Fashion

And Purple All Over

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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 26, 2006

MILAN, Feb. 25 The models on the Gucci runway wore purple print dresses that barely skimmed their tiny derrieres. They teetered atop platform pumps that seemed to be cobbled together out of iridescent plastic. Some of the tawdry dresses were cut so low that they looked as if they were stuck on backward with double-sided tape and must surely be in violation of some E.U. decency laws. And when a model strutted out in a floor-length Ziggy Stardust mink coat streaked in purple, black and white, there was nothing left to do but shout "Hallelujah! Lord today!" and bring on the faith healer. Gucci is possessed with a terrible affliction. It is in the throes of a febrile delirium: sweaty, irrational and wholly unappealing.

The models on the Prada runway were cool as ice, winding through a wide open loft, its walls covered in pictures of stone archways and moving images of plants undulating erotically into bloom. The models wore oversize, chunky sweaters cinched tight around the bust with severe black brassieres. Tufts of fur lined the spines of jackets, and jeweled elbow patches sparkled from sturdy parkas. Models carried handbags that resembled leather-covered books. And they walked with the confidence of women who know that they are described by would-be Cupids as having "a great personality" and they have no qualms with that. They know that intellect will outlast a bombshell body.

The mannequins strutted along the Versace catwalk looking rich and sexy and terribly heartless. Thick fur coats striated with patent leather hung nonchalantly off their shoulders. Ankle boots with stiletto heels had taunting purple soles. And legs like deadly weapons were on full display thanks to crystal-studded minidresses that treated immodesty like ammunition.

Designers here have been engaged in their biannual ritual of defining what it means to be a contemporary woman. Strong. Ladylike. Sexual. Intellectual. Miuccia Prada celebrates what is inside the modern woman's head. The Gucci collection, designed by Frida Giannini, aims to address the lusty desires of a far different region of the body. (Definitions of masculinity are essentially static. With each turn of the fashion season, the only questions in menswear seem to be: How much will the peacock be stroked? Will the Everyman's inner Johnny Weir be coaxed into the light? Or will it be a time for caveman instincts to be set loose?) Each season, the definition of femininity is reworked from whole cloth. Instead of seeing a woman as a whole person with many moods, designers prefer to treat her as an assemblage of characters. Fashion demands and allows a woman to reinvent herself.

With a single shift in a silhouette -- the raising of a hemline or the lowering of a neckline -- a woman's reputation is altered. There is power in the subtleties of fashion -- whether the shade of blue is navy or cornflower, or whether the skirt is nipped tight, loose and flouncy, or slit thigh-high. The way that fashion is celebrated and scrutinized here, it becomes more than clothes. It becomes costume, camouflage, armor and weaponry.

Some designers eschew understatement to revel in bold strokes. They are unable to resist elaborate and florid descriptions of the time, the person, the music, the zippity-doo-da, that inspired them. At Gucci, Giannini was entranced by "glam rock" and the idea that during that music's heyday -- the late '70s and early '80s -- people played with their images and personalities in surprising ways. (One of the most famous denizens of the glam rock world was David Bowie. Despite Giannini's urgings, one can't help but to question the wisdom of a woman decking herself out like a cross-dresser from another planet.) The team of Dan and Dean Caten at DSquared paired their saggy-tush jeans with shrunken tweed jackets and riding helmets and called themselves inspired by the landed gentry.

Other designers are more subtle. The luxurious British austerity of a Burberry Prorsum quilted trench coat, for instance, can be just as much of a mask as the nouveau riche splendor of one of Roberto Cavalli's velvet dusters trimmed in fur.

At Max Mara, known for its reliably tasteful coats and nicely fitting trousers, there was a sprinkling of rock star sizzle. (There was also a model of color on the runway at Max Mara. That was one of the rare instances of melanin diversity this season. No one's counting, but how many blondes with ice blue eyes does it take before a show starts looking like a march of the zombie clones?) All too often, the Max Mara runway collection has the look of a nerdy kid trying too hard to run with the cool crowd. This time, however, Max Mara played to its strengths with elegantly cut coats, luxurious knits and just the right amount of spice to make one do a double take. Max Mara sweatshirts topped rugby-striped skirts in sequins. One sweeping overcoat was awash in gold sequins. A pair of leopard-print leggings peeked from beneath the hem of a simple black coat. The skinny trousers of a navy pinstripe suit were tucked haphazardly into a pair of black combat boots. Part of what made Max Mara enticing resulted from simple styling tricks -- pairing a pantsuit with combat boots, for instance, instead of a prim pair of pumps. But much of what drew the eye to the collection was its avoiding any obvious attempts to be trendy, to be provocative. Instead the brand remained true to itself and was the better for it.

Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce create the most extravagant fashion dramas. For fall, their collection was inspired by Napoleon and Josephine. It was a lush expression of Napoleonic jackets, high-waisted dresses and richly embellished fabrics. But at Dolce & Gabbana opulence is approached with humor. None of this is to be taken too seriously. They are not offering a lifestyle, just a moment of pleasure.

