MILAN, Feb. 26 -- Two days before the Dolce & Gabbana show on Friday afternoon, the designer Stefano Gabbana sat in his showroom fielding questions from a handful of journalists and giving them a brief preview of his collection. He calmly offered musings about black and navy; he spread an array of high-heeled pumps across the floor; and he showed off a brown tweed jacket embellished with taupe and beige chiffon flowers that was still unfinished. Then the conversation turned toward the general state of fashion, and someone wondered aloud whether the industry was shifting into a period of minimalism. Gabbana, who with his business partner Domenico Dolce, is known for generous servings of sequins and rhinestones, gasped and raised his hands in protest.
"No to minimalism!" he declared. It is not a concept in which Dolce & Gabbana believes. But it is the strongest current this season as the fashion industry moves away from cheerful embellishments and searches for a way to express a darker and more serious tone. The impact of minimalism has posed a problem for designers who have built their reputations by offering customers overt sexuality and porcelain doll prettiness. No designer should change his core aesthetic in order to keep up with the ebb and flow of trends. But they all must evolve to maintain their relevance. Designers such as Donatella Versace and Roberto Cavalli have found it difficult to accommodate this new sensibility. With their flamboyance, they define sex appeal in a single, shallow way. Tighter! More cleavage! More leg! When one arrived at Dolce & Gabbana to find a long, mirrored catwalk, one worried that sex appeal would be played out in a single, throbbing note. Sex, of course, is a complicated thing.
From left: Jil Sander, Dsquared, Pringle of Scotland, Versace and Tisci all offered their versions of "molto sexy" for fall. Jil Sander's lovely clothes lacked passion. Versace's less ornate pieces outshone the more adorned. Dsquared, Pringle and Tisci enticed in different ways.
(Photos Maria Valentino For The Washington Post)
_____From Robin Givhan_____
Milan Puts On The Dog. Woof. (The Washington Post, Feb 25, 2005)
After the Joys of Summer Are Gone (The Washington Post, Feb 18, 2005)
J.Lo Beneath The Bling (The Washington Post, Feb 13, 2005)
The Late, the Great, And the Plumb Wonderful (The Washington Post, Feb 10, 2005)
Designers in Short Pants (The Washington Post, Feb 8, 2005)
And the designers revealed an admirable skill for maintaining their own distinct sensibility while continuing to breathe in the invigorating air around them. They did not retreat into a vacuum, turn inward or become paralyzed. They offered a blissfully luxurious and indulgent collection that speaks to a more reserved aesthetic, a darker tone and a less flamboyant sense of style. But it is as sexy as ever.
The actress Chloe Sevigny opened their show with her blond hair teased at the crown and cascading into a silky mane. She wore a dark coat with fur trim that was cinched at the waist and a pair of high, chunky pumps that exaggerated the curve of her lower back. Sevigny has become better known as a stylish young woman about town than as the actress who delivered a laudable performance in "Boys Don't Cry." She regularly displays an old-fashioned sense of aesthetics, with a sharp eye for vintage clothes and an ability to take a dangerously frumpy silhouette and imbue it with wit and sophistication. As she walked along the runway shooting coy glances at the audience, she called to mind the 1960s. That decade of clean lines and simple shapes inspired the collection, but it never looked mired in the past.
The rest of the collection tumbled out in a whirlwind of astrakhan mini-dresses with long, flowing georgette sleeves. A glen plaid pleated skirt is trimmed in beige fur and adorned with a single tortoiseshell button the size of a saucer. A mini-kilt in astrakhan and satin is embellished with a low-slung gold belt glittering with colorful stones. There are maxi-skirts that skim the ankle but that are slit along the side to show just the right amount of leg.
Anything, it seems, can be stitched up out of fur and the two designers used astrakhan and broadtail to create everything from long, fluid skirts to a cardigan jacket that swings jauntily around the shoulders. There is not a lot of fussy jeweling, no prints and only a few pairs of jeans that have been cropped above the ankles. The designers also found a good deal of inspiration in Russian style -- topping many of their ensembles with tall, Russian fur hats.
