MILAN — Four of the most important fashion designers showing their fall collections in Milan last week create for specific archetypes: There are Gianni Versace's hot mistress get-ups, Giorgio Armani's elegant wife wardrobes, Jil Sander's rarefied nun's uniforms, and Miuccia Prada's homely wallflower clothes.
Perhaps there is a moral in the fact that Armani is the world's top selling designer. Errant husbands may sneak off for a weekend in Acapulco with a honey, but they always go home to their wives, don't they? Women aspire to wear Armani; men enjoy it when they do, so redolent of competence, charm, breeding and beauty are the master's works.
The soft tailoring for which Armani is known was evident in his new collection, but there was also an uncommon radiance to the clothes, a breezier, more adventurous spirit astir that jolted even the jaded observers prepared to be bored by the designer's relentless perfection.
After beginning with coats and suits in tones he called "sophisticated greige," then presenting black and navy pieces such as a body-hugging navy sweater with a long, slit skirt, Armani introduced head-to-toe color. Lipstick shades of coral, shocking pink and red appeared in knitted slip dresses topped with short, curvy wool jackets. Tempered tones of lime and purple were combined in sleek pant outfits, narrow legs sometimes zipping tight or gathering at the ankle. There were beautifully textured sweater sets and lanky cardigans. With gray flannel trousers, some of the sweater outfits had the authority of suits. Others were more relaxed than the most unstructured Armani jacket.
Evening versions of cabled and striped sweaters were offered too, sequins and shots of glitter lending sparkle. Most of the dressy styles were in black and white, including a group of flowing separates in mixed prints shown with generous helpings of beaded necklaces for a Moroccan effect. A white panne velvet cardigan (layered over a printed chiffon skirt) could remain in a wardrobe for a lifetime, being endlessly reinvented.
A few days earlier, the less expensive Emporio Armani line was given a full runway presentation that covered career suits, leathers and sweaters to evening dresses. Sold only in free-standing boutiques, including stores in Beverly Hills and South Coast Plaza, Emporio embodies the Armani style with a slightly younger, sportier outlook. Imagine a shrunken black Charlie Brown sweater, a horizontal line zig-zagging across the midriff, with a thigh-high, slit, dotted black skirt.
The German designer Jil Sander describes herself as a "fashion purist" and seems determined to remain so. She is the most self-effacing of artists, letting superior cuts and luxurious fabrics whisper to the wearer. In her collection of non-colors, in which black, navy, brown, mushroom, camel and ivory dominated, there were no extremes. Jackets were short and boxy, most skirts stopped just below the knee, pants were long and narrow but not tight, or full and cropped but never baggy.
Minimalism may seem to be a trend that's been played-out in the hands of lesser talents. For Sander, simplicity is as fundamental as faith, and she has the expertise to make converts of nearly anyone but a Versace heretic.
The models' hair and makeup usually telegraph blatant clues to anyone unclear about a designer's belief system. At Sander's show, the hair was slicked back and the somber women appeared to wear no makeup. Versace's good-time girls looked as if they teased and fluffed up their touchable tresses after enjoying a tussle in bed. Star makeup artist Francois Nars decorated their eyes and cheekbones with a rich, coppery afterglow.
Color didn't stop at the neck at Versace. There was Helena in a lilac gown, Claudia in bubble gum-pink crepe close as body paint and Naomi in a clingy column of chartreuse. Lace hems lent a lingerie touch to short suits, coats or skinny pants and colorful leather dresses shone even brighter paired with pumpkin tights and blue shoes.
It isn't clear who'll be at war with whom next fall, but at least the uniforms have arrived. When Versace showed his Istante line at the beginning of fashion week here, the first military details appeared--army khaki, epaulets and brass buttons, flapped pockets and braid trim. Those design elements popped up in many of the collections that followed.
There's an expectation that the fashion equivalent of soft-core porn will be part of any Versace collection, but most of the Istante styles were sharp, fun and kind of adorable. The color combinations were clever: an olive officer's coat over plum trousers and a yellow turtleneck, or a red jacket and olive pants with a purple sweater and yellow gloves. The mildly risque, lace-trimmed, animal-print slip dresses and satin sheaths weren't as original as the tailored pieces, but Versace's fans would undoubtedly be disappointed if he didn't include his playfully naughty take on evening wear in this secondary line.