A Modish Proposal

In Milan, collections show designs for women with very diverse lives.
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 25, 2008

MILAN, Sept. 24

Fashion designers thrive on a relentless quest to be modern. The word is never clearly defined within the industry beyond the fundamental idea that clothes should connect with the daily lives of the women who wear them. That simple goal, however, can be a complicated, and at times perilous, pursuit.

Modern fashion should be a reflection of the times. It should be inclusive, reflecting the diversity of the population. It should also be respectful, treating women with dignity and recognizing their intelligence and their busy schedules. It should not insult them with hobbling skirts and debilitating shoes.

And price matters, too. We are far from the gilded age of the 1980s and the tech boom of the '90s. Modern would seem to mean understated or, at minimum, value-oriented. A design house must be serious about its goods, otherwise a woman can do just fine buying her cashmere sweaters at J.Crew, where $200, give or take, still isn't exactly cheap.

But creating a modern collection ultimately begins with whether the clothes make sense in a woman's life. That doesn't mean that designers have to create collections filled with banal blazers and sensible shoes. Women have wildly diverse lives, and there is a place for a pastel, one-shouldered evening gown, such as those created by designer Giorgio Armani, just as there is a need for the soft blazers and well-tailored trousers that floated down his runway Monday afternoon.

There is a place for fringe in a woman's life. It could be on one of the girlish dresses from Alberta Ferretti. Flapper fringe provided a welcome relief from what had become a steady diet of acutely sweet ruffles. A woman who enjoys an intellectual exercise would probably prefer one of the artfully cut dresses and scooped-out blazers from Jil Sander that shiver with fringe each time a woman moves. Designer Raf Simons played with notions of control and freedom and reached from the West to Africa in search of inspiration.

A woman whose BlackBerry overflows with social engagements will find the extravagantly glamorous collection from the new designers at Gianfranco Ferré -- Tommaso Aquilano and Roberto Rimondi -- to be utterly practical. She will have ample use for their architectural cuts that keep flourishes to a minimum yet never hesitate in their use of a bold ruffle that flows along the hem of a jacket or the bodice of a dress.

Another kind of woman, perhaps a globe-trotting romantic, will fall in love with the collection those designers created under their own name, the newly christened Aquilano e Rimondi. (It was formerly called 6267.) She will be mesmerized by their satiny dresses in spice colors that slither up the body and fall open in the back. She will be struck by the lush T-shirts that are thick with antiqued gold sequins.

Purposeful does not have to be boring. The collection from Marni on Wednesday morning was a cacophony of rousing prints, color-blocked and double-layer sweaters, printed mesh dresses and wonderfully cuckoo platform shoes that looked like marzipan confections. And the collection designed by Burberry's Christopher Bailey was rich in brocades and filled with permutations of trench coats, including one that was so light and frilly it practically floated on air. Bailey captured the kind of watercolor blur of a hazy spring day that can be simultaneously beautiful and melancholy.

Earlier in the week, designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana gave a woman who likes humor in her clothing a good chuckle. Their D&G collection mixed nautical elements such as navy-striped shirts, faux bathing caps and sailor pants with cheeky winks to Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel and her signature camellia brooches and boxy tweed jackets. It was a bit like watching the recent -- and disastrous -- Lifetime biopic about Chanel come to life with better costumes, more laughs and without the preposterously ill-cast Shirley MacLaine, who managed to make the famous French designer sound like Bea Arthur.

There was one spectacular scene in that movie, however. When the designer presents a truly awful collection, the guests walk out in a huff while models are still twirling. This scene came to mind halfway through the Roberto Cavalli show Wednesday afternoon, during which he sent out a mad mix of French maids and courtesans, Halston-inspired disco girls, techno chicks and at least one model in a green sequined mini-dress who seemed to have wandered in from Planet Crazy. My, my, how good those exit doors began to look.

Modern clothes should not leave an audience baffled. They should provide answers, offer solutions, induce a sigh of pleasure. But the goals of modern style can't be achieved by the clothes alone. Modern style means understanding the way in which the world is changing, seeing it as a global community and adapting one's vision to take that into account. A modern designer doesn't wall himself or herself behind a phalanx of publicists, assistants and yes-people who validate a misguided vision.

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