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Stooping to fix a new fall look in her Milan showroom — a tank top under a leopard fur jacket over riding pants — Anna Molinari points to the ivory tulle top, adorned with 700 hand-appliquéd lace strips, previously soaked in tea for a faded, granny look.

“This,” gushed Blumarine’s designer, “is something the Chinese can’t copy. Creativity aside, we’re talking about exclusive details and color charts, studied in-house, and top-quality yarns that can bear the various treatments my knits go through.” 

A similar scene takes place at Versace’s modern factory in Novara, 25 miles north of Milan, where Donatella Versace checks out a wispy silk chiffon cocktail dress that will hit her runway next Thursday. The bodice is an ensemble of hand-cut, hand-sewn strips that enhance the waistline. “If you want to compete with China, you have to stand out, be special,” stressed a trim Versace, wearing black, low-slung pants and a fitted sweater.

Two very different fashion minds that still arrive at the same conclusion: top quality and individuality.

As Milan’s chockablock show week is set to kick into action officially on Saturday, it’s clear that Italian designers are doing it their way. Challenged by low-cost competition and edgier mass-driven fashion, they strive to stand out via new proportions, shapes and volumes; innovative and meticulous craftsmanship; exclusive fabrics, and a manic attention to details.

The bulk of prefall orders have already been penned by high-profile retailers, allowing designers to brace themselves for the mounting preshow tension and chaos that culminates in the fashion show.

In terms of general trends, rather than developing specific themes, many designers have focused on new or contrasting silhouettes, cut and sewn from a swatch book of beefy tweeds, flannels, tartan silk crepes, velvets, frothy floral silks, jersey and a bounty of knits. Metallic sheens, hand embroideries, appliquéd flowers, fur flourishes, sequins, beads and rhinestones add pizzazz to the simplest sweater or coat. Deep winter hues — russet, browns, ochre, fog, smoke gray and black comprise the color wheel, enlivened by frosted pastels, jewel tones and neon brights.

“It’s fundamental to pay attention to craftsmanship in the signature line because clothes today are expensive. The strong euro penalizes the U.S market and consumers want value for their money,” noted Moschino’s creative director, Rossella Jardini.

This story first appeared in the February 17, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Alberta Ferretti believes mass-market fashion — think H&M and Zara — has induced many women to seek a precise and elegant fashion style with added value. 

Tired of raw edges, Alessandro Dell’Acqua is experimenting with sewing techniques that are as invisible as they are special, like hand-embroidered hems. “This element will affect the final price, but consumers don’t mind because they know it’ll make the difference,” Dell’Acqua said.

The newest angle at Versace is a play of volumes: soft and ample at the top and fitted at the bottom or vice versa. In the luminous factory, where 140 seamstresses are assembling garments prepared by 20 pattern cutters, Versace runs her hand across a fitted black jacket with a shawl collar, paired with a frisky chiffon miniskirt. “The collar adds volume, but it’s balanced by the narrow bodice and the sleeves,” she explained.

Also new are ski-derived snug jackets in techno fabrics, more urban chic than ski bunny, thanks to fur linings and trims. Colors include chocolate brown, black, sage green and gray, with shots of turquoise, red, fuchsia and acid green. Wicked high-heeled boots complete most of the looks.

Down in his spacious Florentine headquarters, Roberto Cavalli is coddling his steamy goddesses with more daywear than in the past and the full red-carpet treatment with elaborate, sexy constructions, over-the-top decorations and lots of metallic fabric. “I wanted to increase the daywear segment with new proportions and volumes on the sleeves, necklines and waist and, at the same time, focus on the Oscars,” said Cavalli.

The salt-and-pepper-haired designer is also finishing a small group of what he calls “petites robes,” or small dresses that favor artsy cuts over fussiness.

Rossella Tarabini, the designer at Anna Molinari, worked on shapes that look as if they’re suspended, as well as on versatile clothes, the kind that help mothers keep their children tidy. Representing the first idea is a capelet over a skin colored fitted top and a tutu shaped skirt, while the second is represented by a raincoat with a detachable bolero, blouses that fasten to trousers and a robe manteaux with detachable sleeves.

