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THE FALL COLLECTIONS / MILAN : Finally, Designers Get Real


MILAN, Italy — Amid news of Mafia-style murders in Palermo, a declining lira and a looming airline strike, designers here unveiled fall collections that are relentlessly upbeat and eager to please. The words wearable and salable are whispered hopefully as thousands of buyers and journalists from around the world smoke cigarettes and gossip after each of the 50-plus shows that began Saturday and end Friday.

Even though the Milan shows are only Round I of fashion's three-part marketing and sales ritual, which will move to Paris and then New York, it seems safe to say that conservative chic--the aesthetic that dominated the runways last season--is alive and well. For now, experimentation is taking a back seat to detail and fit.

Which causes another word to be uttered disgustedly by a few self-styled defenders of the fashion faith: commercial.

Prompted by lackluster retail sales, designers are infusing their fall collections with a semblance of what they call reality--something consumers complain has been missing from fashion in recent years.

"Designers should stop being philosophers and sociologists and get back to working with the fabric," said Gianfranco Ferre during a brief calm before a storm of fittings in his Via Spiga studio.

"One no longer plays with clothing," pronounced Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana in the notes accompanying their show on Sunday. "Clothing is treated with the seriousness it deserves, with the respect that demands the perfection of a tight-bodied jacket or that of a kimono-style jacket."

Emporio Armani, designer Giorgio Armani's secondary line, was lauded for its return to the classic jacket. These were close to the body but never restrictive. As with Jil Sander's beautifully detailed collection, one wonders if such designers might put themselves out of business with absolutely timeless sportswear. One can imagine wearing a Sander or Armani suit until it falls apart.

Wasn't that the idea of a Chanel suit? You pay a fortune, then wear it a lifetime.

The much anticipated Sander show featured precision-tailored three-piece pantsuits, darted narrow skirts and minimalist evening gowns that looked vaguely Japanese. Sander has clearly mastered the art of dressing the serious and sophisticated woman.

For some comic relief and a spark of passion, there was Blumarine designer Anna Molinari. She showed sexy, satiny separates on a handful of "young Italian actresses," one of whom was Isabella Rossellini. High on entertainment value, the show consisted of set pieces played out to music--such as a steamy lovers' triangle involving a virile tattooed tango dancer (stolen away by a triumphant Rossellini).

Molinari's fake-fur-trimmed bustiers and fake ermine capelets created a wacky sort of Playboy bunny-cum-Snow White. It's a combination that just might work in some women's melodramatic lives.


One of the most talked-about shows so far came unexpectedly from the House of Gucci. American-born designer Tom Ford conjured up a fitting icon for our time: Angie ("Police Woman") Dickinson.

Remember her tight-fitting Qiana blouses and tight-fitting hip-huggers? Remember Ellen Barkin's homage to Dickinson in the overheated feature film "Bad Company"? So, who knew the future lay in fake hair, fake eyelashes and fake fabrics?

There is something resolutely modern about clothes from certain eras. Even though both Ford and Dolce & Gabbana play with silhouettes and details from the '50s, '60s and '70s, their collections avoided the kind of repetition that relegated these styles to the past. Gucci's candy-apple metal-flake high-heel loafers don't have exaggerated "Super Fly" platforms. Dolce & Gabbana's beautifully fitted black suit is completely sheer, the better to show off the fine workmanship or elicit a laugh.

Krizia's Mariuccia Mandelli was honored at a party Tuesday night for her 40 years in fashion. She introduced her fall show with a witty montage of Hollywood's most legendary beauties--Claudette Colbert, Ingrid Bergman, Marilyn Monroe--all wearing berets. When the film stopped, out stepped half a dozen models wearing the same.

The designer's most genius idea, though, could be found in her evening wear. Black crepe dresses were fitted with rhinestone-edged zippers--across the midriff, up the arms, around the back--so a woman could control the degree of exposure.

Give a woman control, or perhaps just the impression she has it, and she might be a customer for life.

* Next: Gianni Versace, Fendi, Prada, Giorgio Armani.

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