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Farewell, my lovely

Ugly chic may be back for Prada, but good design is always in style.

February 21, 2007|Booth Moore | Times Staff Writer

Milan — IT seems Miuccia Prada has overdosed on pretty clothes. Backstage Tuesday night, she said that her fall show was about "fake classics." And she admitted to purposefully making the most luxurious materials -- alpaca, silk and leather -- look, well, ugly, in an attempt to capture the eclectic style in emerging countries such as Russia and China.

The result was tough to swallow after last season's glam collection of turban-wearing '40s starlets, especially with the jarring color combinations of fluorescent orange, grass green, gray and nude. These were clothes to talk about, not to wear. But let's not forget Prada was the auteur of ugly chic, long before "Ugly Betty" became a do-your-own-thing fashion heroine on TV. And perhaps this collection will bring us around to that again, after so many seasons of polish.

There were none of the couture-like volumes or draping techniques that have been elsewhere on the runways here during the first couple of days of shows, only linear coats and coatdresses in basic gray wool or pasty leather, some with threadbare hems and the sleeves ripped off.

There were not many dresses, either, save for a few shifts with green or brown ruching at the midsection made from rivulets of satin. It brought to mind tree bark, but in a good way. Cardigan sweaters in alpaca resembled shag rugs, not so good, while other chunky knits had a pebbly texture and a lacquered look.

Pants came both skinny and full, one pair with what looked for all the world like grass stains on the butt. And everything in the show was worn with cone-heeled patent leather sandals and strange toeless knee socks. Even, God forbid, the bags were aggressively weird -- shaggy clutches that looked like old stuffed animals, and leather wrist bags that resembled green bugs with big bows plopped on top.

It was tempting to read a cautionary environmental message into the collection, which was filled with the kind of radioactive-looking colors and faux naturalistic materials you'd expect if things keep going like Al Gore says they will. But that doesn't seem to be what the designer meant to say. This was a rage against the fashion machine and an assertion that classics really are what you make of them.

Elemental and ornamental

Raf Simons restored our faith in good design, approaching his fall collection for Jil Sander like a poet, with each subtle design gesture calculated to speak volumes. He kept our attention rapt like no other designer so far this season with his dialogue between organic curves and linear tailoring, and managed to teach us a few things about modern dressing in the process.

Take the cocooning capes that opened his show Tuesday, cut close to the body, encasing the model's arms. You might think they were silly and restrictive if you didn't notice the slits that all but disappeared into the side seams, making the garment not just a cape but a kind of multifunctional cape/coat.

For the woman who works from day into night (and who doesn't these days?), an embroidered silver pencil skirt was paired with a perfectly classic navy turtleneck. How does one make a turtleneck look so exact? Simons has a gift for manipulating the most elemental design details to make them ornamental, using darts on a copper shift to echo the curves of the bust and hips, and a vertical seam instead of a slit on the side of a shiny blue pencil skirt. He lowered the buttons, making a boxy gray jacket look interesting with slim trousers, bunched gently on top of glossy, platform wedge pumps. And how much could be read into the gently curved seam placed on the front of a black column gown -- a blade of grass? An S-curve? Brancusi's "Bird in Space"?

He closed the show with a series of soft dresses, one in navy with fabric draped toga-like over one shoulder and left to hang from the opposite hip. And I almost wished the models would come around again, so I could notice even more.

Before heading to Los Angeles this weekend to show his Prive collection, Giorgio Armani had his day in Milan on Monday, celebrating the homecoming of his retrospective exhibition that began its world tour in 2000 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and has just now landed here at La Triennale art museum.

At a morning news conference, he spoke about building an empire on Minimalism, joking that it was the easiest thing to do when starting out with no money.

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