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Spring 2001 / Milan Collections

In the End, Versace's Sensuality Saves the Day

October 09, 2000|VALLI HERMAN-COHEN | TIMES SENIOR FASHION WRITER

MILAN, Italy — In that old comedy routine, the American tourist in a foreign country tries speaking English to a local and isn't understood. So the traveler keeps repeating his question, but louder. And louder. His subject isn't stupid or deaf. He just speaks another language.

As the spring 2001 designer collections finished here, it's clear that now the Italians are the ones shouting, hoping that we stupid customers will finally get it. It's hard to say who is to blame: the designers for being sensationalist and arty instead of smart and salable, or the customers, for being so distracted, disloyal and disinterested that they can hear only the loudest voices above the cacophony.

In all, the season, based on the shows here at fashion week, didn't communicate much except that fashion is in an uncomfortable transition. New talent is scarce, and some of the most powerful, articulate designers, such as Tom Ford at Gucci and Miuccia Prada at Prada, stumbled as they searched for clear expressions. The confusion on the runways was compounded by soggy weather and drafty warehouse venues in districts far from the city center.

Then came the upbeat relief of the final show, Versace. Donatella Versace delivered one of her most focused collections, which emphasized that legendary Versace draping.

The Versace women's clothes have often been loud, appealing to women who speak their minds, such as front-row guests rocker Courtney Love and actress Christina Ricci. Love said she loves Versace because the clothes are sexy and "and they're tummy friendly."

This collection was also, because the silky jersey dresses hid curves and accented others under ripples of fabric shirred in strategic places. The tiny folds were gathered as if on a drawcord that zigged across a hip, zipped down an arm or dipped below the cleavage.

The clothes radiated life and sensuality, even in the stiffer silhouettes cut from patent leather, such as her favorite new jacket, a cropped number with dolman sleeves and a stand-up collar.

Other designers, such as Dolce & Gabbana, spoke with assistance from universally understood gestures--in their case, iconic clothes. Rhinestoned cowgirls jangled the spurs on their high, pointy sandals or the beads dangling from their holster belts and chaps in three lengths--cowboy, gaucho and call girl.

From recent Los Angeles street culture, the designers borrowed the rhinestoned concert T-shirt, theirs featuring their muse, Madonna. Sicilian gangsters and widows arrived in black suits with shoulders jutting, or sleek dresses that revealed bra straps. Toss in motorcycle coats, crinoline circle skirts, shirred dresses and floral-print leggings and the whirlwind trip is finished. Somehow, the jumble mostly worked because Dolce & Gabbana have established such a strong identity with their trademark bra straps, precise suits and beaded coats.

At Fendi, where designer Karl Lagerfeld played with the Milan season's themes of hard and soft, butch and femme. He time-traveled to the Roman gladiators with silky jersey togas that flowed around the body at first logically, then in odd, asymmetric directions, only to be weighted down with heavy metal gladiator gear: slave ankle cuffs; metal-plate belts; and spiked epaulets. The new Fendi bag is a hard rectangular or crescent-shaped box, or a flat, straw bag trimmed with studded-leather bands.

How ironic that Alberta Ferretti's pretty show of whisper-soft separates was next door to a noisemaking shop, Percussion Village. Short stitches joined and decorated seams along A-line skirts and empire leather coats in sherbet shades.

In trying to make her romantic silk caftans and shiny charmeuse shirtdresses work equally well for day or night, some instead seemed out of place for either.

Miuccia Prada's Miu Miu secondary line marched to a military beat with puffy cartridge pockets on man-tailored shirts. Army canvas shoulder bags with pocketbook frames and webbing straps were witty and cute, along with her gray sweatshirt dance dresses and voluminous pinch-pleated skirts.

But the fuzzy red-and-white striped cummerbund micro minis worn with those rifleman's shirts looked as if Dr. Seuss enlisted. Miu Miu is always a little wink-wink cutesy, and those girls on Melrose Avenue will likely go ga-ga for the tricolor pumps, bags and fuzzy, striped sweaters.

Gianfranco Ferre's ready-to-wear took a long, strange trip through the haute couture salon, where a woman with nothing else to do can fuss with his overblown ball gowns, halters pieced from shards of shells, and maxi-fringed snakeskin skirts and worse. The collection started promisingly with elegantly simple white or sage suits and separates. In a pre-show interview, Ferre said it's important that he continue with his tradition of couture-level decoration.

"That's my spirit," he said. "I don't want to change. I do other lines. Today, you have a choice of what to wear."

That's where Germany's no-nonsense Hugo Boss came in with Boss Woman, a new high-end line designed by German-born Grit Seymour, who delivered unadorned black suits and clingy kiwi or black separates.

With their masculine, military themes, designers here commanded an about-face from the ladylike looks now on fall shelves. They tried to soften the manly message with deeply plunging necklines on dresses and bodysuits, and a range of knee-length skirt shapes--pleated, gathered, circle, straight and slit.

Of course, as Ferre said, there is always a choice. And this week, perhaps the Paris designers will overtake Milan's prominent place in trend setting fashion.

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