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Robin Givhan on Fashion: May Be Time for Designers to Rethink Runway to Reality

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By Robin Givhan
Sunday, September 27, 2009

MILAN

It used to be that when editors, retailers, stylists and various others arrived in this Italian mecca of designer finery for the seasonal fashion shows, evidence of their having landed would be obvious in every store. Arriving on the afternoon before the shows began was always bad luck: A Prada boutique would be practically heaving with exhaustion -- fully ravaged by early birds pecking off the merchandise with their American Express cards.

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The global economic crisis, of course, has changed all that. Now, even folks who can still afford to spend in the grand manner of Russian oligarchs have toned down their shopping. Fashion-show regulars remain consumers of high-priced goods; they simply are not so publicly ravenous in pursuit of them. And indeed, the Prada empire -- Those handbags! Those frocks! Those glorious studded shoes! -- continues to expand. During the spring 2010 shows here, the company opened yet another store, this one on Corso Venezia, to go along with the handful that already dot the most prestigious shopping streets in town.

But in doing a bit of browsing in stores here -- for research purposes only -- it's clear that at least one thing has not changed: The gap between what is so often shown on the runway and what is actually for sale. The gap has narrowed but not closed.

To be fair, the Italians aren't the worst offenders. When it comes to realism, their shows have more in common with those in New York than with their Parisian counterparts. The designers in Milan mostly rely on the models and the backdrop to create exaggerated drama. This, after all, is the city where Gianni Versace practically invented the "supermodel." The designers who present their work here are generally loath to put outlandish and distressing notions on the runway just to make a statement. They like their clothes glamorous and sexy or luxurious and tailored. More than anything else, designers want women to wear the silk and satin fruits of their labors.

But designers such as Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, Dan and Dean Caten, and Fendi's Karl Lagerfeld regularly stretch the limits of what might be viewed as realistic. Yet no one here pushes harder than Miuccia Prada. Her runway is a place full of unexpected thrills and adventures -- as well as the occasional pratfall. That sense of daring is what makes her shows so compelling. But while many of the most unsettling pieces from her presentations do make their way into her shops, a Prada store is not the fashion circus one might imagine it to be from the runway images.

And if there is anything in the shop that's distressing, the sales force will quickly quell any concerns. Consider a heavy woolen dress with a bubble skirt and cap sleeves stuffed with linebacker shoulder pads. The fabric of the dress is woven to create the illusion of matte sequins, but it's really just the way the light glints off the black and gray tweed. It's a sophisticated trick of the eye. The shoulders, however, are pure Linda Evans-1980s-look-at-me-I'm-so-trendy.

A saleswoman offers immediate reassurance that the shoulder pads can be removed. She can do it herself. Or she can call a tailor who can remove the shoulder pads just-like-that. Snap! Don't worry; the dress does not have to be trendy. It can be subdued and elegant, which really seems like what the dress was meant to be all along.

When a shopkeeper regularly offers to do away with all remnants of catwalk attitude in a particularly dramatic frock in order to make the customer happy, you're left wondering why that divide between runway and reality exists at all. Were the hyperbolic shoulders just dutiful? Were they a way for the designer to save face? Or were they just hollow showmanship?

Sales staffs in designer boutiques make these sorts of adjustments and compromises all the time in order to move merchandise. These are negotiations that designers -- at least most of them -- allow and encourage. They have their vision but they also have their customers to worry about.

Some shoppers might be surprised to hear that. Often, consumers look at the images from runway shows and find themselves at best entertained and at worst insulted. They know they would never wear such extreme clothes and they don't know anyone who would. Indeed, only in the most rarefied fashion circles, in the world's fashion capitals, on extraordinary occasions, would anyone ever wear some of these clothes. Fashion parties were created as outlets for wearing the most outrageous ensembles, it seems.

Designers need to stretch themselves. They need to road-test new ideas. And they do that on the runway. But recently, particularly in New York, they have begun asking themselves whether the runway remains a suitable place for unwearable or untenable clothes now that the audience for fashion shows has expanded so widely. It's no longer just fashion insiders all speaking the same arcane language watching as a young woman teeters down a catwalk. Now, wealthy women in the District or in Potomac or in McLean are looking at a Dolce & Gabbana slide show on the Web and considering what they might want to order. Perhaps it's time to rethink what the runway means? Perhaps it needs to be either clearly commercial or purely fantasy and not a complicated mishmash of the two?

There are times when women look at runway images and turn away convinced that designers hate them or are out to make a mockery of their busy, complicated lives. And frankly, some designers probably do have a deeply ambivalent relationship toward women that is evidenced under the spotlights. But the truth is that if you walk into a designer's own shop, particularly in Europe where working the sales floor is a career rather than a sideline until the big acting break or the B-school acceptance letter arrives, you would find that most designers are willing to sublimate their desires for the customers.

They will not wholly rework a design, of course, but hemlines are dropped, linings added, necklines raised, support installed . . . and shoulder pads ripped out. A logical person might ask why the Joan Crawford shoulder pads were installed in the first place. But fashion isn't logic; it's emotion. Fashion survives by catering to the woman who wants all that drama removed. But it thrives because of the rare woman who buys her dresses: "As is."


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