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Gucci, Not Giddy

With Tom Ford Gone, Design House Once Again Is About the Clothes

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 1, 2004; Page C01

MILAN, Sept. 30

The days have been sunny and bright here, what with designer Tom Ford no longer casting his long, brooding shadow over the fashion industry. With his departure from Gucci last season, it is as though one can see all the clothes on the runway clearly again. They are not overwhelmed by his smooth talk, penchant for high drama and a visceral evocation of sex appeal that comes from the groin and not the brain.

Ford brewed an astonishing spell on the runway with his sexual innuendo and a philosophy of glitz that gave an uptown woman permission to splurge on serpent-encrusted handbags, beaded jeans with the giddy flash of a showgirl and designer condom cases.

Alessandra Facchinetti debuted Gucci's spring collection in Milan. The clothes were brash, sexy and luxurious - for the kind of woman who describes herself as ferocious. (Maria Valentino - For The Washington Post)

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But Gucci's ready-to-wear collection for women now belongs to Alessandra Facchinetti, who spent four years working with Ford. In his final collection earlier this year, Ford gave Facchinetti the ultimate gift. Instead of setting out in a new direction, he offered a retrospective, allowing Facchinetti to choose her own path. She debuted her spring collection Thursday night with a collection that was recognizably Gucci.

It was sexy. It was luxurious. There were sharply cut crocodile jackets for the kind of woman who describes herself as ferocious. Low-cut jersey blouses revealed the tip of a golden brassiere -- or occasionally and accidentally what the FCC might deem $1 million worth of naked breast. The skirts -- inspired by saris -- wrapped around the derriere in luscious folds.

But in too many instances the collection was overly complicated. Her organza cocktail dresses, for example, were stretched and twisted from the weight of bulky gewgaws. Other dresses were elaborately draped and tucked in the front, and then, like a gym rat who exercises only the muscles she can see, Facchinetti left the backs so wan and spare that the garments looked unbalanced and unfinished. Too many garments, with their draping, fringe, wide belts, heavy embellishments and trailing hems, seemed to shout: "I am worthy!"

Facchinetti didn't need to yell. Her skill is clear. She understands how to create sexual energy with a yard of silk, a few meters of nylon and fine crocodile skin. Her cocoa-colored trousers fit close to the body but leave room to breathe. Her jackets have just the right hint of daunting cool. And the clothes -- and the company's bottom line -- were well served by the velvet and crocodile handbags and the towering gold Mary Janes created by accessories designer Alfreda Giannini.

Most notably, Facchinetti knows the difference between sex appeal and vulgarity -- a line that Ford often willfully crossed. It was disappointing to see Ford's tenure come to an abrupt end last season, but in hindsight, perhaps it was for the best. He had gone from charming to naughty to appalling. (See the Gucci advertisement depicting a G shaved into a model's pubic thatch.) The only things left to incorporate in his increasingly provocative advertisements were the embarrassing sexual escapades that leak out of sealed divorce documents or that turn up on the Smoking Gun.

Besides, in the harsh, sobering light of day, one realizes that in the past few seasons the fashion industry's great love affair with Gucci was driven more by the wicked charm of its designer than by his collections. In the beginning, Ford's work for Gucci was splendid and he created an impressive list of signature looks for the house: the mod mini djellabas, the velvet pantsuits, the white jersey dresses with the keyhole cutouts and those dazzling jeans. The ideas trickled down to less expensive labels, and Gucci, as an aesthetic force, was unassailable.

All along, the business principles were impressive and instructive. But in later years, Gucci continued to thrive because of smart money management, organization and marketing. The product was good, but was it as terrific as it seemed during runway season, when it was accented with spotlights, rose petals, bear rugs and the mellifluous wooing of Ford himself? In this morning-after moment, does one want to linger over the memories with an illicit cigarette, or creep out of the room with a cotton head, dry mouth and tattered good judgment dragging along behind?

Ford got the fashion industry drunk and had his way with it. Everyone had a good romp, but it's time for sobriety. And it turns out that can be just as sweet.


In the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, one of the more architecturally grand shopping areas in a city overwhelmed by exquisite temples to designer labels, the original Prada store -- the one whose sign still refers to the brand as an old-fashioned leather business -- sits just across a stone walkway from a new Gucci accessories boutique.

For more than a year, designer Miuccia Prada has created collections that stir irrational longings in a broad swath of fashion consumers. If one starts counting the number of photo print skirts from the fall 2004 collection swishing around the slim-hipped women here, one could easily reach double digits within a few blocks. There are Prada sweaters ringed with jeweled appliques, tie-dyed cardigans cinched with silk and crystal brooches, gilded ribbed knits and any number of whimsical Prada charms hanging from expensive handbags -- some of them Prada and some of them bearing the labels Hermes and even Gucci. Prada is Italy's most forceful and influential voice in determining the shapes, colors and embellishments defining fashion at this moment.

The collection that Prada unveiled Wednesday night blended Caribbean colors and shapes with the artificiality of technology. The colors were saturated and the patterns bold and graphic. Quivering stripes of red and orange flickered across the bodice of a sweater. Orange and purple stripes on a box-pleated skirt wrapped around the hips. There were references to the starched jackets and polo shirts that might be found in a strict British colonial boarding school. And there were pressed pleated dresses with fronts of peacock feathers that alluded to a free-spirited life on an island. Asymmetrical dresses were weighted -- sometimes overwhelmed -- with crystal flowers and stars. Knits came in the saturated hues of digital photography, in which a pale blue sky is manipulated into azure. And there were bucket hats festooned with giant colored gems or covered with bright feathers.

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