Byline: Samantha Conti

MILAN — Retailers are praying for Paris to come through this week.
After a lackluster season in New York, store executives were generally underwhelmed by Italy’s spring collections, which ended Friday. They had come to Europe hoping for excitement: knockout collections from the majors, fresh design talent — even a continuation of last season’s luxe, feminine trend. Instead, many found themselves wondering whether Milan killed off the lady too soon, shifting from feminine skirts and blouses to hard-edged Eighties looks, too-sexy silhouettes and a new take on androgyny, Butch Chic.
There were, of course, exceptions on the ladylike front, with Giorgio Armani, in particular, and smaller lines such as Alber Elbaz’s Krizia Top, Narciso Rodriguez and Marni applauded for sophisticated, feminine collections.
Many retailers found a fair share of saleable items — and, in some cases, differed markedly from the critical press reaction to Gucci, Prada and Jil Sander. But in the end, most buyers acknowledged they were turning to Paris for inspiration.
“It’s disappointing that many designers have chosen to move away from that pretty, ladylike look and have gone in the direction of punk or overly sexual looks,” said Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus. “But there are, of course, things to choose from. We’re just going to have to be very selective, and pick those things what we think are going to be appealing to the customers.”
Kaner said the Italian collections had lots of “wonderful dresses,” including shirtwaist and blouson styles. She highlighted, as other significant trends, jersey fabrics and graphic patterns and praised the collections of Giorgio Armani and Marni.
James Aguiar, fashion director of ready-to-wear at Bergdorf Goodman, said he found great jersey pieces, dresses, blouson tops and narrow trousers. He predicted customers would respond well to soft fabrics like silk chiffon and a general return of minimalism and modernism.
“The body-conscious clothing at Dolce & Gabbana, the simple black dresses and unadorned suits, signal a return to modernism,” he said. “The Azzedine (Alaia) influences on the collections have also been a favorite.” Aguiar said standouts included Missoni’s dresses, Narciso Rodriguez’s sharp tailoring and “one of the best collections ever from Armani, proving he knows how a real woman wants to look.”
Jeffrey Kalinsky, owner of multibrand stores in Atlanta and New York, said he doesn’t think the Eighties and punk trends will turn off the young customers who embraced the ladylike look this fall. “It’s all very feminine, still,” he said. “It seems like I’ve bought very few pantsuits. It’s all skirts and dresses. And there’s tons of jersey. I wish I owned a jersey factory.”
While some retailers and editors grumbled about the drab colors on display, Kalinsky said he was primed for it, having tired of loud graphic prints already. “I’m ready to be a little more subdued.”
Jaqui Lividini, senior vice president of fashion merchandising, Saks Fifth Avenue, said an “anti-volume” trend emerged in Milan, evident in pencil skirts and wrap blouses at Prada and long, lean pants elsewhere. “The whole emphasis on the leg was really nice to see, with short skirts, shorts, culottes and the lean pants,” she said. “We also saw an emphasis on shoulders, not necessarily padding, but epaulettes, kimono sleeves or some print detail at the shoulders.”
Lividini said Saks would avoid obvious references to decades like the Eighties and Fifties prominent this season, but would embrace “that feeling of looking back and putting a forward spin on it.” She also liked the safari and military details, leather and woven leather sportswear and heavier sandals as other notable trends.
Judy Collinson, executive vice president and general merchandise manager at Barneys New York, characterized the season as a mixed bag so far, with some Fifties elements and Japanese references thrown in.
She acknowledged that the Eighties was an important theme in Milan, most evident in black jersey dress, prints, nautical stripes and plisse pleats. Key items were polo shirts, straight skirts, chiffon prom dresses, pleated cotton skirts and inventive white shirts.
“People haven’t found it as exciting or focused as last season,” she said. “From our perspective, though, we’re not having trouble doing our buys in the showrooms.”
Janet Brown, who usually boosts her spending every season, said she is keeping her budget “on hold” this time around. “It was a challenging season, a jigsaw puzzle with some very interesting pieces. But you had to work to put them together.”
Brown said she liked the Duhrer rabbit print and shirtwaist dresses at Jil Sander, as well as the outerwear. And despite the generally cool critical reception to Prada, Brown described the collection as “one of the prettiest shows” she had seen and pointed to the “understated quality” of the collection. She liked Alberta Ferretti’s dresses, which she described as “very Daisy Buchanan.” Ferragamo, Brown added, was this season’s runway sleeper with “the best printed jean in the city, great jerseys, ribbon sweaters and double-breasted shirt-jackets.”
Brown also picked up bathing suits from Thomas Maier, a former Hermes designer, and luxury sportswear items from Luciano Barbera, including a shirt jacket with snaps. Hettabretz, she said, “had perfect leather pieces both for young, hot downtown girls, and Greenwich ladies.” She said the knitwear from Cruciani, Malo, Aida Barni, and Jil Sander was “the greatest ever.”
Linda Dresner described the season as “many times a rehash of what we’ve seen before,” but said she found the styles her customers will be looking for: Narciso Rodriguez’ clean-cut silhouettes, Jil Sander’s sweaters and trousers, and luxe leather dresses from Trussardi.
“There were a lot of dresses out there — and our customers like dresses — and there was also a Saint Laurent influence, which was a relief,” said Dresner. “In the end, we came away from Milan with the things we needed to buy: flatter shoes, dresses, luxe leathers.”
Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction at Bloomingdale’s, was perhaps the most upbeat of all, declaring that he was planning “double-digit increases” in the store’s open-to-buy this season. “As always, Milan designers offer up beautiful tailoring and great quality,” Ruttenstein said, pointing in particular to the Prada, Armani, Alber Elbaz’s Krizia Top, Fendi, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci and Narciso Rodriguez collections.
“We saw the return of the short length in everything from miniskirts to HotPants, to longer shorts for day. I think those longer shorts are going to be a big look for spring, worn under narrow coats,” he said.
He said he liked Armani’s “fresh take on garconne dressing, the new suits and the ruffled edges on shorts.” Ruttenstein also said he loved Alber Elbaz’s first collection for the new Krizia Top line. “It was super-elegant and there were great dresses and blouses; clothing for urban safaris.”
At Gucci, he liked Tom Ford’s satins for day, MC Hammer looks, and coats. “We’ve just redone our designer floor, and the business is running in double-digit increases. We are very positive going into spring,” he said.

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