Runway Romp

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 29, 2007

MILAN, Sept. 28 One of the more modest accomplishments of the fashion industry is its ability to tap into popular culture and say something about contemporary fascinations and concerns. Designers regularly add fodder to the debates about sexuality, power and vanity every time they send a collection down the runway. The simplest clothes -- or even the most uninspired or unattractive ones -- have something to say.

Indeed, the romper masquerading as a suit and the strapless tops with faux sleeves wrapping around the torso that were part of the Max Mara spring 2008 collection say something profoundly distressing about common sense and good taste.

The more impressive feat is when a designer can send out a collection that makes one gasp in pleasure, lean in closer with delighted curiosity or sit up straighter in silent awe. The spring 2008 runway shows ended here today, and three collections managed such rare accomplishments.

The collections from Dolce & Gabbana, Jil Sander and Prada were celebrations of color and sensuality, passion and control, each approached from wildly different points of view. The designers Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce presented their collection Thursday afternoon and before the show began hinted at what was to come when video monitors hanging just above the runway clicked on. One could see paint-covered artists in their studios creating free-form flowers on yards of silk and organza. There were close-ups of brush strokes rapidly transforming the back of a shoe's heel into a tiny still life.

As the videos continued to show the artists at work, the first models walked out in the results of their labor. They wore flared trousers and sheath dresses that looked as though they'd been constructed from the frayed canvas of an abstract expressionist painter. These first pieces were covered in subtle brush strokes of ivory and ecru, using color to create texture and depth.

There is always a rhythm to a Dolce & Gabbana show, a building of excitement through color, ornamentation and silhouette. As the show progressed, the clothes became more boldly painted, more lively and more daring. There was a red-and-gold-brocade cocoon coat with a sheer overlay of black tulle. Short skirts with the sharp knife pleats of a lampshade were dappled with paint. Sophisticated sheaths with elegant seams looked like watercolor paintings. High-heeled oxfords were constructed of brocade or painted in riotous colors. Patchwork patent-leather frame handbags clashed pleasantly with the bold strokes of color in the dresses.

And then, just when one thought the collection was about recklessness and creative volatility, out would come some subtle little dress with barely a whisper of color, or a perfect white T-shirt in the most delicate layers of white tulle. And one couldn't help but think, yes, I'd pay a king's ransom for that because it is exquisite, because it is surprising and because it really does take one's breath away.

When Dolce and Gabbana combine their passion with just the right amount of control, when they combine sex appeal with romance, the result is magnificent.

This wasn't a collection aimed at pushing a dialogue about aesthetics farther along. This was sheer beauty of a sort that when one looked at a model walk out in a voluminous gown with mounds of trailing black tulle under yards of gloriously hand-painted, claret-colored silk, one was not tempted to sniff, "Who would wear that?" It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter in the least. Just looking at a dress like that is pleasure enough.

Jil Sander

Fashion can be like that sometimes. It can make a person want to simply stand back in admiration, happy to know that somewhere out there someone is making such beautiful things. Fashion can also make a person dream about transforming her life into one that can accommodate hand-painted tulle or, in the case of the work that Raf Simons presented at Jil Sander, a life that requires audaciously cropped jackets in safety orange, skinny pants in fuchsia and long stretch tops in the color of Welch's grape juice.

Simons's show, on Tuesday morning was dynamic and stunning. He attacked staid assumptions about proportions, and he transformed color into pure roiling, throbbing energy.

He experimented with color's intensity by using both opaque and translucent fabrics, sometimes draping models in long, sheer tunics in shades of tangerine and cantaloupe. Underneath, they wore strapless tops that mimicked blazers with their sleeves chopped away.

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