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Correction to This Article
A photo caption with the Style article about the presentation of the fall 2010 fashion collections in Milan incorrectly attributed two Dolce & Gabbana designs to Bottega Veneta.
In Milan, designers are seeking a new middle ground on power dressing

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 2, 2010; C01

MILAN -- The great strength of the Italian fashion industry is its ability to speak so eloquently and democratically to a woman's many strengths. The designers who presented their fall 2010 collections here focused on intellectual rigor, sexual power and professional strength. They did so without judgment, never suggesting that one was more valuable than the other. Italian fashion, so embraced and idealized by American consumers, is unique in its unabashed belief that those three aspects of a woman's character can easily and naturally coexist.

American designers tend to believe that business attire and sexual provocation should not intermingle. And that fashion's intellectual considerations are best left to a niche market of academics, artistic savants and eccentrics. The Italians are not such fashion separatists. Some designers speak more eloquently and enthusiastically on one or more of these cultural issues, but they are all participants in the same conversation. In other words, sexuality cannot and should not be removed from the workplace. And the best designers are the ones who find -- or at least seek -- new and thoughtful ways in which to allow the full force of a woman's diverse powers to flourish.

No designers put a more complete image of a woman on the runway than Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana. Great painters, dancers and musicians have an undisputed capacity to stir emotions through their work -- to reveal some human truth in a way that requires no common language, no prerequisite information. It's rare that a fashion designer can be that eloquent. Indeed, one hesitates to even say that a fashion show was moving, for fear of evoking images of some high-strung stylist weeping over a pair of well-balanced stilettos. While other forms of cultural expression have managed to retain a bit of soulful purity, fashion, it often seems, has succumbed to the stereotype of crass commercialism, artistic laziness and various forms of wretched excess. But the Dolce & Gabbana presentation on Sunday was emotionally riveting. It scratched down beneath fashion's "fierce" and "shut-it-down" reality-TV veneer, to reveal its humanity, its respect of craft and a deep and abiding love of women.

Dolce & Gabbana

The show began with a single model wearing a perfectly tailored, double-breasted black blazer. A pair of black lace briefs. Heels. That image conveyed power, sex, confidence. The model was not wearing some dominatrix getup. The moment was more mainstream than that. It made one think of Melanie Griffith's knowing remark in "Working Girl": "I've got a head for business and a bod for sin." Of course, the designers weren't suggesting that any woman should walk the streets dressed to provoke. Instead, it was meant to draw the eye to fashion's triumph -- an exquisitely tailored symbol of power -- and to the potency of the female form.

The collection celebrated the essence of the Dolce & Gabbana brand: a unique ability to see women as mighty, sexy and nurturing. Over the years, the designers have explored those characteristics in fanciful and adoring ways as well as dark and even violent ones. This collection included tweed pencil skirts that fell to mid-calf, floral printed jackets in gray flannel, cocktail dresses with corsetry details. The mood was at once nostalgic and contemporary. But the finale made the collection soar. Several dozen models converged on the runway wearing exquisite black blazers and coats, pulled over black lace briefs or filmy slips. In the background, a silent film that had been giving the audience a peek into the house's workrooms and the painstaking process of tailoring a jacket, showed the white-coated workers from the atelier slowly gathering in front of the camera. The emotion of the moment came from the proud artisans who are rarely seen, their powerfully expressive craft and its profound consideration of women.

Dressing for today

For years, Milan would have women believe that power attire had to be either the minimalism of Giorgio Armani or the sexual opulence of someone like Roberto Cavalli, whose bed-tossed models seemed wholly out-of-step with the world's mood. The intellectual houses such as Prada and Jil Sander were adept at evoking women in control of their lives, but not very good at expressing the pleasure inherent in the occasional loss of control.

Now designers are seeking the middle ground. This new place needs to accommodate enormous cultural shifts that include a French first lady who is a former model; an American presidential candidate turned secretary of state, who campaigned in a rainbow of pantsuits; and an Italian fashion industry whose most influential houses have women at the creative helm.

The obsession with power dressing is also driven by an industry that has learned -- by way of a recession -- that it must make itself as indispensable and attractive to its customers as possible. As the fashion pendulum swings away from rock-and-roll style toward something more refined and polished, designers are catering to the women -- the more mature ones -- who actually have the money.

