MILAN, Italy — Remember the majestic brown silk gown Oprah Winfrey wore to the Academy Awards in March, the one that so clearly identified her as a Woman With Power?
It was the work of Gianfranco Ferre, an Italian designer with a special talent for making clothes as uncompromising and dignified as the women who wear them. If Ferre--who will be honored Wednesday night by the California Fashion Industry Friends of Aids Project Los Angeles--isn't as well-known as some of his compatriots, perhaps it's because he takes a back seat to his larger-than-life clients.
"The women I dress tend to have strong personalities," Ferre said during an interview here a few days before presenting his fall '95 collection.
Even the most flamboyant designer would be hard-pressed to outshine Sophia Loren, Liza Minnelli, Anjelica Huston or Jessye Norman. They are the kind of women who, as the expression goes, wear the clothes, rather than the other way around.
The 50-year-old Ferre, who has designed under his own label since 1978, trained as an architect and it shows. He has an indelible style that flows from his three-dimensional instincts. A Ferre blouse, made of a luxurious fabric such as organza, might have billowing sleeves and a sculptural, face-framing collar. Or it might nip in at the waist with a tight, pleated cummerbund/obi.
The parallel between designing a house and a dress, Ferre once said, is "the elimination of what is not essential."
Equipped with so austere a sensibility, Ferre flinches at the mere mention of the word \o7 retro.\f7
"In the '30s and '40s, women needed to look glamorous. It was after very big wars," he said, sitting at the desk on the second floor of his Via della Spiga atelier.
"But glamour now is about using a certain accessory or an attitude--it is not about replicating the past. Women today want to be comfortable, not constrained."
(At the March premiere of his fall collection, though, it appeared that a bit of constraint had managed to slip past Ferre's radar in the form of hobble skirts and narrow silhouettes. But then, what sashays down the runway isn't always for mere mortals.)
Dressed in the signature waistcoat that contains his considerable girth, wire-rim glasses giving his guileless face a scholarly cast, Ferre showed a visitor a lineup of pen-and-ink sketches tacked to the wall. Slashes of red and yellow punctuate what is for the most part a black-and-white collection.
As Ferre reached for a fabric sample, he gave off a sweet, familiar scent.
"It's Chanel No. 5 mixed with my own men's fragrance," he said. What sounds like an odd mixture is actually the perfect signature for a designer who has one foot in Paris and the other in Milan.
The utter simplicity of Ferre's own collection is turned inside out when he wears his other hat as designer for Christian Dior. At the hugely profitable house (sales for 1993 were reportedly $700 million), for which he has served as creative director since 1989, Ferre leaves his minimalist aesthetic behind.
To see the Dior collection for fall just weeks after viewing Ferre's own line is to glimpse one man's internal culture clash. For every subtraction made in Milan, a dozen decorative additions are applied in Paris.
Dior devotees--gaggles of whom fill row after row at the Paris show--require matching shoes, bag, sunglasses, jewelry (all with the CD logo somewhere). Ferre gives them what they want and more, say critics, who have occasionally faulted him for being overly decorative.
But too much fashion analysis bores him. "Designers have got to stop being philosophers," he said. "Their job is to do suits and dresses."
Ferre would rather talk about tangible matters. He is fascinated by a European ad campaign for Gianni Versace featuring body-baring photographs of Sylvester Stallone and Claudia Schiffer. Ferre suspects that Schiffer was slightly retouched. ("I know what her body looks like.") And Stallone, as the designer puts it, "was retouched before the shoot." Ferre expresses amazement that the actor would endure the kind of suffering--"plastic surgery \o7 and \f7 working out"--required for a mature man to look like an Adonis.
The subject then turns to fashion magazines, and Ferre, it seems, is disturbed by the way Vogue shot one of his evening gowns--"in a phone booth in a bad part of town." (Later, a search for that page turns up a photo of a pretty model in a simple black-and-white gown standing at the counter of a hamburger stand with her tuxedo-clad date.)
The larger issue is, of course, control. Who controls the way a designer's work is displayed? The editor? An art director? A photographer? The designer? (Only when he foots the bill.)