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A Bare Market

Designers are seducing buyers with sexy styles, but will shoppers swoon?


MILAN--Watch it wiggle, see it jiggle. When model Amber Valletta's backside is shaking like Jello on the runway, women of the real world don't stand a chance with the tiny skirts that were the biggest news here this week.

"I feel like I should start my diet now," said Lesley Jane Seymour, the already-svelte editor-in-chief of Marie Claire magazine. Even Valletta admitted that a hands-on approach was required to keep Versace's bubble-gum pink micro-mini from riding up while on the runway. "But it's fun," she said backstage after the show.

Fun for her maybe, but those watching the week's monotonous stream of skirts skimpier than some belts saw more moon than Buzz Aldrin.

There are other fashion buzzwords for spring--color, prints, 1960s, gladiator, Asian--likely to be followed by exclamation points in countless magazine cover lines. But what the Italian designers really had on their minds was sex, which only occasionally translated into inspiration.

Sexy is something Versace has never had trouble with, but sophistication is another matter. This collection lacked the refinement Donatella seemed to be honing in her splendid fall line. Jackets and thigh-high skirts in Miami Beach colors and grommet-trimmed pants with "Donatella" spelled out in Gothic letters across the backside (as if anyone could miss the collection's focal point) seemed to pucker and pull even on model-perfect bodies.

For night, chain-mail camisoles were paired with more short skirts. There also were lots of curve-surfing dresses. One of the best was in colorblocked chiffon with a single canary-yellow shoulder strap and a flirty short skirt. But it was a sheer lace cocktail dress with a plunging neckline and silver sequin insets that made front-rower Britney Spears' jaw drop. Other pieces lacked the same wow factor, namely a lipstick-red chiffon confection with a pleated short skirt and gold sequin trim that would have played better on the ice rink than the runway.

There was more to like at Versus, Versace's diffusion line. Sure, the naughty schoolgirl-meets-Patti Smith look isn't new, but Elvis has the No. 1 hit in the U.K. right now, so what is? It was here, on a button-down cotton shirt, a jean jacket and a clutch purse that Donatella's kaleidoscope prints from the fall season landed, this time with a vibrant mix of flowers and stripes. A pink pleated "kilt," lime-green bikini and pink-and-red striped miniskirt suit were all accessorized with studded black leather belts, silver chain necklaces, enamel flower pins and handbags sprinkled with grommets to round out the punk rock-princess look.

Roberto Cavalli traveled to Asia via the boudoir with loads of exquisite chinoiserie print pieces sexed up with waist-cinching corsetry. There were come hither cheongsam mini dresses in Asian print silk; fur-trimmed kimonos; and flowing chiffon skirts with waist-high slits in front and corseting around the hips.

Cavalli took a break from denim, hand-painting matte leather pants with golden dragons down the sides instead. Also in the casual camp were Asian-print blouses with back corset lacing and billowy sleeves, accessorized with red lacquered stilettos with gilt chain ankle straps and filigree bracelets worn on the upper arm.

Giorgio Armani gets kudos for being one of the few designers to show clothing for women not interested in playing the seductress, but the results were mixed. He opened the marathon show with his new take on a suit: long, double-breasted jackets worn open over sexy, cleavage-baring knits and lean pants, all in hues of coffee, gray and robin's-egg blue. Skirts came skinny and tough to walk in; full and voluminous with origami-like folds; or sheer and beaded to the knee before fanning out into a mess of unfinished fabric strips.

Beaded evening gowns, studied carefully by guests Sophia Loren, Kim Cattrall and Tina Turner, had a Moroccan flavor. Not one to let it go, Armani even sneaked in a few split skirts that echoed his universally panned harem pants for fall. Better to stick with the designer's long skirts in gray, blue and pink silk shantung stripes, worn with easy, tie-front jackets and pointy mules--perfect for an evening in Marrakesh or Malibu.

At Miu Miu, Miuccia Prada was inspired by vintage Hawaiian tourist garb to create fresh-looking cheongsam tops, easy-fitting coats, lean Bermuda shorts and a 1950s bathing suit in cheery, two-toned hibiscus prints. But halfway through the collection, she seemed to lose her way in an array of puzzling tent jackets which rested off-kilter on the shoulders, cutoff sweatshirt tops and white, empire-waist dresses.

Footwear ranged from open-toed platform pumps in 1970s Andrea Pfister-like patchwork snakeskin to wedge-heeled trainers with Velcro closures. Prada also continued to play with plastic, fashioning a kind of Shrinky Dink flower lei out of crumpled pieces of translucent plastic. "I don't like fake jewels," she said after the show. "But if they have to be fake, they should be really exaggerated."

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