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Burberry Faces Forward

The classic, century-old British label turns to an Italian designer to give its familiar plaid a new twist.

October 05, 2000|VALLI HERMAN-COHEN | TIMES SENIOR FASHION WRITER

MILAN, Italy — He sometimes moves stiffly, but Roberto Menichetti is walking again, five months and two surgeries after the Italian designer crashed his motorcycle while training for a rally.

The man who revived the century-old Burberry company with a forward-thinking new line, called Burberry Prorsum, thrives on risk. "Every time you go over the limit, you move yourself," he said. "You can do it with your mind, too, if you read a fantasy book." But the 34-year-old son of garment manufacturers prefers his inspirations to come from adrenaline.

"Today is my ninth day walking," Menichetti said while ushering international buyers and journalists through the Milan showroom, days after his fifth collection of women's wear debuted on the London runways and received good reviews. Menichetti said he aims to make clothes that can multi-task as well as their ultra-busy wearers.

Burberry has been updating the signature red, black and camel plaid of its iconic trench coats for half a dozen years. Rose Marie Bravo, a former Saks Fifth Avenue executive, came aboard and ushered in a witty ad campaign and fresh takes on the plaid. When Menichetti was appointed as creative director two years ago, he added the Prorsum line to complement the more traditional Burberry London line.

Working like a painter, he starts with a palette of classic neutral colors--navy, taupe, white and gray--and adds accents of bright colors and innovative handiwork. A rendition of the famous Burberry plaid--no matter how abstract--is always somewhere in the collection. More adventuresome is a jacket covered with rows of fabric cut into fish scales; columns of deep pleats stitched down to resemble stripes; and a motorcross-inspired jacket built so feather-light that it tucks into pants like a shirt. A typical stretch-cotton jacket can weigh 150 grams and wad into a ball without ill effects.

His garments achieve a cartoon-like stretchiness with a new carbon-based fabric that flexes to help women run for the taxi or even hop on their own motorcycles. Stiff linings and padding are greatly reduced, the result of years of technical trials and 10 hours of tailoring per jacket.

Menichetti had some firsthand experience with clothing construction, even before he officially became a designer. A year after he was born, his parents founded Menichetti Confezioni, an Italian clothing manufacturer that today makes the most technically difficult designs in the Prorsum collection.

Perhaps the most revolutionary idea of all is one that seems obvious: Making clothing that matches the demands to be casual, comfortable, elegant and wearable through multiple seasons and climates.

"I look long-term," the designer said. "You can take pieces from one collection and mix it with others in an upcoming collection." Already, last season's leather motor-cross jacket coordinates with spring's new leather-trimmed kilt. He'll also revisit his palette in upcoming seasons. Maintaining season-to-season consistency is sometimes the easiest task, because not all parts of a fashion company can keep up with a designer's ideas.

"Talk is very easy," he said, "but in practice, it's very complex work--the fabric, the workmanship plus the sales force, they all have to catch up. It's like in mathematics. You can do anything in theory, on paper, but reality is different. It's sometimes hard to find the materials that match what you think."

Sometimes, fantasy is his best inspiration. "You know the story, 'Pinocchio'?" he asks, while swinging a simple book-like purse bound with a long handle strap. "This is how he carried his books."

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