bulky, oversize, Icelandic knit sweaters, capelets and skirts were other warming tributes to ethnic costumes.

Recycling took on luxurious overtones with knit tunics and matching long skirts trimmed with scraps of fur. Blue jeans and dusters with bright fur patches captured the same spirit.

Of course, what people really came to see were the luxury coats. A fur coat so pliable it rolled into a travel pillow seemed more likely to please customers than anything made from scraps.

Franco Moschino's patchwork quilt jackets and coats in bright tartans were another nod to recycling. The designer's wit came across in flag-print jackets embroidered with political statements: "God Save Prince Charles" and "Hillary for President." He poked fun at the current sack-cloth-and-ashes look when he stitched the words "Holy Chic" across a black tent dress.

Emporio Armani, Giorgio's lower-priced collection, ranged from cloister to clown looks. Long, unadorned dresses and sarongs over pants for day collided with sequined bustiers and red ringmaster jackets for night. Armani wore a red clown nose to take his bow, and said it was all to encourage a new playful mood.

His signature collection was closer to a Mona Lisa smile than a circus guffaw. For evening, he showed skirts of woven velvet ribbons and floral-beaded pantsuits; for day, icy apricot or celery green tweed suits. One ankle-length coat in moss green had horizontal pleats across the bodice; a similar jacket in lavender went with wide, moss green pants in a collection that virtually eliminated skirts as day wear.

The week was cluttered with secondary lines by Italy's top designers. Not only Armani's Emporio collection but Dolce & Gabbana's Complice collection, and Gianni Versace's work for the Genny label, plus his Versus collection, proved that even good designers have their limits.

Genny's strengths were pale shearling coats over sweater-knit tunics and long skirts. After that it was a sea of outdated '80s power suits in red or black with bold shoulders, closely covered hips and deeply slit straight skirts.

Complice tried the circus look and it was a sad sight. Clown colors on dresses as wide as tents, tunics with droopy sleeves longer than any arms, and harsh-looking harlequin print suits all but overshadowed some pretty white poet's blouses.

New Yorker Marc Jacobs was in the audience at this show. His contract as designer for the Perry Ellis collection is up, and Girambelli, which produces Complice, Genny and Byblos, invited Jacobs to Milan for a talk.

Pierfilippo Pieri of Girambelli said possibilities included financing Jacobs under his own name, or making him chief designer for one of the company's divisions. Asked whether Jacobs would take over Byblos, a label that suffers from too many lackluster collections, Pieri said: "Not true. That's Milan speculation."

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