No one seems interested in speaking to mythical women who spend their days attending three-hour lunches, shopping or meeting with their colorists. There might still be ladies who live such lives, but even they don't want to be perceived as creatures of leisure. The only messages they're sending on their BlackBerry might be to their masseuses, but they're projecting the overbooked, rushed air of a working mother in between business trips.

Armani

Designers are tussling over ground once dominated by Armani. He was the first one who really understood that women in the workforce use their clothes in the same manner as men: to display their authority and rank. The collection that Armani put on his runway last week spoke to the essence of the brand. It was filled with shapely jackets with sharp shoulders, vaguely flirtatious skirts and dresses in a mix of orange, charcoal and taupe that were polished and feminine.

There were also the usual flourishes on Armani's runway, those pronouncements that let the audience know that the maestro is still experimenting -- although sometimes to ill effect. For example, the floppy felt hats on his catwalk were a reckless touch that made the models look as though an amoebic blob was engaged in a distressing mind suck.

But cultural history will remember Armani for having set a standard for women's power dressing -- from Washington to Hollywood, from Nancy Pelosi to Jodie Foster. And now a host of designers are trying to figure out how women will dress as they continue the climb up the corporate, political and cultural ladders and break through any remaining ceilings. At Gucci, designer Frida Giannini reached back to the '90s, when Tom Ford's Gucci was all throbbing sultriness and intimidating femininity. Giannini toned down the fire and at times gave her audience something as simple as a long-sleeve dress with a side slit and a metal belt. The result was easy sophistication -- power in a relaxed slouch.

Miuccia Prada

And Miuccia Prada focused her emphasis on the female bosom by placing extravagant darts and delicate ruffles across the chest for optimal exaggeration. Her collection of thick hand-knit, hash-patterned wool dresses and camel-colored rubber overcoats trimmed in fur explored her own archives as well as the collective memory of a circa-1960 "Mad Men" feminine form.

Her models were bigger and with more pronounced curves. And the clothes, with their bulk and full cuts, often made the models look even larger than they actually were. There was a sense that there's strength -- both literal and metaphorical -- in the hourglass shape and its traditional connotations with sexuality. Real women -- of the physically substantial kind -- don't get shoved around.

Jil Sander

Jil Sander designer Raf Simons also jumped into the conversation about power, as he eases the house out of near-asexuality into an attitude that is more body-aware. To deliver that message, he chose fabrics associated with the traditional power structure: tartans, shadow stripes, plaids and tweeds. But he made sure those materials were seductively soft and often partnered with transparent chiffon. When he stitched a simple sheath dress in cherry-colored plaid, he introduced razor-thin slits that were visible only as the models walked. The display of skin was nothing more than a tease -- the fashion equivalent of a sly wink across a crowded room. Lush coats could be pulled apart, thanks to the liberal use of Velcro, so that the consumer could have a bolero, an evening dress and a skirt. The idea of nearly an entire wardrobe in a single garment for the globe-trotting, fear-of-baggage executive is a smart one, but perhaps Version 2.0 will be more refined so that the dress doesn't look, well, look so much like a coat that has lost its sleeves.

Simons's models wore only flat boots. Their hair was pulled back in a slick ponytail. Their faces appeared almost devoid of makeup. The look was spare and unsentimental, but not austere. There was more ethnic variety in the models, too; power, sexuality and intellect come packaged in an assortment of ways -- at long last, at Jil Sander.

Bottega Veneta

And finally, Milan fashion is coming around to Tomas Maier, the designer at Bottega Veneta, who always innately understood that one of the fundamentals of power dressing is subtlety. He sticks to that philosophy in his fall collection, which emphasizes the shoulders. They're not linebacker shoulders, not some regurgitated version of 1980s "Dynasty" style. Instead, the silhouette is more about entering a room with a stride rather than a swish.

His silk twill pantsuit is simple and uncomplicated. The trousers are slim and tailored. The jacket has strong shoulders and broad lapels. It's double-breasted, roomy and dark blue. This is a serious suit -- ignore the fact that it was shown without a blouse on the runway, that's just styling, something to keep the audience on its toes. The suit does not have a tight, little waist or come with precious details. There are no frayed hems to drag through lunch. It's all business, but with an ever-so-slight sensual slouch to the front of the jacket.

Maier makes fashion easy, although he does not make it inexpensive. He does not make clothes that are flashy. His pine-green taffeta dress has an elegantly constructed corset, but it is entirely hidden inside the garment.

That's how ready-to-wear is evolving in Milan. Strength doesn't have to be obvious. And power can be very, very pretty.

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