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Spring Flings You'll Regret The Season After

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 3, 2004; Page D01

MILAN, Oct. 2 -- Fashion is afflicted with a touch of sexual dysfunction. On the runways here sexuality, sex appeal and sexiness have been predictable, routine and simplistic.

In the final days of the spring 2005 shows, most of this city's sex peddlers misfired with too much attitude and not enough finesse. Only Versace had enough restraint to titillate with little more than a few yards of pale rose silk. But it was designers Jil Sander and Miuccia Prada -- brokers of charm, eccentricity, power and individuality -- who offered the more inspiring collections.

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Sander's presentation Friday night was one of the best of the season. It was filled with sophisticated day dresses whose graceful tucks and gathers undulated around the torso. An olive shirt dress had an oversize, ruffled placket that snaked down the front of the bodice and dipped just slightly below the waist. And there were white shirts gently splashed with gray, and white walking shorts smudged with indigo.

The beauty of the collection was in its calm, unforced style. It was almost willfully spare, refusing to succumb to all the sparkle and the bold hits of color that are dominating fashion. But the clothes were never dull in that please-don't-corner-me-at-a-cocktail-party intellectual way. Instead, it was a collection that spoke of a designer's confidence in standing apart from the fashion pack and of her belief that her customers would stand with her.

There was nothing calm about Prada's Miu Miu collection. It was a riot of color and pattern. Mirrored paillettes or chunky green and red stones studded silk Shantung dresses and jackets. There were walking shorts in a 1950s-style wallpaper print, in mixes of blue and black as well as brown and chartreuse. Those same patterns were enlarged and manipulated in belts, blouse insets and pins.

Many of the aggressive patterns and startling color combinations were reminiscent of Prada's work from the late 1990s when she was intrigued by purposefully jolting patterns and intentionally incongruous color combinations. Perhaps Prada has changed the way in which those aesthetics are perceived because there was little unappealing about the combinations on the runway Saturday evening.

Donatella Versace didn't say anything new about women, power and sexuality in her presentation Saturday night, but she did reveal something about herself: the capacity for restraint, control and subtlety.

After spending six weeks in Arizona this summer undergoing treatment for substance abuse, Versace returned to the design helm of the family business. The spring collection is one free from excessive hardware -- although there are still signature chains and Medusa heads to let everyone know what name is on the label. There are simple halter dresses in sensual silk jersey. Blouses and dresses with prints of sea coral and underwater creatures are paired with tailored pencil skirts that sit low on the hips. There are sleeveless camp shirts in silk jersey topping bronze snakeskin skirts. And the eveningwear -- in cocoa, butter and taupe -- winds around the body with soft ruching and graceful draping. When there is beading or other embellishment, it is done with a light hand. It is sprinkled on rather than poured. The collection exudes steady confidence rather than agitated self-consciousness.

Designer Roberto Cavalli has always been an unabashed admirer of women. He loves to caress their curves, cup the derriere just so and turn a contented gaze toward the decolletage. He is a reliable partner with a steady hand and a desire to please, but without much new up his sleeve.

Cavalli's collection for spring was inspired by his vision of a resort-hopping woman with no worries about staying within a budget. She wears filmy caftans printed with lemons or translucent dresses with patterns of sea coral. His gypsy skirts are cut away to reveal as much leg as possible, and his evening gowns reveal the waistline through cutouts rimmed in gold.

In Cavalli's mix of safari hats and gypsy skirts, strong colors and embellishments collide in a way that amuses the eye but fails to ignite the emotions. The magic of a truly sexy evening gown lies mostly in the woman who wears it. But there is a small frisson of sexual energy that can be conveyed through clothes alone. It is not based on how low the neckline is cut, how high a side slit rises, or the degree to which a waistline is cinched or accentuated. Weaving sex appeal out of silk is not an easy task. Cavalli created a collection filled with raucousness, decadence and good fun. Sex appeal eluded him. In its place was simply a generous display of skin.

Is it too demanding to ask for something more complex? Something that drives home the point that sex appeal can be more interesting than a lot of naked flesh? Just after Cavalli's presentation ended Saturday afternoon, as guests milled about, it was hard not to notice one guest in particular. Let's begin at the feet. They were perched atop four-inch heels. Her dress was made of black jersey. It was not particularly short but it appeared to be only partially finished, as it covered only one breast. The other was displayed, rather dramatically, in a black lace bra. It was a perfectly shaped breast. One can say this confidently, thanks to the expertise acquired from copious viewing of shows such as "Nip/Tuck" and "Extreme Makeover." But isn't there a rule? No in-town displays of breasts before the cocktail hour?

Both on and off the runway here, sex appeal is not getting its due. It has been simplified, reduced to its most banal components. Turned into a caricature.

Twins Dan and Dean Caten are the designers of Dsquared, a collection of low-slung jeans and mini-dresses, which they like to present on the runway with the tawdry exuberance of nightclub impresarios. The show they staged for their spring collection came with the usual array of strutting models, oiled-up cleavage and full frontal bikini views that bordered on gynecological.

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