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The Spring Collections / Milan

When Worlds Collide

From Rio to China to Cyberspace, the Latest Looks From Italian Designers Encompass a Universe of Fashion


MILAN, Italy — If there's one show that can easily caricature fashion, it's Versace. Lots of glitz, lots of noise and enough dual-cheek air-kissing to suck the ozone--or what's left of it--out of Milan. And so it was at Versace's glam-fest, complete with turquoise satin bleachers, a pulsating David Morales soundtrack and just enough boldface names--Courtney Love and the rest of Hole vamping it up in the front row, Yasmine LeBon not far away, Donald Trump by the runway entrance--to guarantee Versace-buzz without totally eclipsing the clothes.

Then again, it would be tough to eclipse these clothes. As the Italian designers wrapped up their spring '99 ready-to-wear collections last weekend, Versace clearly personified the brassier side of the good girl-bad girl theme that played out all week. Sure, it helped to have Kate Moss on the runway in long pink hair and Naomi Campbell in short purple leather. But in her third collection since the death of her brother Gianni last year, Donatella Versace showed a surer hand at the sort of aggressive rocker-chic that the house was built on.

"Maximalism, not minimalism" is how Versace sums up her philosophy, and she underscored the point with the first outfits she sent onto the runway: tropical beach prints wrought in unbreathably tight capri pants and dresses. Perhaps to lower the temperature a bit, she offered an icy palette--mint green, baby pink, soft yellow--but even then, these florals were less girlish homage to flower power than fiery salute to Rio.

Of course, with all of Milan caught up in cyber-madness, it was inevitable that Versace would try out some techno-style, in this case, computer prints in jarring shades of burgundy, but it wasn't long before she was back on the road to Rio. And Donna Donatella doesn't travel light. For evening, there were orchid-print slipdresses and halter gowns covered in bursts of crystal beads. And for dramatic exits, bubble-gum pink wool coats, dresses and even bikinis shot through with mohair that drifted off in little tufts as the models walked off stage.

Small wonder Milan is a city divided. For every splash of color Versace paints on, Giorgio Armani finds another shade of gray to explore. Though always apparent, their parallel universes and 'round-the-corner rivalries were particularly distinct this season. While Donatella sang to all the girls Rio's loved before, Armani took the Asia route.

Instead of traditional Armani jackets, there are unconstructed silk cardigans, often fastened asymmetrically or with a single button. Instead of traditional Armani blouses, there are square-neck camisoles, tiny body-hugging T-shirts and silk tanks that flutter over pants or a skirt. The centerpiece of the collection, though, is the farmer pants--albeit nothing you'd wear to plow the south 40. These are slim silk or linen pajamas covered with a sheer organza skirt, a rather romantic take on ancient farming and modern commuting. But there's no mistaking the mood of the collection, especially for evening, where Armani opts for a simple gray sheath with a kerchief front and tie back, worn, sensibly enough, with flat Chinese slippers.

Still, between the Armani-Versace yin and yang, the Italians explored an entire fashion universe, or at least, the world between China and Rio--and cyberspace. Among the trends:

Hippie Dippy: You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. With Gucci designer Tom Ford showing a collection of mega-wattage "Las Vegas hippie" clothes, it's a good bet the rest of the world will be walking around in flower-print pants and feather-trimmed jeans five months, or five minutes, from now. It's a '60s moment, not only at Gucci but also in the ubiquitous Indian embroidery that evoked those sheer, mud-dragging dresses of Woodstock days. This time, though, the Indian motif can be as subtle as the shirring and embroidery on sand-colored dresses at Victor Alfaro or as out-there as the mirrored tiles that trimmed pleated skirts and cropped tops at Prada.

Millennium Madness: Dolce & Gabbana called their collection "Sicily Through the Internet." Krizia designer Mariuccia Mandelli called hers an homage to "the last summer of the century." With the year 2000 staring down at them, the Italians have gone cyber-mad, no one more so than Miuccia Prada, who made pleated skirts out of lacquered paper and trimmed them with laser-cut origami flowers. Beyond the hi-jinks, of course, there was some wearable cyber-style, including Prada's mesh-covered, hooded nylon tops and Jil Sander's luminescent white, techno-fiber jackets.

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