SPRINGTIME IN MILANO
FROM EMPORIO'S QUIET BEAUTIES TO GUCCI'S SLICK HIPPIES, IT WAS A ROLLERCOASTER WEEKEND IN MILAN.

EMPORIO ARMANI: These days, many fashion shows just reek with effort. They're themed and styled and restyled and supermodeled to such a toxic degree that in the editorial-cum-religious frenzy of it all, you can just about feel the designer's--or his superstar stylist's--anguish while you watch. Then it's showtime at Giorgio Armani, and everything seems so effortless--as if it's a breeze being one of the most bought and most worn designers in the world, season after season, year after year.
In the Emporio Armani collection he showed Sunday, Giorgio made it look easy all over again. He sent out a lineup of young, great-looking clothes, bursting with freshness at every turn. And he packed it with diversity, as if he wanted to send the message that smart, tasteful dressing doesn't have to be limiting. Armani showed every conceivable kind of jacket--shaped, relaxed, short, long--usually over graceful, fluid pants. There were breezy dresses, shorts, skinny knits, chunky knits and a palette that went from pristine whites and cool grays to dark, dapper pinstripes and touches of pastels.
And if all that weren't enough, Giorgio romanced his audience with a breathtaking evening display. The layers of ethereal pastel chiffons, laces and touches of beads took on a gentility and spirit that could have walked right out of a dream.

GUCCI: It was the show everyone had been waiting for. What would Tom Ford do as an encore to his Mod blockbuster last fall, the show which currently has Gucci reveling in a major frenzy at retail, just in time for its public offering?
Hippie followed Mod originally, and since Ford's not into revisionist timelines--at least not yet--that's just what he did, too. And he did it with the same audacity as last season. Some loved it, others found it almost painfully self-conscious--styled to the nines by Ford and a team of freelancers.
But that's not to say that this outing had the same impact. For fall, there had been a pre-show buzz, but nobody knew exactly why. This season, no show could have lived up to all the expectations. But Ford more than held his own. And for all the strung-out beauty--brilliantly executed by Julien d'Ys and Linda Cantello--peek-a-boo laces, zebra djellabas and crochet mirrored handbags, these are good, wearable clothes--with the promise of lots more back in the showroom. The point, according to the program notes, was "Remix, not retro." There were even some pinstripes, and they managed not to look out of place. In fact, many of the clothes aren't all that different from fall, for example, the tight shirts and low-slung pants, now cut shorter and easier to wear.
The biggest news: Long jersey skirts, which look great, flat sandals, high-waisted dresses and a cool, sexy attitude. The frenzy goes on--at least for the moment.ISTANTE: The Lady lives! And if she's made it through another season on a Gianni Versace runway, you know she's got staying power. But don't look for the retro Mum of autumn. This gal's got a Nineties fitness fixation borrowed--as much of this collection was--from Versace's fall couture. She loves anything athletic-inspired--skinny knit dresses with high V-necks, hip-riding skirts, zip-front jackets--all with those racy, let-it-burn stripes down the sides. And why not? She's Gianni's girl, and she's got the body. When she's feeling more proper, she may choose a coat and dress in one of those micro-prints that promise to blossom all spring, or a hot-hued suit with the sort of short, tight jacket Versace sculpts to perfection and shows over slightly low-slung pants or skirts in two lengths--mid-thigh or to the knee.
Occasionally, nostalgia does get the better of this red-hot Lady, and when that happens, she can slip into a languid Western-style jersey shirtdress that gives a nod to the Seventies. But more often she prefers clothes that hug her curves the way a Ferrari hugs the highway. They're ultra-spare and streamlined, without an embellishment in sight, save for a few diamantA zippers to light the way at night.

FENDI: One thing you can say about Karl Lagerfeld is that he is relentless. And that's the way it was at his Fendi show. He sent out a constant--and seemingly endless--parade of looks without a moment's hesitation between numbers. Karl threw it all out fast and furious, sometimes overwhelmingly so. There were lattice-midriff dresses to show off taut tummies; hip-riding pants and jackets with deep plunging necklines; a host of boxy, hip-belted jackets and coats; long, ribknit dresses that cling like Saran Wrap, and color-blocked swimsuits that play brights against black. Hey, the more the merrier.

DOLCE & GABBANA: "An Italian holiday." That's the way Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana billed their spring collection, and it was a glam escapade indeed. Along the way, they crossed casual, starlet chic with a new relaxed approach to tailoring that's shaping up as one of the season's key trends.
The Dolce starlet wanders the beaches of Portofino in hooded splendor--either in a long black dress slit waist-high over a bikini or a sleeveless sweater and fluid pants. But she also know how to work short, leggy tunics and long caftans in sexy, see-through tiger stripes.
When a Roman weekend calls for something more crisp, the look is Ingrid-Bergman-meets-Yves-Saint-Laurent: Wrap jackets and coats or tailored suede ensembles cut with Seventies proportions, and capped off with a fedora and a hint of mystery. When the glam express moves into evening, our starlet would probably nix those odd, frumpy ruffled dresses. But she'll be thrilled to meet the cool Mediterranean breeze all wrapped up in a cozy, quirky "mink" stole.GIANFRANCO FERRE: Someone's got to care about glamour--not as a one-season trend, but as a lifestyle. And that role belongs to Gianfranco Ferre. But even as he champions the cause, he knows his look itself has to evolve. And it has, for spring, into a collection which is pared-down enough to look current, but plenty strong enough for all those women who live to turn heads in a well-heeled crowd.
Ferre's opening couldn't have been more focused: A group of black diva swimsuits; sliver-cut black suits with black shirts. After that, he broadened the field: Tight, loose, safari, shifts, long, short, color and shine. It could have been schizoid, but it was held together by those threads of opulent self-assurance and impeccable craftsmanship which distinguish Ferre's work.
And that bravado carried through to night. Let others shy away from serious eveningwear; Ferre thinks there's room in the world for sirens and grand dames. True, much of it was uneven. But the short, shapely slubbed silk jacket and graceful chiffon skirt were drop-dead beautiful.


