By and  on October 2, 2006

MILAN —­ Like Justin Timberlake’s hit song, Italian designers brought “sexy back” to the center stage of fashion. But is it enough?

It depends on whom you ask. Many retailers dubbed the Milan spring season a disappointing one, where runway dazzle and excess overshadowed wearability — at times to tedious effect. Still, retailers said they were reassured to find this city’s mainstay of beautifully crafted, commercially viable clothes and accessories in the showroom, proving catwalk antics don’t necessarily affect the order books.

“The runways have been lacking in relevant day clothes for today’s women living real lives,” said Michael Fink, vice president and women’s fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue. “Thankfully, we have found these clothes in showrooms and presentations that do not require spectacle to make a statement.”

Other buyers were even more upbeat about Milan’s approach to spring. “I think Milan is charged with youthful energy,” said Stephanie Solomon, vice president and fashion director of women’s ready-to-wear and accessories at Bloomingdale’s. “In one week, fashion has brought back color, shine and uncomplicated sexiness.” Short dresses, miniskirts and metallic and patent accessories were cited as key directions for spring and summer, while the most widely praised collections included Marni, Giorgio Armani, Burberry Prorsum, Jil Sander and newcomer 6267.

Here, a rundown of what buyers had to say about a divisive season:

Ken Downing, fashion director, Neiman Marcus, Dallas: “The dress is continuing here in Milan as one of the most important categories for spring, and there were terrific options here: floating styles that moved away from the body — trapeze, Empire and shift shapes. The Eighties and Mod Sixties are giving the dress more of an edge. Romanticism and femininity continued in Milan as well.”

Downing noted patent trim, cropped jackets and clear handbags were important elements, along with silver and colors like yellows and blues. His standout collections included Marni, Jil Sander, Giorgio Armani, Prada and 6267.

Jennifer Wheeler, vice president of designer apparel, Nordstrom, Seattle: “The overall message was a blend of the Sixties and Eighties references. Clearly, the bare leg is important. After such a dark fall season, spring is really feeling a lot more optimistic to us, and I think customers will respond to it. Silver and shine will be very important, also patent leather trim on clothing, handbags and shoes. It was also really more about shape and silhouette than prints. Sleeve interest continues, [as well as] softer bubble shapes, and new items include city shorts, knee leggings and item skirts, with rolled hems, the mini or ones pieced together. Obviously, the dress will be the key item of the season.”Marni, Jil Sander, Burberry Prorsum and Versace were among her favorite collections.

Linda Fargo, senior vice president, fashion office and store presentation, Bergdorf Goodman: “Like New York, dresses remain predominant in a full range of silhouettes, including Empire-waisted, drop-waisted, trapeze, tunic and the baby doll. Short, shorter, shortest ruled the week! If we could sell long, slim, bare legs as accessories, we would be rich.”

She said key looks and trends included puffy, short sleeves; cropped soft jackets; metallics; sequins, and paillettes. Her favorite shows were Marni, Giorgio Armani, Prada, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Fendi and Jil Sander.

Janet Brown, owner, Janet Brown, Port Washington, N.Y.: “There are so many places spread out. The showrooms are not in a central place like they are in New York. I don’t think that Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, worked as hard as I did this week to make the magic happen.”

Brown noted the importance of the trenchcoat, large volumes (especially at Jil Sander, Marni and Missoni), longer sweaters, belts and the “resurrection” of the jacket. She said she would continue to buy color sparingly and favor more neutral hues like navy, white, brown, black and gray. “One can’t have a store full of marigold.” Her top picks include Marni, Bottega Veneta and 6267.

Akihito Naohara, general manager, Takashimaya Co. Ltd.: “I think the collections were rather muted and not so impressive for me. I liked the creative side. I liked Burberry Prorsum, Jil Sander, Fendi, Marni and Ermanno Scervino. In terms of the power of the brand, I liked Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana. In terms of beauty, I liked Giorgio Armani and Bottega Veneta this time. Trend-wise, nearly everyone was targeting the Eighties, but I think the creativity should be [more original].” Naohara said shorter dress lengths may be tricky for the Japanese customer, but the neutral and pastel color palette, including white, beige, lavender and pink, should translate well at retail.Julie Gilhart, senior vice president and fashion director, Barneys New York: “What’s going to drive business here is the dress,” said Gilhart, who skipped Milan’s runway shows last week to attend the opening of Barneys’ new flagship in Dallas, but viewed videos and saw collections in showrooms. “I liked the short length that can be worn as a dress or a tunic.” Gilhart said standout collections included Jil Sander, Bottega Veneta and Prada. She also praised Fendi’s accessories, but bemoaned a dearth of new designer names.

