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Between raw and refined

Amid the whips and horse gear at Milan's Fashion Week, Versace's creations stand out.

February 26, 2007|Booth Moore | Times Staff Writer

MILAN — Who ever thought we would be looking to Donatella Versace as the standard-bearer for good taste and pared-down sophistication? That's what it has come to here in Milan, where Fashion Week ended Friday with another S&M freak show, this time from DSquared designers Dean and Dan Catan.

Between their bondage girls in leather blinders, which seemed to suggest woman as horse, and the whip-wielding dominatrixes at Dolce & Gabbana earlier in the week, one had to wonder what they're putting in the water in this city.

Sure, eroticism is in the cultural spotlight, and the blinders could simply be implying that women are focused on where they are going (uh-huh), but it's absurd to suggest that anyone pay designer prices for a dress with a buckled leather harness or pumps with shiny ribbed heels resembling sex toys. You can get that stuff on Hollywood Boulevard for a steal.

I guess another way of looking at these leather-bound fantasies is as expressions of aggression, which was a potent theme on the runways this week. At its tamest, it appeared as a studded leather trench and gauntlet gloves at Burberry Prorsum, a fur helmet and shiny black vinyl dress at Marni, and aviator jackets at Gucci and Max Mara. At its most barbaric, it was the shaggy, long-haired fur coats in nearly every collection, including Fendi, DSquared and the up-and-coming label 6267. They were apparently goat, though they looked more like gorilla. The toxic colors, synthetic-looking knits and aggressively weird shag coats and clutch bags at Prada were also part of this dark vision.

At the opposite pole of fashion, we saw demi-couture, or clothing made using couture-like techniques, fabrics and silhouettes, such as cape backs and full volumes. Bottega Veneta's Tomas Maier crafted New Look suits with padded hips, some with raw fringe on them, while Moschino's Rosella Jardini sent out gold brocade swing coats and bubble skirts, which was too bad since the giant peace sign behind the runway raised hopes that she would have something more to say.

But it was Versace who was able to distill all these themes into something between raw and refined, or something that we might actually want to wear. She worked with the same bold color statements and controlled volumes that made Raf Simons' collection for Jil Sander the week's other standout.

Versace used couture techniques to achieve the bell and hourglass shapes that ran through the collection. But she was able to avoid the retro trap that Maier and others fell into by sticking to modern fabrications and a minimalist black-and-white color palette, punctuated with chemical tints she referred to in the show notes as "sulphur green, turquoise-litmus paper, and the cherry in alcohol solution."

She began with a confident black suit in a technical mix of shiny and matte fabrics, shaped through the waist with subtle horsehair padding to create the perfect female form. A sleek black halter dress hugged the torso like a corset, thanks to whalebone stitching, while a zip-front tube dress referenced the sporty trend that has surfaced here. Pants were lean, topped by a fur chubby or a shiny camel satin blouse.

Fall's favored embellishment, studding, was presented in a subtle enough way that you wouldn't feel cheap wearing it. Instead of using silver stud hardware on the surface, Versace inserted studs into the cloth on a tailored gray coat so that they became decorative textural pyramids.

A black, off-the-shoulder column gown with a single strap cutting diagonally across the shoulders and chain details at the waist hinted at the kinkiness that has grabbed designers this season but, perhaps because its creator is a woman, did not veer into poor taste.

Neither did a silver mesh sheath with tiles artfully arranged on the front, which was incredibly sexy when the model turned around to reveal a bare back. Metal mesh was incorporated into the waist of a plush ivory coat with fur cuffs, making for a nice juxtaposition of hard and soft.

For evening, silk plisse gowns were sculpted to the body as if by an Italian master, one in a smoky gray shirred at the waist, another in dark plum with chains sewn underneath instead of on top.

Versace may be having a minimalist, Medusa-free moment, but she hasn't given up completely on flash. One only had to look at the towering zip-front brogues on mirrored platforms and the powder puff of a white fur purse to know that. And that traffic-stopping red fox coat, hand-sculpted at the midsection, was just the kind of power piece for the new Versace woman -- rich and in charge.

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