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THE SPRING 2009 COLLECTIONS

Reality stars

With recession blues setting in, what looked freshest in Milan was timeless elegance -- and smile-inducing eye candy.

September 28, 2008|Booth Moore | Times Fashion Critic

MILAN — SOMETIME during the runway shows here last week, I had the distinct impression that a lot of designers weren't speaking to me. Instead, they were winking at Katy Perry with a nautical striped playsuit, nudging Beyonce with a Rococo-painted bustier dress, or sidling up to Cate Blanchett with a sweeping watercolor gown. And it didn't even matter if the stars were there.

That doesn't play the way it used to, though. Whether Beyonce wears Cavalli or Armani might make a difference when it comes to selling a dream in a perfume bottle, but some of us need to be persuaded now more than ever that designer clothes are worth paying attention to.

When the headlines scream "bailout," "rescue" and "warnings," the red-carpet whims of the .00001 percentile suddenly seem like such folly. Which is why the collections that really resonated were the ones that took into account a real woman's needs, putting wearability over glitz and stilted magazine-friendly concepts.

The best collections looked luxe, which should be mandatory for anything with a designer price tag in this economy. They weren't just a rehash of the '70s-era leafy print caftans, safari jackets and cotton blazers in Miami brights (Gucci) that are already perennial summer staples at Banana Republic. They had real design value. The immensely chic '70s-era "Charlie's Angels" pantsuits at DSquared felt so much more in sync with the sexy Gucci spirit, with expensive-looking details and sharp cuts to match, that I couldn't help thinking how much fun it would be if Canadian duo Dean and Dan Caten were designing for the Italian powerhouse instead of Frida Giannini.

Armani has always been a pragmatist at heart. And this season, he left behind his past transgressions -- all the silly hats and dropped-crotch zouave pants -- and showed it. Red-carpet fantasy -- watery pastel floral gowns covered in crystals -- was balanced by the reality of superbly tailored jackets, long and fluid with layered hemlines or overlapping lapels, worn with tidy shorts or slim khaki pants. It is "a style that has changed the face of fashion," he wrote in his show notes. (Just ask Hillary Clinton.) And too often, he's forgotten it in the effort to prove his relevance from one fickle season to the next.

But what is relevant now? Relevant is a supremely elegant, go-to jacket from Raf Simons at Jil Sander, with the back draped into a cowl or replaced with a curtain of fringe. It is a timeless black dress, such as Simons' cocktail sheath encased in quivering black fringe, or his twisting bias-cut gown with subtle cutouts highlighting the curves of the body, and playing on light and dark like an Abstract Expressionist painting.

Now those are worth collecting. Christopher Bailey's earthily romantic trench coats in floral laser-cut python (can you imagine?) are too -- couture outerwear. And then there's Tomas Maier's sculpted nappa leather dress in rich caramel, like a handbag for the body for those who don't have to worry about what's in their handbags.

What's more universally relevant is a piece that makes you so happy, you can't pass it up. And Marni's show was full of them, starting with the knitwear -- ruffled, zip-front color-blocked sweaters; colorful double-layer cardigans; and pullovers in '60s geometric designs. Multicolored bejeweled shoulder shrugs and interlocking macrame-dot pencil skirts were candy for the eyes. And plasticky flower bud necklaces brought back sweet childhood memories of Shrinky Dinks.

To the extreme

Miuccia Prada had fewer upbeat moments. To her, women are in a disheveled state, shedding their "skin" for summer, leaving the office and the city behind. They're clad in crinkly bra tops and pencil skirts with cropped jackets tied at the neck with ribbons, or sheath dresses spliced with off-kilter animal prints. No ironing required. More likely to make a splash were those peppy red-and-white fish print skirts. And forget about the shoes -- deadly snakeskin stilettos worn with bow-back Peds. Watching the models slip, slide and fall was agony. On that front, Prada certainly did not have her feet planted on the ground.

Neither did Roberto Cavalli, whose collection had a "Marie Antoinette parties down at Studio 54" feel, with Rococo-painted bustier minidresses interspersed with Halston-like jersey gowns. Maybe for a costume party.

Donatella Versace's collection was back to its old sexed-up self, which is to say, more thigh-high minidresses embellished with disco sparkles or decorative zippers shaped into cutesy hearts, and less of the grownup suits and day dresses that have distinguished the brand in the last couple of seasons.

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