….AND THEN SOME SEASONS JUST DON’T GO YOUR WAY. GIORGIO ARMANI GOT STUCK IN STIRRUPS, GIANFRANCO FERRE WORKED HIS TOUGH-CHIC SIRENS OVERTIME AND WHERE, OH WHERE, CAN JIL SANDER BE?

Giorgio Armani: Even in the inexact world of fashion, some points are not up for debate. There is no disputing, for example, that in terms of box-office clout, Giorgio Armani reigns supreme as the most powerful designer in the game, and ranks among its three or four most important industrialists. His empire is so admired — and yes, envied — by competitors that a few years ago he turned down an offer of $2 billion for its sale.

But life at the top can be tough, particularly in so mercurial a world and when one has occupied the perch virtually unchallenged for so many years; the pressure to deliver the goods can detract from the design process and ultimately, the product. That’s what we saw on Monday from Giorgio Armani, particularly with his signature collection. Quite simply, Armani needs to freshen up — and lighten up — his act. It wouldn’t require a sea change, because the core beliefs and skill are rock solid: the fit, the fabrics, the quality, the vision, the belief that designers should make clothes for the real lives of real women. The process might require some new blood and definitely, a mind-set open to fresh, even opposing, viewpoints. It’s difficult to believe that everybody on the Giorgio Armani design staff thought the pants he showed in his signature collection were a good idea. What pants? Stirrup pants. Tight stirrup pants; loose-but-straight stirrup pants; full pants, draped at the hem and secured with unseen stirrups, and Ali Baba skirts with stirrup ankle cuffs. They came out by the score, in tweeds, wools and glittering crystals. But who’s going to wear them? Armani devotees Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer? The power base of millions of women who rush to update their Armani holdings every season? Uh-uh. Ironically, the man who has so mocked editorial folly over the years here turned to his own bag of tricks. “I have the same courage I had at the beginning,” Armani said before the show. “If people don’t like the [aviator] hats, the skirts, the pants, I don’t care. You always have to do something more, and when you’re creative, you risk a bit. Galliano, McQueen, Gaultier, my colleagues, have fun. This is my fun. We have to keep fashion up and exciting; otherwise it’s over. This is my couture. A black sweater is elegant, but who cares?”

The legions of women who have turned to and stayed with Armani when they felt disenfranchised by the rest of fashion care. Retailers care. And Armani should care. Besides, he was never perceived as a Galliano or a McQueen. Instead, Armani was the person who made waves by making sense, by changing the way women dress, by championing the concept of wearable chic.

Certainly, no one wants the designer to stand still, but tricks are for kids. Instead of working up new ways to make pants unwearable, he should focus on the little tweaks that every designer must employ to stay au courant.

In the meantime, the clothes his customers love will be plentiful at retail. The casual attitude on his runway felt appealing, and in fact, from the hips up, the pieces often looked inviting. Armani showed a range of great jackets, most cut lean and small, often with a military flourish. Among the most dramatic: a velvet and leather basketweave bomber. There were soft silk shirts, small textured sweaters and terrific skinny shirred tunics over lean skirts. For evening, Armani most often went graphic with bold plays of black and white, although a pair of icy gowns in pale blue and gray felt light as air. And for real dazzle, his crystal-encrusted slipdresses sparkled like diamonds.

Earlier, the designer showed his Emporio Armani collection. While here, too, he went the tricky pants route, at least on the right person — a cute teenager — his satin-banded velvet bloomers would have a certain offbeat charm. To wit, at its best this lineup played to a youthful, spirited sensibility. Armani showed pretty fluid skirts and dresses, and used gender games to flirtatious effect with weskits and vests worn as alluringly skimpy little tops. Suits with curvy jackets delivered greater sophistication, and to unleash her mysterious side, what girl wouldn’t love a cracked leather trench?

At night, Emporio girls just want to have fun, and they can do it in sparkly little tube tops over bloomers or cocktail shakers bordered in beads.

Gianfranco Ferre: Gianfranco’s lady is like the Energizer bunny. No matter what’s going on with the economy, her heels just keep on clicking. She’s that other kind of feminist — – not a politically correct type who learned at Gloria Steinem’s knee, but the arch Boss Lady, a party of one. If her wardrobe is a little out of step with the times, then frankly, my dear, she doesn’t give a damn. Suits, a rarity on runways elsewhere, are something this muse can’t live without. And Ferre offered loads. Twisting and wrapping jackets kept them sexy even when cut in somber gray or glen plaid, while their stiff, puffed shoulders lent an almost ironically feminine touch.

Of course, like tough chicks of every stripe, Ferre’s have an affinity for leather. Not that of the motorcycle madame, but something a little more subtle — the tawny leather jacket, for example, prettied-up with a short stack of leather lace ruffles at the hip. A peek-a-boo dress, made from circling bands of leather that gaped now and then to reveal the skin beneath, made no pretense at sweetness, only bald-faced bravura.

And there were more looks to test a woman’s courage to come. For evening, Ferre showed a high-voltage gown encrusted with crystals, some of which were the size of a macadamia nut, and bright as the Vegas strip. Equally ostentatious were a set of gloriously gaudy cha-cha-cha ballgowns, made from woven ribbons of fabric. They each come with a guarantee that the wearer will not be overlooked. But then, Ferre’s vivacious lady isn’t afraid of living large, and neither, apparently is he.

Jil Sander: It’s not poor Milan Vukmirovic’s fault, although he must feel that way. Every morning his alarm goes off, he opens his eyes — and he’s still not Jil Sander. There’s only one, as we all know. Throughout his first act, diminishing expectations and diminishing returns have shadowed Vukmirovic’s reign over her once-enchanted kingdom. On the runway, the pickings have been, if not slim, then not nearly as robust as most editors and retailers think they should be.

Fall items that hinted at the old Sander magic included a glistening pleated trapeze top and matching skirt, a charming drop-waisted dress in filmy blue and gold and Vukmirovic’s shaggy fur jacket-and-culottes combo. On the very wearable front: a fur-lined cashmere coat and perfectly-cut corduroy pants. Generally, in fact, there was nothing offensive about Vukmirovic’s vaguely Seventies-styled collection, save indistinction. But a few boxy beaded dresses were actually so distinct — read dowdy — as to suggest a new definition of anti-fashion.

Designing real clothes seems to be Vukmirovic’s forte. But it was the sparkle that Jil Sander brought to her fantastically wearable collections that made her devotees go weak in the knees. Perhaps they’ll settle for something more anonymous. But they shouldn’t have to. Because at its best, fashion is not merely an antidote to nudity. It should provoke, propose, excite.

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