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King of Prints: PUCCI

From 1 Dress to Full-Blown Passion

September 04, 1997|MIMI AVINS | TIMES FASHION EDITOR

Like many special love affairs, it began innocently and developed slowly. Two years ago, an unusually patterned dress in the window of a vintage store near my home flirted with me, brazenly demanding contact with my flesh.

It wasn't a great dress, a skinny, front-zipped shirtwaist in a murky print of chocolate, taupe and slate blue, but it had moxie and a certain retro charm.

The cleverly engineered borders at the sleeves, neckline and hem identified it as a Pucci. I could have rationalized that I was purchasing a vanishing piece of fashion history as I handed over my credit card, but no reason was present at that first meeting. I was a bundle of emotion and lust. I had to have it.

Little did I know how my passion would blossom during the next year. When the gifted Italian nobleman Emilio Pucci was at the height of his popularity, I was too young to wear the bright, slinky dresses that managed to be both sexy and ladylike, sporty and proper. But all the fascinating, glamorous and chic women of the '60s and '70s wore Pucci--Jacqueline Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, Babe Paley.

By the time a mid-'90s revival of '70s style refocused interest on Pucci, I had grown up, and appreciation of his timeless artistry had grown too. Maybe I was finally the kind of woman I had once admired in Pucci. Or, if I was confident enough to wear it, perhaps I could be.

An American friend worked for the marquis in Florence shortly before his death in 1992. I had enjoyed seeing her Pucci collection, and the inventive way she wore it (a silk shirt thrown over a new black Lycra shift for an evening out), but I never thought I'd fall for those loud, psychedelic prints.

But when it comes to romance and clothes, never say never. I called her the minute I brought that first dress home. "Early '80s, judging by the colors," she said. "The cord belt with crystal fringe at the ends is a real prize. Have fun with it."

Acquisition of my second Pucci was equally serendipitous. I was visiting a vintage couture shop in Paris, touring it as one might a museum. Hanging amid the crush of old Chanel and Dior was a single wool jersey Pucci dress. The colors were great, it fit perfectly, and the cashmere and silk blend felt cozy.

It was then that I realized this was going to be more than a brief fling. This felt like something serious, the beginning of a collection.

A collection must grow and improve, and each addition only whets the appetite for more. Pucci's silk jersey, as sensuous on the body as fabric can be, was addictive.

At first, my desires were specific: an empire-waisted dress, a silk shirt printed like a Renaissance guild flag, a stretchy silk T-shirt with the look of mosaic. My pursuit took me to odd, dark little stores in New York's East Village, most of L.A.'s vintage havens, even to dingy secondhand shops in Milan. Although the clothes originated there, Italy is the worst place to scout, because the tradition of recycling special clothing doesn't exist there.

Part of the thrill of the quest was discovering the range of items Pucci created. Who knew he'd made a sleeveless cotton voile tunic? I'd already bagged a fuchsia velvet miniskirt and a "Yellow Submarine" patterned velvet jacket. To then stumble upon a velvet coat, fit for a drunken Harlequin, felt like a karmic reward.

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The variety of prints and colors seemed endless, and trying to date them became a game. The subtle '50s patterns were the most traditionally Italian, as graceful and baroque as lace. In the '60s, wild geometrics and stylized swirls were colored more vividly, and the explosive patterns in hot shades continued into the next decade.

Pucci's blue and aqua palette became as familiar as his striking combinations of pink, orange and lime or black, white, mint and turquoise. Then, when I thought I'd seen it all, I'd find a dress covered with shocking pink, red and coral roses blooming on abstract olive and chartreuse vines. Wow. Had to have that too.

While at first I couldn't get enough, I began to relax when I realized it wasn't that hard to come by, and many pieces were easy to pass up. They were dated or just born ugly. I couldn't imagine wearing halter-topped palazzo pajamas unless I was on the arm of Peter Sellers, headed for a disco. Some of the prints were noisy to the point of inducing head pain.

With the kind of license to criticize all mothers think they possess, mine used to walk through my closet, scowling at all my dark, solid clothes. "You wear such depressing colors," she would say. I wish I could have shown her each riotous new Pucci, but by the time I was in the throes of collecting, she was gone.

Bright colors had just resurfaced in fashion, and like many women who hadn't worn them for a long time, I was clueless when separated from my noir uniforms. Part of the appeal of Pucci was to let the master help me bring color into my wardrobe. I started buying things like lavender snakeskin pumps to go with one dress, a yellow cashmere cardigan to wear over another.

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