Milan Malaise

A swirl of fan pleats adds charm to Giorgio Armani's Emporio Armani collection, whose change of venue made it unusually accessible.
A swirl of fan pleats adds charm to Giorgio Armani's Emporio Armani collection, whose change of venue made it unusually accessible. (Maria Valentino For The Washington Post)
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 29, 2005

MILAN, Sept. 28

Frida Giannini, who showed her first full runway collection for Gucci on Wednesday evening, pronounced the house's iconic hypersexual, predatory woman dead. That image was replaced with one that is less intimidating, more accessible, but as of yet not nearly as distinctive. At other design houses, the penchant for the "molto sexy" frock has simply turned into a cliche.

Giannini was promoted this year from creative director of accessories to the top job of women's ready-to-wear designer. The night before her presentation, she noted that her spring 2006 collection would be more joyful and without such a heavy emphasis on sexual bravado. Giannini's most visible success at Gucci before all this had been her reinterpretation of the "Flora" scarf patterns on a collection of handbags and shoes. That success was particularly significant because the Gucci brand is built on its leather goods.

Still, designing a handbag is a far different endeavor from creating an entire line of clothes. The accessories on the runway, from the bamboo-handled bags with their beaded archival prints to the patent leather Beatle boots with gleaming horse bits, were beautifully conceived, confident, even a bit brazen. The ready-to-wear often lacked the same kinds of distinctive flourishes.

Giannini, 32, said that part of her inspiration came from her grandmother and the way in which she and her friends dressed in the 1940s. She had recently seen pictures from that period and was intrigued by the pleasure that the women seemed to take from their clothes during a time of war. The collection, she cautioned, wasn't nostalgic but it did incorporate the strong shoulders of that period and the eveningwear reflected the more covered-up reserve of the era. Her most distinctive pieces played with the notions of strength and demureness, from a full-length fuchsia gown that rejected any display of cleavage to her rock-and-roll suits with their cigarette pants and pagoda-shoulder jackets.

It was reassuring to see Giannini take on the Gucci brand with a clear, personal vision. And it was either gutsy or foolhardy to promote an image of a tomboy in a motorcycle jacket at a time when fashion has turned resolutely feminine and charming. (The answer will, of course, unfold at the cash register.)

But her short floral dresses with their beaded flowers lacked distinction and seemed more like runway filler. Giannini showed that she's willing to take a risk. But this rather thin collection also made one wonder if she has enough bold ideas -- at least in ready-to-wear -- to keep the monster constantly fed.

Just Cavalli, Prada

The spring 2006 fashion shows began over the weekend and overwhelmingly have left their devoted observers slack-jawed with boredom. With only a few exceptions, Milan no longer surprises the eye, and desperately needs a savior. Miuccia Prada, despite her flights of fancy and her delight in the intellectual surprise, simply is not enough.

Designers have become trapped within their own aesthetic visions, failing to challenge themselves or inspire their audiences.

The question, for example, was not what Roberto Cavalli would do in his Just Cavalli collection. The audience could rest easy and wait for free-flowing expressions of indulgence, luxury and sexuality. One only needed to ask: How heavily will his denim be embellished? How dizzying will his prints be? There are a lot of ways in which to express a sense of Bacchanalian glee; there are many ways to evoke sexual desire. Cavalli, however, does not stray from his well-trod path of glitz and cleavage.

His show Monday afternoon started off in a promising manner with a stage set with 12-foot-tall replicas of tropical drinks. In one corner loomed what looked like a colossal mai tai; in another, a gargantuan piña colada. He sent out a collection of Polynesian-patterned frocks and baby-doll tunics that looked like they'd be fun to wear during the right island vacation; but then he seemed to lose his focus and the next thing one knew the runway was populated by models in mod blazers, as if Peggy Lipton and Clarence Williams III had suddenly landed in Tahiti. None of it made much sense -- not that a fashion show has to be either logical or linear -- but it wasn't compelling enough to support all the chaos. (And it's hard to imagine that any lissome young woman with a platinum-card-carrying boyfriend would be willing to spend even his money on bloomers masquerading as shorts.)

For several seasons, Milan fashion has relied on Prada to be its single most unsettling force, someone whose creative energy would challenge audiences, leaving them stimulated and, at times, confounded. Prada continues to do that, but hers is a daunting responsibility and she sometimes can't be as creatively eloquent as she might like.

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