OLIVER: Ooooh--Project! Like, let's dress Alicia Silverstone! Valentino dedicated his Oliver and Valentino Jeans collections to "Clueless Babes," and along the way wiped a good 20 years off the age of his target customer. Such a move could spell confusion, especially at Oliver, which has a history of changing directions and last season touted Dietrich-esque high glam. But it's all part of a plan to embrace a new younger woman throughout Valentino's domain. Alicia & Co. would love the little pink floral jeans skirts, and when they want to play grown-up--you know, when it's time to help Dad out with a legal brief--there are those decorous minisuits. But would they go near Val's frumpy Nurse Ratched dresses? As if.

MISSONI: It seems like everyone wants to be hip these days, even a traditional house like Missoni. So Rosita and Tai rounded up every supermodel they could get their hands on and sent them down the runway in what have already become the ubiquitous looks of the season: Cropped twinsets over hip-riding pants; jumpsuits and palazzo pants; shiny lacquers and vinyl; fishnets and lacy knits. Yes, the Sixties are still with us. Of course, the Missonis know how to give the look their very own stamp. With the distinctive and uninhibited mix of bright colors and patterns, there's no mistaking a Missoni.KRIZIA: Mariuccia Mandelli has discovered discretion. One of the biggest directions from Milan this season is a new, soft construction grounded in comfort and common sense, and Mandelli has embraced it with a vengeance. Sure, she opened and closed her show with megadoses of silver and gold, but even these were less flashy than in the past. And in between, she focused on pretty wearable clothes: suits with long jackets and wide, fluid pants; graceful dresses and skirts that fell to the knee or around the ankle; navy schoolgirl sweaters with crisp white collars, and walking shorts that don't require a supermodel posterior. Of course, there was the occasional bead-encrusted bustier, as well as some scary, shiny shenanigans, but for the most part, Mariuccia has a winner.

SUI BY ANNA SUI: This was supposed to be Sui's basics collection. But if orange stretch hipster skirts, big butterfly prints, embroidered lingerie and green, black and white plaid pants don't exactly sound low key, well, Anna's not a designer who likes to keep quiet. Of course, a girl can also find all the crisp black-and-white pieces she needs, but Sui's goal was to make a "happy collection." "Everything's gotten so simple in terms of shape," she said. "I saw the shapes as an empty canvas to play on. These are sunny- weather kind of clothes."

MAX MARA: This house may have built its reputation on classics and greatcoats, but with a new Madison Avenue boutique and plans for expansion, it's ready to go further. So for spring, the Max Mara collection has delivered clothes with a cool edge, very much in the spare Demeulemeester/Sander/Prada style, which is sweeping through Milan. Pantsuits cut with easy jackets, tunics over pants, short hip-riding skirts with midriff tops and zippered jackets look right and of-the-moment. Which makes the finale of this show truly baffling. What did those brilliantly colored Gauguin prints have to do with the rest of the collection?

MILA SCHON: This company has gone through a few bumpy seasons, so they brought Mila Schon back out of retirement to oversee the collection, which is now designed by Anna Domenici. Anyone who's been pining for that traditional, understated Schon look, won't need to now.
TER ET BANTINE: Sexy and spare, with proportions that suggest a modern hippie. When she's off to a protest march, she can slip into cat-print jersey shirts and leather hipster pants. But when events call for more refined fare, designer Manuela Gherardi offers sober pantsuits, pretty cowlneck shifts, and at night, a long shirt over cracked-ice glitter shorts.


MARINA SPADAFORA: She opened with a group of ethereal Ophelias wearing feathery crowns and ankle-length gowns in water-lily prints, while chants played on the soundtrack. But then she got back to the real world with luminous knit twinsets or ribbed poor-boy sweaters over slinky pants, and structured, belted suits in crisp white cottons.


JUNICHI HAKAMAKI: His years with Ferragamo and Gucci come through loud and clear in beautifully tailored, clean-cut jackets and slim pants in a black and white palette. But Hakamaki also acknowledges his roots with capri pants and micro-minis in antique kimono fabrics. And his hot little cheongsam dresses in cheetah prints are for the girl you wouldn't want to take home to mother. Bergdorf Goodman snapped up Hakamaki last season and is going back for more.

CALLAGHAN: Designer Scott Crolla set the Seventies tone with his first piece: a zippered coatdress in pale peach fake suede. He warmed things up with sexy long dresses with cutout backs and flared-leg pantsuits in silky flame-streaked prints. But some of the looks --such as the Chelsea boots and bright satin shirts--seemed a rehash of last season.


BYBLOS: Quiet clothes? Try barely audible. When simplicity rules fashion, clothes need some sort of come-on, however discreet, that beckons, "Buy me." Unfortunately, the collection Keith Varty and Alan Cleaver sent out just didn't deliver. Their parade of capri pants, midriff tops and little dresses was acceptable but uninspired.

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