The designers use their private theater to great advantage. With its proscenium stage, they are able to use elaborate sets that immediately announce to the audience that the show is all farce. At the presentation of the main collection Thursday afternoon, the stage resembled an enormous music box from which models in gilded dress emerged. Whether they are showing their signature collection or their younger D&G line, which was a delightful collection of ivory knits embellished with crystals and red plaid kilts sprinkled with sequins, there is always evidence of their unabashed delight in fashion as a purely creative experience. For them, a woman can become anything through the artifice of fashion.

The idea of celebrity, the dazzling notion of wealth and Hollywood and pizzazz inspire them. Jennifer Lopez and her husband, Marc Anthony, as well as the actress Jessica Alba, sat along the side of the runway on Thursday, all dressed up in Dolce & Gabbana. They were as much a part of the production as they were onlookers. While other designers seem to present celebrities as loyal clients or intimate friends -- waving to them in the audience or blowing kisses as they take their bows -- Dolce & Gabbana see them as an extension of their design aesthetic. The famous folks are part of the designers' elaborate storyboard. Their spectacle flows off the runway and into the front rows.

The designers shift from one point of inspiration to another, and from one celebrity to another, investing each with their passion and aesthetic vision and then moving swiftly on to something else. They have dabbled with Madonna and Whitney Houston, Chloe Sevigny and Lopez -- and countless others in between. Their fascination with each is no less sincere for the speed in which they move on, but each says something distinct about a certain time, each fulfills a transitory need -- for sexual provocation, for diva indulgence, for eccentric beauty and so on. For the designers, fashion is not about self-definition, it is about self-expression. It is a tool for communicating how one feels at a precise moment.

What to make of Giannini's collection for Gucci? After the departure of Tom Ford, Gucci named three designers to head menswear, womenswear and accessories. Giannini, the accessories designer, is the only one left standing. In January she became the sole creative director for the brand. This is her second women's collection. Her first was a rather thin offering of sweet floral prints, strong shoulders and high necklines. Her second evokes the unpleasant scent of morning-after body odor, stale cigarettes and alcohol rising from sweaty pores.

Her fall collection was all the more frustrating because it was so clear what she was trying, but failing, to convey. She was enamored of the idea of rock-and-roll girls, those women who can gyrate and sweat, drink and smoke all night and in the pre-dawn hours still manage to look more glamorous than ever. The problem with the collection was not the inspiration, not the creative spirit, but rather the execution. It was in not knowing when a neckline was slung an inch too low. Or when an ostentatious mink coat would elicit a snort of derision rather than an amused chuckle. So much of what makes fashion magical, what makes a woman hyperventilate over yet another jersey dress or one more pair of impractical shoes, can be measured in millimeters. Successfully executing the kind of sexed-up collection for which Giannini was aiming requires an exquisite eye for balance and an intuitive sense of where the cultural boundaries of good taste lie. Giannini was both blind and tone-deaf.

Connoisseurs of fashion might look at the Gucci collection and have the eerie feeling that many of the looks call to mind frocks from the Versace scrap heap. Versace was built on walking the fine line between tawdry and tantalizing. That is a difficult balancing trick, and on more than one occasion the Versace brand -- like Giannini -- failed to pull it off. The Versace collection, shown Friday night under the direction of Donatella Versace, didn't even brush the line of indecency. Instead, it recalled the perfectly controlled sex appeal of Gucci back in the days of Tom Ford. Clearly, the fashion world has turned topsy-turvy.

The Versace collection was erotic, powerful and beautifully crafted. The silk jersey dresses with their luxurious hand slithered around the models and hugged their torsos in an elaborate basket weave. Patent leather outlined the crisp silhouettes of mod minidresses. A mouth-watering grape-colored patent leather coat topped a slash of a miniskirt and a snug-fitting turtleneck in a splendid interplay of texture, materials and proportion. Instead of brandishing the Versace logo in obvious ways, the letter V was woven into a sweater or used as a subtle design element in a halter dress. The word "subtlety" used in describing a Versace collection? Could the fashion world be on a collision course with reason?

The shows ended here on Saturday, capping a week in which there were no bracing moments of stunning creativity on the runways. Marni was pretty as usual, and there were intriguing details in the way a sleeve was pleated and tucked before it was set into an armhole. The most memorable pieces from the collection were sweetly crocheted skirts that created a lattice effect around the legs. Burberry is celebrating its 150th anniversary and in its Prorsum collection focused on the umpteen different ways of stitching together a trench coat. Quilted, fur-trimmed, gilded, what have you. Mostly the photographers seemed interested in the resurrection of model Kate Moss, who sat ringside after having emerged from rehab.

Missoni had a particularly enticing collection, pushing aside its abstract woven knits in favor of swing coats in wallpaper flower prints and woodsy suits trimmed in fur. There was enough fur on the runways here to send the folks at PETA into an apoplectic rage. Tomas Maier showed a restrained and sophisticated collection for Bottega Veneta with sculptural dresses that often stood just slightly away from the body. And while there wasn't much here to make a woman feel faint with delight, there was at least enough to make her feel that she has been elegantly and respectfully defined.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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