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THE FALL COLLECTION / MILAN

Waiting to Exhale? Styles Loosen Up

March 07, 1997|MIMI AVINS | TIMES FASHION EDITOR

MILAN, Italy — As two weeks of fall fashion shows began here this week, the American presence was so strong that Ray Charles should have been singing his peerless rendition of "America the Beautiful."

Charles--no kidding--did open the Ferragamo runway presentation (wearing a gold lame dinner jacket), backed by his 11-piece orchestra. His jazzy vocals lent a loosey-goosey mood to the event that a standard canned rock soundtrack could never have achieved; newly blond Stella Tennant and her fellow models paused, mid-saunter, to applaud each number and didn't even try to suppress delighted smiles.

The wonderful performance could have made even bad clothes palatable, but the collection, by American Steven Slowik, was sleek, featuring trim cat suits under fringed cashmere coats or jackets as easy as cozy shawls. Leggings in metallic knit under matching tunics were cut to hug the body.

Leggings worn with tunics have definitely arrived for fall, but they require a caveat. In its carefully proportioned designer version, a pair of tights with a long top is a new animal: more than a short dress, but no relation to a conventional pantsuit either. The combination can easily degenerate into the sloppy big sweat shirt and I-forgot-to-put-on-my-pants look that many women who prefer not to think about clothes claim as their uniform.

Slowik, a Michigan native, is one in a group of young American designers working here that also includes Rebecca Moses, who produces cashmeres under her name as well as the Genny collection; Marc Jacobs, the man behind the sporty Iceberg line; Lawrence Steele; and now Richard Tyler, the creator of men's and women's clothing for Byblos.

Tyler's international profile is so well established that some anti-California snobs conveniently forget he calls Los Angeles home. His top-of-the-line collection, Richard Tyler Couture, is produced in L.A. by a staff of 250, many of them Asian immigrants with a heritage of craftsmanship that validates the use of the term "couture." Tyler will debut the less expensive Richard Tyler Collection in New York next month. His clothes for Byblos are priced lower still. Jackets will start at $550 when they appear in stores in late summer.

Recently, women have backed away from matched suits, mixing up pieces by different designers and combining disparate styles and textures, as in a soft cardigan covering a filmy dress. Women who wear Gap T-shirts and Jack Purcells with their Armani suits gave birth to a movement that's grounded in a healthy respect for fashion anarchy. This happy, home-grown, hybrid style crosses the lines between daytime and evening, tailored and sporty. (An overheated duet featuring Elton John and Luciano Pavarotti now playing on the Italian video channel would qualify as the musical equivalent.)

While hardly embracing the constipated days of yore, Tyler casts a dissenting vote. "The foundation of a collection is always a jacket," the designer said the day before the Byblos show. "The Byblos jacket isn't as fitted as the Richard Tyler jacket. They're not as curvy. The silhouette is very up and down, narrow in the shoulders and through the hips."

Those jackets, many with stand-up collars and placket fronts, were shown with matching cigarette pants or with another very skinny pant that Tyler calls a trouser-legging. The jackets were either black or charcoal gray. Looking at the funereal shades worn by those in the audience, one had to conclude that Tyler knows his customer. Using beautiful Italian fabrics, Tyler's simple outfits could satisfy many women's wardrobe wish lists, often headed by "a great new black pantsuit." Color infusions came in the form of slinky Lurex knits in rich tones of garnet, lapis and malachite, or metallic leather cigarette trousers in deep coral, given the requisite dose of black via a matte jersey turtleneck.

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While some of the clothes designers will show for fall attempt to redefine current style, others advance ideas already showing up in the stores for spring. The Krizia and Anna Molinari collections answered the question of how some of the biggest trends will evolve in the subsequent season.

At Krizia, asymmetric hems survived on light, pinstriped gray wool skirts paired with short, belted jackets. The swallowtail hem gave a different look to long tuxedo jackets worn over bare legs. Molinari pleated the pale gray wool diagonal hems of her skirts, then added bobby socks and heavy oxfords that gave the young, heavily made-up models the look of loopy Lolitas.

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