Byline: Samantha Conti and Sara Gay Forden

MILAN — It was a strong season — but it wasn’t flawless.
That’s the word from American buyers at the end of a marathon seven days of shows here. Fueled by the sleek, wearable looks from the week’s clear winners — Gucci, Prada, Giorgio Armani, Jil Sander and Gianni Versace — many stores said they are pumping up their open-to-buys.
“We think the market hasn’t looked this great since the early Eighties,” said Dawn Mello, Bergdorf Goodman president. “For so long, we came here mainly for little tailored suits; now there’s so much diversification we can find all the answers in Milan.”
As a result, a number of leading U.S. retailers said they had increased their budgets for the Italian market. Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president and fashion director at Bloomingdales, said, “We are planning double-digit increases in our overall Italian budget, and definitely a double-digit increase for Armani.” Nevertheless some stores expressed disappointment with the confused print and color stories at many houses. Many also commented that the myriad retro looks were starting to get on their nerves. That having been said, everyone raved about Gucci, which was decidedly Seventies in mood but with a new sleek, sophisticated take on that decade.
Such comments indicated that what retailers really found disturbing was the parade of knockoffs — based on last season’s Prada collection — that was a running theme all week.
Nicole Fischelis, vice president and fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue, put some perspective on the subject: “I think we are at a turning point as far as the Seventies influence is concerned. Although it has been done with a modern twist, it still has to evolve. Next season we hope to see more of the elegant classicism that’s getting started here.”
Among the strongest trends cited by buyers were:
* Clean silhouettes.
* Military looks.
* Knitwear, especially jackets and trousers.
* Slim, bootleg pants.
* Longer skirts.
* Prints, including fruit, animal and reptile.
* Bursts of color mixed with staples such as black, navy blue and camel.
* Lace mixed with leather or knitwear.
* Jumpsuits.
By far, the hit show of the week was Gucci, with Tom Ford’s slinky white evening dresses high on everybody’s list.
“Gucci was a standout,” said Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus. “It was a sleek, modern collection — very luxe.”
Ford’s simple-but-edgy daywear offerings “are the kinds of pieces you want to wear all day” said Bergdorf’s Mello.
Buyers were also happy to see a new tighter silhouette from Armani. He showed body-hugging knits, slim pants and fitted jackets.
“When you think he’s done it all, he reinvents himself and surprises you,” said Rose Marie Bravo, president of Saks Fifth Avenue. “We loved his jacket shapes and knitwear.”
Versace’s brightly colored sexy gowns, Jil Sander’s tailoring and Prada’s toned-down looks and interpretation of the basics were also hits with buyers.
“Prada was forward-looking with a personal twist,” said Bloomingdale’s Ruttenstein, who noted, “Daywear was very strong — trousers and sweaters were very simple and of very high quality. The high point was the evening collection. It is a very individual way of looking for evening.”
“No one makes a better pant than Jil Sander,” said Janet Brown, owner of the boutique that bears her name in Port Washington, N.Y. “They ranged from very slim to fluid and full.” She added, “Her fabrics in this collection were spectacular; her slim coats mind-boggling.” Brown said she increased her Italian budget this year by about 18 percent.
Bonnie Pressman, executive vice president and general manager of women’s at Barneys New York, went for Dolce & Gabbana’s daytime looks, especially the chalk-stripe suits and tricotine suits in solid black and solid camel.
Bergdorf Goodman’s Mello liked Dolce & Gabbana’s tweed day suits and little sweaters. She said, “The intimate apparel was fun on the runway” but noted that there were plenty of other possibilities back in the showroom. The reviews were mixed on Dolce & Gabbana’s prints.
Shauna Stein, who owns a boutique under her name in the Beverly Center in Beverly Hills and has increased her budget for some collections by about 40 percent, said, “Dolce and Gabbana really returned to their personal style with those floral prints for Dior-shaped coats and pants. I loved their velvet boot-leg pant with the muted leopard print.”
Another retailer called the prints “crazy and unrelated and completely unmemorable — an immediate turnoff to the consumer.”
Missoni, buyers said, turned out some of the best knitwear all week. “Their knits are stronger than ever — their styles are right on,” said Fischelis of Saks. “We loved the short coats. In all, it was a very clean, very modern collection.”
FerrA, with his precision-cut suits and filmy white shirts, won praise from faithful fans. “The collection was very scaled down but looked good,” said Ellin Salzman, corporate fashion director of The Limited Inc. Buyers had mixed reactions to Moschino and Antonio Fusco.
Joel Rath, president of Canadian retailer Holt Renfrew, raved about Moschino: “Moschino was faithful to the niche it has carved in the market. We thought it was a delightful, spirited collection and loved the evolution into floral, leaf and animal prints.”
However, another retailer said: “There were some really ugly combinations that came out of nowhere, and that certainly won’t appeal to the customer. Moschino’s mixes of bright plaids with other prints just didn’t work.”
The same was true of Fusco’s line. While a few retailers cited his close-fitting jackets and long skirts as winners, his paisley printed velvet was not so hot.
“In this latest collection he tried to be all things to all people, and he stumbled,” one retailer said.
Anna Molinari’s flirtatious shapes and bright colors did not rate high on some retailers’ lists. “The collection was flat and repetitive of Blumarine [Molinari’s second line] — it was a disappointment,” one buyer said.
On the positive side, many retailers said they were planning to take on new lines or create new spaces for designers from whom they already buy. Janet Brown and Mello of Bergdorf Goodman will both buy Rebecca Moses’ knitwear collection this season. In addition to opening a corner on the third floor for Moses, Mello also plans to add Piazza Sempione, and a corner on the fifth floor for Marina Spadafora.
Saks Fifth Avenue is eyeing Alberto Biani and Flying Feeling, two stylish, well-tailored bridge collections.
“There is a layer of people in Milan who are very strong in commercial clothing. Their designs have an edge and the quality is designer-level,” said Fischelis of Saks.
Ruttenstein said Bloomingdale’s would be opening several Gianni Versace corners in “a few” stores this year, including Istante, Versus, Versace Jeans Couture and accessories. He said Bloomingdale’s double-digit Italian budget increase takes into account store openings in California.
Buyers may have liked the fashion here, but they complained bitterly about the length and organization of show week. This year, the shows lasted seven full days — two more than usual — because of the addition of new designers and fur designers to the calendar. Most of the big shows were scheduled for the end of the week so, as a result, many buyers arrived late.
“This week was too long,” said Kaner of Neiman Marcus. “I wish we didn’t have to wait so long to see the major designers. Also, it meant that a lot of smaller designers were penalized because they were scheduled for earlier in the week and the buyers just weren’t here.”
Holt Renfrew’s Rath agreed. “They really have to tighten up. I think time was a real problem for everybody,” he said.

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