But what made the collection so energizing was its undeniable allegiance to the Dolce & Gabbana aesthetic, while also emphasizing the depth of it. The designers' notion of glamour and sex appeal is more complex than their signature corsets, bras and leopard prints would suggest. It has become almost a cliché that when discussing the look of a collection, Gabbana will describe the clothes as "molto sexy." With this collection, the designers have proved that those two words can be parsed into a full conversation about the ways in which a woman can be sexy that have nothing to do with tight skirts and low-cut dresses.
At the Versace show on Thursday night, there was little to parse, dissect or digest. There was a hollowness to the Versace presentation, a sense that this was little more than an exercise in rote repetition. Versace emphasized her daytime pieces, but they mostly consisted of a simple uniform: a pair of tight trousers or an equally seam-straining skirt worn with a waist-hugging blazer. For fall, the blazers have an oversize portrait collar, which makes them dramatic but not necessarily more enticing. The great strength of the collection is the outerwear. (In general, Fall 2005 will be a fine time to purchase an overcoat as houses from Versace to Max Mara to Fendi have offered exquisite ones with details ranging from hand-stitching to decadently dyed astrakhan.) In her program notes, Versace emphasizes a particularly indulgent coat that reverses from sable to mink, with a bit of crocodile trim thrown in just to be ridiculous. The better coat is one that is far simpler: one that is winter white with a graceful collar and perfectly calibrated hardware details.
The evening gowns looked hastily designed and put on the models even more quickly, as one poor young woman was forced to circle the runway holding up her dress in tightly clenched fists. No one had managed to get its halter top hooked. The evening gowns, with all of their sequins and dripping crystals, looked less suited for the red carpet and more appropriate for the winner's circle at a figure skating championship. In contrast, the less ornate cocktail dresses, with their tight pleats and bound waists, displayed an elegance that the more elaborate gowns lacked.
The model Elizabeth Hurley was in the audience, and she set off the expected frenzy of camera flashes. It seemed appropriate that she should be there, this woman who became famous for little more than wearing the right Versace dress, one seemingly held together by nothing more than safety pins, to the right event -- the London premiere of "Four Weddings and a Funeral." Can sex appeal truly be that flimsy? Doesn't it rely on some inner confidence, some innate ability to wordlessly connect to a crowd, some internal something that shines through?
When in Milan, it is always a fine time to question the ways in which sex appeal is defined. The design houses here probably spend more time thinking about sexuality than the whole of the Kinsey Institute. Sex and power. Quiet sexuality. Molto sexy. Sexuality expressed in just the right measure is a delicate calibration.
The designer Anna Molinari of Blumarine expresses it in shrunken cardigans with feminine embroidery that button just under the cleavage. Cavalli emphasizes the contradiction between masculine and feminine with simple mannish trousers and an elaborate, fluffy blouson of fur. Miuccia Prada, in her Miu Miu collection, plays on the innocence of youth, the Lolita aspect of sexuality, with a collection of vintage-inspired brocade mini-dresses and paisley coats. At Moschino, sex appeal is encapsulated in the quintessential little black dress.
Pringle of Scotland
It seems almost silly to say that Pringle of Scotland, a 190-year-old brand, looked particularly fresh and enticing, but it did. It even looked a little sexy in a "Is there a La Perla lace bra under that vicuna twin set?" way. Pringle is prim and conservative and defined by crisply pleated skirts, argyle trench coats, close-fitting cashmere sweaters and serious trousers with a mannish character. Set in an old theater that had been transformed into a forest of bare, lithesome trees, the presentation -- designed by Stuart Stockdale -- celebrated a kind of sturdy womanliness that so often is dismissed as reliable rather than enticing. Stockdale gives it a little sizzle with coy tulle overlays on skirts and fluted hemlines. (At Jil Sander, which recently lost its signature designer, the team-created collection hides sexual references behind spare woolen skirts in navy and charcoal gray adorned with floral appliques in a matching tone. A navy shift dress has its high waist defined by a matching belt. A white sequin jacket is dramatic, but not sizzling. Technically, these are lovely clothes, but the absence of any sex appeal is breathtaking.)
