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ROME — Rome was opening its own fashion week, AltaRoma, as French designers and international buyers were heading to Saint Tropez and Capri for their respites after the couture collections in Paris.

Part runway show, part Italian spectacle, the biannual fashion event that closed July 16 showcased fall-winter couture collections, vintage ready-to-wear pieces and fresh-out-of-school designer efforts.

Rome is still a fashion David to the Goliaths of Paris and Milan, though organizers have worked to increase AltaRoma’s presence and credibility, featuring more fashion-savvy presentations, with a focus on young talent and international designers from unexpected places such as India or Nigeria. At the same time, they have sought to promote Rome-based fashion houses, including Gattinoni and Renato Balestra.

“This mission is absolutely different than [couture] in Paris,” said Stefano Dominella, president of AltaRoma and president of Gattinoni. “It’s useless for us to compete with the French,’’ he said. “What we want to do is recapture a bit of high Roman fashion and give young designers the opportunity to show by focusing on research and experimentation.”

This season, graduating students from The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and London’s Royal College of Art presented runway collections that ranged from fabulous to faulty.

Silvio Benterelli, a 24-year-old Sardinian, put together a quirky collection for a tribute to the Italian silk giant Ratti. His intricately draped skirts may have shown potential, but for his gushing parents and cousins sitting in the first two rows, the collection was nothing more than a success. Benterelli’s family applauded for every exit.

Another Sardinian, Angelo Figus, interpreted the historic house of Emilio Schubert to wonderful effect, sending out sculpted gowns in lace and tweeds.

Yet AltaRoma was more than just an Italian affair. Buyers from Al-Fatina in Kuwait, Logos in Kiev and Rodeo Drive in Dubai attended runway shows by designers from Greece, Nigeria, Lebanon and India.

Angelos Bratis, a 24-year-old Greek who works as an assistant at Gattinoni, presented a capsule collection featuring wide-knit cowl sweaters and lush silk skirts. Suneet Varma of New Delhi may dress royal families from the Middle East and Southeast Asia, but the stunning embroidered dresses he showed, minus the traditional scarf, could easily grace any U.S. red carpet.

This story first appeared in the July 27, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“The West has always had a long flirtation with India, and now I think it’s blossoming into a full-fledged romance,” Varma said.

Invited by AltaRoma, Varma said he was satisfied with the reaction from his first show in Europe. “I didn’t really know what to expect, but I’m happy that the Italian market had the opportunity to see my product, and hopefully that will turn into something more.”

Varma was not the only participant hoping for something more. Since Dominella took over AltaRoma in 2002, its production values and initiatives have progressed, although, much like the city of Rome itself, the weeklong event was a beguiling mix of chaos and elegance, beauty and tackiness.

Anchored around the theme “Sport and Fashion,” AltaRoma’s centerpiece was a televised runway show done in typical Italian variety-show fashion. Models, Italian Olympic athletes and a ballad singer shared the stage during the two-hour program in the expansive Marmi Stadium.

While the show itself was underwhelming, the accompanying fashion installation held on the other side of the field was pure gold. Organizers asked designers such as Gianfranco Ferré, Dolce & Gabbana, Vivienne Westwood, Dior, Hermès, Ralph Lauren and Moschino, among others, to interpret specific Olympic events.

Some 60 models and mannequins stood atop eight-foot pillars wearing looks that ranged from Dior’s peach argyle golf knickers and vest to Dolce & Gabbana’s chiffon pleated dress with leather motocross jacket to Ferré’s sweeping, floor-length, white corseted shirt, leather pants and antique sword.

“I really think by having a theme it helps designers follow a certain trend and gives an identity to the week,” Dominella said.

While sport may have been the official theme, the unofficial one was young talent and international awareness. AltaRoma may still lack the finesse and big-name draw of other major fashion weeks, but it’s nonetheless an interesting vehicle for new design talent from unlikely places.

For the January edition, Dominella said he was leaning toward denim and jewelry as the theme. He said he also has asked Santo Versace about doing a Versace retrospective in January. Dominella also is courting Rome-based fashion houses Valentino and Fendi to return home and show in July.