MILAN -- There were few major surprises in the just-concluded Milan fall season except, perhaps, for one -- retailers loved those Giorgio Armani stirrup pants.
Overall, the season wasn't one that sent hearts thumping, but store executives said there was no shortage of solid, salable looks on Milan's runways. The most bankable trends included narrow trousers, shearling vests and wraps, bomber jackets in everything from fur to technical waterproof fabrics, coats of different lengths and shapes -- and especially the new tent and princess shapes -- obi belts, appliques, embroideries, fringe, velvets and chunky or cable knits.
The season also was a perfect example of the often-wide gap between what retailers bought and what the fashion press praised. While the two camps agreed the season's standouts included Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Burberry Prorsum and Missoni, their opinions diverged on two key designers -- Armani and Milan Vukmirovic's collection for Jil Sander. The press pilloried them, but retailers like Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale's thought they had some merit.
"We thought Armani had wonderful jackets and will be buying his novelty pants," said Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman's. "Armani customers buy the novelty items: They bought the ruffled, tiered and asymmetrical pants of past seasons. Their feeling is that if Mr. Armani believes in something, they do too."
Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president for fashion direction at Bloomingdale's, also praised Armani. "The show was very strong. I loved the jackets, and frankly I think it's time for stirrup pants to make a comeback: They're new, narrow and sexy. I also loved his use of black and white for evening."
Kaner also liked Gucci's jackets and coats with obi wraps, Prada's short battle jacket worn with a flippy skirt and the white coats at Jil Sander. She said Roberto Cavalli managed to "layer on a more ladylike customer this season" with his plaid pieces and chiffon dresses with full skirts.
Ruttenstein liked Gucci's big blouson tops worn with narrow crushed pants and Dolce & Gabbana's classic country looks. "They had exquisite tailoring and great jackets," he said. He also liked Fendi's "fur wraps, stoles and blankets," Burberry's "new plaids" -- and the Jil Sander collection."Milan [Vukmirovic] no longer does Jil Sander. He does his own thing, and the look is sleek, modern and well priced. He is developing strongly as a designer," he said.
Jacqui Lividini, senior vice president of fashion merchandising at Saks Fifth Avenue, said the season is one of opportunity for retailers. "After Sept. 11, a lot of people didn't buy fall clothing. This season will be a chance for them to catch up. The combination of that kind of demand -- and great merchandise -- is ideal."
Lividini said she thought Dolce & Gabbana and Gucci were both strong shows. "There was so much at Dolce. We liked the embellished boots, the fringed scarves, mile-long scarves and sexy pants. Gucci was right on the money and had sheer sex appeal." Lividini also cited Burberry's new softness.
"It's traditionally a very masculine line, so the softness was a departure for them. I thought the printed velvets were pretty and I liked the balance between the more structured coats and the sporty looks."
While some retailers expressed disappointment in Roberto Cavalli's toned-down collection, Sue Patneaude, vice president of women's designer apparel at Nordstrom, praised it, and "everything he does right now," she said.
Missoni and Voyage were also favorites of Patneaude, who was heartened to find lots of novelty details in the Italian collections, from animal prints and embroideries to fringe galore.
"The collections were not as toned- down as I thought they'd be," she said. "I've actually been surprised at the aggressiveness of some of the presentations. I think it's important that we don't allow things to get too safe. If we don't push the envelope, who's going to?"
Julie Gilhart, vice president of fashion merchandising at Barneys New York, said the Milan shows continued with themes in New York and did not "shift the eye."
"There have been some good shows," she said. "Prada, for example, was really intelligent. Marni was a continuation of what they do, but that's how people want to feel right now. And Pucci was incredible for its color combinations -- and we sell it really well."Among top trends and items spied by Barneys were coats, cropped pants, corduroy, vests, knitted hats and long scarves and boots of all persuasions.
Anna Garner, the fashion director at Henri Bendel, said she loved the season's focus on "Austro-Hungarian embroidery details, refreshed peasant looks and melange of velvets and rustic tweeds." She said Missoni was a standout.
"They did what they know best and they put their own spin on the season's trends. I loved the knit cowl necks and cardigans, the oversize knits and the Lurex [metallic] and gold detailing."
Garner, who said that Bendel's budget would increase "in the low double digits" this season, also liked the gold leathers and suede knitted cardigans at Ruffo Research, the Seventies feel, vintage looks and warm pink color palette at Anna Molinari, the chic, ladylike feel of Luisa Beccaria's collection and the "great, chunky knitwear" at Alessandro Dell'Acqua. "I thought it was a very healthy season in Milan."
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