The designers Dan and Dean Caten, with their Dsquared collection, entered the dangerous territory where the physical and the mental converge: sex and religion. Guests were summoned to their show, which unofficially closed the runway shows here Saturday evening, with a stark white invitation that offered a single clue to its theme: a tiny cross was carved out of the center of the glossy paperboard. The backdrop was the inside of a church, the sort of small urban church that might have been created out of a defunct corner store. The show opened with a model lip-synching a gospel tune and then heading down the runway in a V-neck sundress that slipped off her shoulder in an R-rated manner that would have had the ladies in the front pews swooning in shock.
The collection was filled with more commercially viable clothes than ever, instead of the usual array of provocative costumes intended to draw attention but not many buyers. For fall there are cropped cargo pants, pretty pleated skirts, V-neck jersey dresses, micro-jackets and chunky sweaters with phrases such as "Jesus Loves Me." There are glass evening purses in the shape of incense burners, metallic chain belts that call to mind the kind of dramatic religious bindings described in "The Da Vinci Code," and the sort of logo baseball caps that might be worn by an urban street missionary.
This was not a collection inspired by traditional church clothes, no silk flower hats, garden party dresses or prim skirts. Rather the models looked like the sort of flotsam and naughty jetsam that might be hustled inside a church so that their souls might be saved. Dsquared was still a collection about sex; it celebrated sex. But in its presentation, the designers suggested that there is no reason why a keen awareness of the physical should negate an appreciation for the spiritual. They dragged sex into the church pews and left the audience to ask: "What must I do to be saved?" Show up in the pews? Or show up with the right clothes, the right hat, the right walk, the right talk? Is there a problem with a church lady dressed in a white skirt, coral turtleneck and a purple fedora cocked to the side?
On Friday night, the 30-year-old designer Riccardo Tisci lured a crowd to a chilly old warehouse aglow with candles and heavy with the scent of religious incense. Inside a vast, open room several wooden tables stood ready for some mysterious ritual and a pile of leaves waited to be disturbed. There was a wooly-haired man, his lean musculature illuminated by a single spotlight, alternately gyrating and crouching atop one table. A long-haired woman, her platinum Rapunzel locks draped over her shoulders, was dressed in a flowing white gown and sitting, unmoving, in a chair perched on yet another table. At the far end of the space, a large wooden cross sat atop a platform and "Ave Maria" echoed around the room.
The models meandered around the space in the slow, distracted manner of the lost, the shell-shocked and the stoned. They rolled in the leaves, rang an old bell left on one of the tables and ultimately made their way to the platform where they posed in front of the cross in a manner that resembled a high fashion crucifixion.
One model was dressed in a floor-length black velvet coat under which one could detect a black chiffon gown of indeterminate shape. She was followed by another slow-moving model in a slim, floor-length black skirt worn with a short black jacket that swung loosely around the shoulders. A black overcoat with sharp tailoring was draped over a long black dress that dripped in fringe. The shoulders on a mauve astrakhan blazer rose up in an exaggerated manner like two tiny mole hills. And a white coat hung like some primitive pelt over a pair of narrow white trousers.
This was only the second collection for Tisci, who was born in Italy and studied at London's Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, which is known for producing designers such as John Galliano and Hussein Chalayan, who believe in fashion as high concept. Tisci's collection showed off his commendable technique but in his enthusiasm to present a collection in an artful and intellectual way, it would be fair to say that he went a bit overboard with doom and gloom, rapture and ecstasy. Not to mention, there's something a bit creepy about a model lolling about on a cross as if she was swinging from the playground monkey bars.
But one is willing to forgive Tisci his pretentious indiscretions. It was a relief to take a break from the usual scene of long-legged models barreling down a runway with a revealing, wisp of a frock trailing behind them like a comet's tail. Even sex -- when it is banal, redundant, uninspired -- can get boring.