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The Spring Collections / MILAN

Clothes That Go Pop!

Gucci's Hippie-Chic Collection Signals a Playful Mood Among Italian Designers

October 12, 1998|MICHELE INGRASSIA | NEWSDAY

MILAN, Italy — Once upon a time, designers designed, shoppers shopped and a "fashion dialogue" was something that usually transpired only when customers opened their wallets. Or didn't. But it's a measure of the complexity of today's clothes and the competitiveness of the market that a few of the marquee players here have begun staging small preshow news conferences in which they chat up everything from high-tech fabrics to low-cut pumps, here and there tossing out such trenchant bits of fashion-speak as, "It's about today, and it's about tomorrow."

Perhaps no one is better suited to the task than Tom Ford, the American-born Gucci designer whose movie-star looks and staggering success at bringing the 75-year-old house back from the dead have turned him into one of the industry's certified stars. Still, when he met with half a dozen reporters last week as the spring '99 ready-to-wear collections here kicked into high gear, Ford wasn't exactly selling some high-concept fashion message. Forget the sartorial significance of the millennium. Forget the fallout from the Asian monetary crisis. No, Ford said, what inspired him for spring could be summed up in three little words: Las Vegas hippie.

"These are," he said, with obvious amusement, "eclectic, eccentric and--I hate to use the word--happy clothes."

Are they ever. In a collection filled with ripped and rhinestoned denim jeans, ruffle-hemmed dresses and boldly patterned crochet skirts, Ford offered up enough turquoise and fuchsia flower prints to cover South Beach and enough silver and gold spangles to light up the Vegas Strip. Goodbye, high art; hello, high camp! Ciao, Studio 54; hello, Cher! After several seasons of drab, body-shrouding clothes, Ford seems determined to wing fashion back to the sexy euphoria of '60s flower power. You could almost hear the Zap! Pop! Wham!

"If you look at the fall fashion magazines, everything you see is somber," said Ford, who gave a front-row seat at his show to '60s model Peggy Moffit--she of the raccoon eyes and topless Rudy Gernreich bathing suit. "I think we're ready for color, for some over-the-top clothes."

In their signature line--an ongoing homage to Sicily and their vision of the sexy Sicilian widow--Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana splashed the Mediterranean across the runway. Body-hugging lacquered silk sheaths were hand-painted with blue sardines. Seductive hologram dresses, in a blinding rainbow of golds and blues, rippled like fish scales. And black merry widow corsets were cinched tight to emphasize the micro-cardigans that barely cover a collarbone.

"Sicily is always the inspiration, but this time it's Sicily seen through the Internet," Gabbana said at an early-morning news conference at the company's headquarters as he handed reporters techno-chic, laser-printed dresses to scrunch and stretch.

*

Admittedly, these aren't clothes for everyone--perhaps not for the average Milanese woman, who may wear stylish head-to-toe black while waiting for the morning tram but never seems to be without her sensible walking shoes and umbrella. And they may not even be for the average American of a certain age, who probably slashed and burned her embroidered jeans and Op Art dresses 25 years ago.

Even so, Ford, for one, argued that maybe one day real women will need what, in effect, are "performance" clothes. He cited his muse for spring: an unnamed Hollywood wife whose wardrobe has come down to extremes--T-shirts and jeans by day, ball gowns by night. And he wondered aloud whether, as more women work at home, they too might pare their needs to T-shirts and jeans and going-out clothes.

Hope on a hanger? Probably. But no more so than the millennium madness gripping designers on the other side of Milan's design fence. Indeed, in a sober paean to urban chic and techno-cool, many designers--struck by the reality that this will be the last summer before the new century--offered up spare, laser-sharp collections that were meant to be about as whimsical as Ken Starr at a Democratic fund-raiser.

Leading the way was Prada, where techno-style was the medium and the message. High-tech zip jackets, for instance, were paired with low-slung box-pleated skirts hemmed in computer-print "ruffles" or angular flower cutouts. Similarly, coats were trimmed in bands of fabric that were more minimalist wave than rococo pouf. To leaven the palette of steely grays, acid greens and whites, Miuccia Prada strapped bright urban-warrior handbags to the waist or across the back. Finishing the look: green golf shoes or colorful firefighters' boots.

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