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THE FALL COLLECTIONS / MILAN : Layering It On : Combos of Jackets Over (Tunics and Dresses) and Under (Topcoats) Take to the Runway


MILAN, Italy — Even Giorgio Armani seems flummoxed by the season. The Italian master of cool restraint put on a show Wednesday night that left one wondering whether he saw women as men, with hair greased flat against their heads, or as goddesses whose beaded gowns appeared too imposing for anything more than a polite handshake.

How strange too for Armani to dwell on layers of jackets and tunics when last season he made his clothes look so light they might well have been weightless. Now, for fall, he seems hung up on the disproportion of a longer blouse or tunic under a jacket, which looked cumbersome when the tunic was the length of a skirt and the model had on pants. It came as a relief, then, when another model appeared in a gray bird's-eye tweed jacket over a fluted short dress in semi-transparent gray jersey. At least she did not have to bear the extra meter of inconvenience.

The pleasure of watching an Armani show is seeing how he solves problems by the shortest route possible. But in this collection, he seemed to create more obstacles than he eliminated. If showing tunic-like dresses softens wardrobes thick with jackets, why add heavy leggings with built-in boots? Likewise, there are only so many ways in which the jacket can be reinvented, but if one of the tenets of modern dressing is deconstruction, why then add rippling lapels to a jacket that otherwise looked as unstructured as a cardigan?

So it was hard to get a handle on this collection. There were plenty of jackets in fabrics with textures that ranged from waffle to herringbone, chenille to plush, and some very fine separates, including loose crepe blouses with open collars and taut T-shirts made of what appeared to be sheer wool. But the prints (vaguely ethnic) looked passe, and the color register barely got above dusty pinks and blues. In a season crying out for color, even a single spot of red would have helped to clarify all the beige.

As for the evening clothes, there was hardly a gown or pants ensemble that didn't have a clacking swish of beads. It's hard to believe that such dresses, if they ever get produced, will make a woman feel that she is more than just a pretty object on a pedestal.

At Fendi, nothing was quite as it seemed. Karl Lagerfeld sent out a torrent of coats and practically defied his audience to tell which were made of wool, suede, fur or fake fur. Some were actually double coats with an interior of fur and a removable outer shell of opaque nylon that looked like a protective bag. Many were traversed with mohair or Angora cross-stitching, giving the coats a kind of primitive feel, as though they had been stitched together in the caves of various Ugs and Ergs.

For some time now, Lagerfeld has been treating fur as an anti-status object, even to the point of slicing pelts with holes or, this season, piercing them with rings and letting the sleeves hang down below the fingertips, the way fashion people do with their shirt cuffs.

The attitude for fall is less destructive, and the furs (mink, sable, mole and weasel) drape and lap around the body with the same insouciance as an old flannel shirt with a sweater tied around the waist. The difference, of course, is incomparable technique, and for that Lagerfeld has the excellent Fendi workrooms.

Occasionally you get some sense of the inanity of fashion in the face of Sarajevo and Hebron when designers try to turn a runway into a world peace summit. The Complice show Wednesday added up to a U.N. stockpile of Red Army coats, subcontinental saris, Nordic knits and Third World fake fur. This was Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana mimicking Jean Paul Gaultier and Martin Margiela, but with the commercial mentality of a Benetton store.

So you got navy blazers finished off with a maxi-length of tartan, orange down jackets over transparent black dresses, velvet track pants with sneakers, and distressed leather jeans with unfinished shearling coats. Item by item, many of the pieces worked; the rusted effect of the leathers and the surplus style of the army coats were at least thoughtful. But the rest didn't require any more insight than what can be gleaned on a morning at the flea market.

The object of Gianni Versace's desire on Tuesday evening seemed to be schoolyard, with its egg-cream colors played out on fabrics with that E-Z Kleen shine. There was, to be sure, something rather kinky about violet and pink empire dresses that looked as though they had been recently hosed down. And the sight of Helena Christensen in nothing but a shiny-black bibbed overall skirt made one wonder if maybe she weren't working the wrong street.

But, clearly, Versace was in his element, and while the clothes may have looked as slippery as a biker bar, the message was an unvarnished statement about women. Behind the plastic-coated skirts and leggings, the silver bomber jackets and collegiate turtlenecks sparkling with Lurex, there was the shape of fashion to come.

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