Rosy Biffi, owner, Biffi and Banner, Milan: “I thought that it was a strong season: contemporary, but a bit more luxurious than unusual. We need to see about pricing because that will determine how accessible these items are. These are complex collections in terms of quality and tailoring. I hope that things won’t be too expensive. In terms of trends, it’s all about the dress. Dresses of all types, but especially those that are above the knee. They are very feminine,” she said, citing Alberto Biani, Gucci and Pucci as her favorites.

Barbara Atkin, fashion director, Holt Renfrew, Canada: “I’m liking Milan. I think it’s going to be a good season. There were a lot of surprises, especially the amount of excess and glam, ­a new version of bling. I did like Dolce & Gabbana for going out there and giving us Hollywood glamour at its most extravagant. The luxury market is exploding — so to go back to pure minimalism would halt that momentum. The other school of thought is soft couture, easy dressing in simple fabrics and I love that subtlety. I think there is a really nice balance of lifestyle dressing.” Marni, Prada, Burberry Prorsum, Fendi, 6267 and Jil Sander were also among Atkin’s favorites.

Joan Burstein, owner of Browns, London: “It’s been a little bit disappointing. When designers are trying too hard to find a new direction, they miss out on the wearability of clothes for women. I did like Marni. And we have found items from people in showrooms, like Golden Goose, a young couple who have great items and casual sportswear.”Sarah Rutson, fashion director, Lane Crawford, Hong Kong: “Milan has been a bit all over the place with a little bit of everything, be it Eighties disco, Sixties, Forties [or] some Seventies swimsuits for good measure. The concern is that there is a lot of shine, satin and sparkle in Milan — everything is very dressed up, and by the time you add shoes and accessories [often in patents, metallics and Lucite], it all gets too much. We need to have a lot more balance. That is why Marni and Philosophy di Alberta Ferretti worked well and it was a relief to see some cotton for a change.” Rutson said she loved the sportiness at Marni, the jewel colors and unique Forties silhouette at Prada and the dresses and tailoring at Alberta Ferretti and Jil Sander.

Stephanie Solomon, vice president and fashion director, women’s rtw and accessories, Bloomingdale’s: “Last season was really about covering up. This season, it’s about showing off your legs. I love all the minidresses, the shine and the use of technical materials. To me, that looks futuristic. I thought Versace was perfect because of the balance of ladylike with the shine and glamour. I did like Gucci. [Frida Giannini] hit that button for that girl who has never worn those kind of clothes. I loved Dsquared. And on the other side, I think Armani provided balance with quiet elegance.”

Michael Fink, vice president and women’s fashion director, Saks Fifth Avenue: “Milan may be going through a midlife crisis evidenced by its pazza fascination with the Sixties and Eighties and sci-fi, futuristic dressing. Dresses continue, with volume a little more deflated in Milan. The color silver is predominant, especially in accessories. I love the vibrant reds and purples that popped up at Prada and Gucci. Mini lengths cannot be ignored, but micromini? That’s tough.”

Fink’s highlights included Prada, Marni, Gucci and Jil Sander, whose “perfect clothes could have walked right off the street. What use of color!” He also cited the “inventive” footwear of Courtney Crawford and the “chic shapes” at Albino.Jeffrey Kalinsky, president and chief executive officer, Jeffrey New York, and director, designer merchandising, Nordstrom: “I do a tremendous amount of commerce in Milan and that never really changes. The people I depend upon all really delivered, I felt. I thought that the Jil Sander collection was a breath of fresh air. It was everything I love about spring: clean, light and fresh. I love the color. It had all of those elements. Every season, I think I can’t love [Bottega Veneta] any more, and then I do. The same goes for Burberry Prorsum. I thought that Prada was very beautiful. I am a Marni fanatic. I thought Consuelo [Castiglioni] did a great job reinventing the collection to continue to make it interesting for the Marni customer.”

Cedric Charbit, general merchandise manager, women’s fashion, Printemps: “There is a big turn in fashion. We’re moving on from that Chloé, couture mood. It’s very Sixties with a touch of Eighties, and a lot of Versace references in color, shape and impact. I was afraid we were about to lose that sexy customer, and now she’ll find more options. There are great dresses, tunics and a lot of great eveningwear that’s fun and young. There’s also big news with shoes: high, show-off, sexy shoes.” For Charbit, standout collections included Gucci, Prada, Burberry Prorsum, Marni, Jil Sander and Fendi. “Gucci was a really strong show for us,” he said. “There was a lot of brand DNA in there, a lot of newness, wearable and desirable.”

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