Dean and Dan Caten, the twins behind DSquared, took a shorter walk on the wild side this time by sending their naughty sex divas to mass. “The idea is church lady. Think gospel and hallelujah meets biker chick,” said Dan Caten.

Translated, that means dapper coats with mink collars, peekaboo silk crepes, pleated skirts, leather jackets, crocodile fedoras and fun denim pieces.

Dell’Acqua, meanwhile, went back to his trashy bimbette roots. He fused three elements for fall — erotic, rock and the Sixties — styling it all à la Kate Moss. “The idea is that of a woman with a split personality, a bit good, a bit bad,” he said. “I was a little tired of all the prettiness and glamour of past seasons, when everything was too perfect.” 

For the runway show, Dell’Acqua said he wanted to express his fashion message freely and coherently. Lengths vary from supershort to knee-length. Dell’Acqua said he will show flat boots for the first time. “For me, it’s a revolution because I love high heels, but in some cases you get a whole new silhouette with flats.”

Triple and prewashed crepes are lopped into fitted coats and jackets, balanced by silk jerseys and chiffons and touches of sheared mink here and there.

Ferretti also focused on tailored pieces, primarily feminine coats and jackets cut close to the body. “It was extremely stimulating for me to work on this collection, which explores new grounds in terms of textures and fabric combinations. It was the easiest as far as editing for the runway,” said the petite blonde designer.

She pairs thick flannels and wool ottoman with printed silk chiffon, often crafted into reversible coats and blazers that go from day to evening. “A woman can simply turn the coat around if she doesn’t have time to change,” Ferretti said. 

Molinari took her cue from Northern Europe, working her way from England and Scotland to Denmark and Norway. She took the countries’ classic themes and reworked them her way: Fair Isle cardigans are reduced to tiny sizes, unbuttoned and embroidered with colored pailettes; tartan is used for split minis or as ribbons on round-toe hot pink boots, while riding breeches are tucked into high-heel boots.

Molinari, who unabashedly raves about her knitwear, delivered a plethora of cashmere, cashmere-silk blends and a butter soft Shetland, jazzed up with appliquéd hand-crocheted roses, Swarovski crystals and broderie anglais insets. Two prefall styles, a fur-collared wool twinset with the letter B embroidered all over in baby rhinestones and a similar version with perforated motifs, sold out in rose, turquoise, ivory and mauve. “With the orders we received thus far, we have finished our stock of yarn, which means we can’t produce anymore,” said Molinari. 

Sitting front and center in Moschino’s fitting room, housed in a gray stone Milanese palazzo with a red lacquer front door, Jardini scrutinizes a model as she struts back and forth wearing the newest style: velvet clam diggers, a spliced silk dress and a perfectly tailored belted coat with patch pockets. Two assistants hover with tape measures and pin cushions.

“Fabrics are always my starting point because they give me the idea of what to make out of them,” said Jardini, referring to the new heavy wool and silk blends, beefy Scottish plaids, silks printed with Tiffany lamp-like motifs and burnished copper metallics.

While there’s a military undercurrent, it’s always feminine and romantic. As for the humor, there will be sweaters with tea bags and sugar cubes and cigarettes to poke fun at Italy’s new law that prohibits smoking in public places.

Clad in jeans, a bottle green cashmere V-neck and a multicolored glass bead necklace, Veronica Etro is in a lull in her white-walled, sky light studio. She’s waiting for the first outfits to arrive from the factories to begin those long fitting sessions that drag into the wee hours. Holding up a round-toe striped taffeta boot with crimson suede details and a paisley velvet pump with yellow Swarovski crystals, Etro described the mood of the collection.

“It’s all about a tidy mix of influences, from Oriental flourishes to art, futurism and Cubism,” said Etro. Shapes and silhouettes are more controlled and structured compared with last summer’s carnival of colors and flare-and-flounce shapes. Fabrics are a potpourri of florals, three-dimensional looking jacquards, patchworks of velvet, gold and bronze accents and flannels.