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Prada, Jil Sander, Marni and more show off blindingly bright ideas in Milan

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; C01

MILAN -- Brace yourselves: The favorite colors of the spring 2011 season are safety-cone orange, iridescent chartreuse, retina-searing hot pink and luminescent violet. They are a test of aesthetic acumen, as well as social courage.

These are not easy colors to wear or even to countenance. These are acid hues that recall '70s new-wave bands, the kaleidoscopic chaos of a preschool classroom and cheap party-store candy that floods the mouth with sweet-and-sour goo. They aren't soothing, nor do they exude power, intellectualism or even sex appeal. Yet they do draw the eye . . . but in a manner our culture has deemed unseemly.

Serious people do not wear such delirious shades. Indeed, it seems fair to say that antifreeze green has never made an appearance at the State of the Union address. So it's with no small amount of audacity and optimism that designers proceed down this color-drenched path.

To wear such vivid, unabashedly joyful and occasionally silly colors goes against everything we have been taught about what it means to be an adult in civil society. When we see some creature on the city streets trussed up in a bright fuchsia suit -- her clothes practically throbbing with radiation -- we dismiss her as an eccentric. We are suspicious and assume she must be a little kooky and irresponsible. A flaky artist? A flighty performer?

But maybe she's just fearless.

The designers here are daring women to cause a stir -- not just an aesthetic one, but also a taboo-breaking one -- in fuchsia trousers, violet wind coats and work shirts emblazoned with bright yellow bananas.

When designer Miuccia Prada put her spring collection on the runway last week, it was a complete rejection of the ladylike reserve, hourglass silhouettes and tradition-bound sensibility she offered for fall. Instead, she playfully blended Latin style with baroque grandeur, street-vendor ephemera and childlike naivete.

The runway, in her urban loft, was an imposing block of gray cement and metal raised some five feet off the ground. Her models provided the dour room with a bracing jolt of color and electricity. They were dressed in boldly striped dresses in shades of orange and green. Work shirts were decorated with a banana print; comic book monkeys danced across other frocks.

Bananas! Monkeys! For grown-ups!

Sometimes crinolines were tucked underneath the skirts, forcing them outward so that their brilliant colors seemed to explode around the body. Crayola-bright sombreros hung down the models' backs, and even their shoes were divided into individual blocks of cheerful yellow and red.

The collection was a perfect balance of glorious kitsch and pitch-perfect sophistication. The prints and colors looked as though they had been cribbed from souvenir trinkets that might be hawked on the beaches of Acapulco or Rio. But the silhouettes -- streamlined and classic -- made clear that these were wearable clothes. These clothes were no joke.

Prada's fall statement focused on the power of femininity. It asked women to be proud of their female form and to revel in its classic sensuality. Spring's collection is a pure declaration of one's presence. It gives rise to no deep intellectual conversation about sex, power or gender. Yet it makes a profound request on the wearer's behalf, one that most people can't bear to make: Look at me!

Black attire allows a woman to move stealthily through her day, blending seamlessly into the urban landscape. These Day-Glo colors thrust her into the spotlight.

* * *

Once a woman has everyone's attention, then what? Can a bright purple suit exude authority? Why isn't an eye-catching suit more of a power statement than a stereotypical gray one that blends into the boardroom?

Culturally we cling to the notion that if clothes draw attention, they distract from what the wearer has to say. But one can't help but imagine an ambitious woman strutting into a meeting wearing something from Raf Simons's collection for Jil Sander and being just fine.

Simons's mesmerizing work seamlessly blended brilliant colors with powerful and sophisticated silhouettes. The first few looks on his austere white runway were simple ball skirts in eye-popping shades paired with plain white T-shirts. Next came trousers in bright pink paired with violet blazers, black suits worn with hunter orange shirts, skirts imprinted with floral patterns reminiscent of Georgia O'Keeffe, cherry red trench coats brushed with pink stripes, and elegant heels with their soles glowing orange or pink.

The effect was akin to a cocktail of endorphins and adrenaline, as well as a shot of epinephrine directly into the heart. The clothes in the Jil Sander collection almost seemed to pulsate.

Most women will claim to love color. But are they brave enough to wear it? Women who embrace color -- and they tend to live south of the Mason-Dixon line -- do so selectively. They like a sexy red party dress or a cheerful floral print. Women in Washington like a bright red, blue or yellow suit -- but they want it cut conservatively and with a feminine flair. They want it to be pretty, not bold. They claim to love colorful evening gowns, but they tend to buy them in black because they can wear them more often and that makes black so much more practical.

Black is also so safe and reassuring. Who wants to go to a dinner party wearing a bright pink fashion faux pas?

* * *

While on the subject of mistakes, flubs and misguided thinking, now seems the perfect moment to bring up the Missoni collection. One longs for a postmortem on the Sunday show, an examination of how an idea went so wrong and how a venerable Italian house could produce a collection that stumbled so badly.

Designer Angela Missoni toyed with many of the same elements as Prada. She explored a South American vibe, a '70s kitschiness, a bold use of color. And one could see -- sort of -- the designer's intent. She gave guests a hint as soon as they entered the stone colonnade where the show was presented. A group of models stood wearing crocheted face masks by Italian artist Aldo Lanzini, whose fiber art has recently captivated Missoni. His masks transformed the models -- posing in a tableau vivant -- into strange and glorious creatures with curling threads of colorful fabric swirling around their heads and hiding their identities.

The same textile playfulness was evident on the Missoni runway, but it ultimately resulted in a visual cacophony of color, pattern, embellishment and fluorescence that caused the eyes to spin and the head to throb. Strange wordplay was at work on the voluminous caftans and tunics. "Raw like sushi" was written across one torso -- a phrase that did not call to mind anything remotely pleasant.

The models wore giant, square floppy hats that flapped up and down as they walked in multicolored shoes with heels shaped like hockey pucks. It was a strange and awkward collection that served as a reminder of the perils of dabbling in color. Mistakes often go unnoticed when they can blend safely into the shadows of black. They are writ large when they are stitched in orange, green and turquoise.

Max Mara also had trouble handling the bright shades of violet and yellow in its collection. But in this case, the issue was one of proportion. Cropped trousers flared in an unflattering manner at the ankle, shorts sat too high on the waist and a tent dress all but swallowed the delicate model wearing it.

Bold colors are at the center of Marni designer Consuelo Castiglioni's comfort zone. She's always had a masterly sense of color that allows her to blend murky shades of mustard with mauve or sea green and have them all exist harmoniously. For spring, she turned that color sense towards a more athletic, technical point of view. Her dresses, for instance, were often inset with thick mesh, and she layered tunics with geometric cutouts over skirts or shorts.

Castiglioni is a rare designer who can blend look-at-me colors with oddball silhouettes and create something that feels almost classic. Her dresses often appear to have been accidentally hitched up on one side, giving them an asymmetrical silhouette. Shirts sometimes seem to hang precariously off one shoulder even as they are perfectly balanced and in no danger of malfunctioning.

Her clothes are so peculiar -- and that is a deep compliment -- that they become utterly personal for the wearer. They are not about public display as much as they are focused on private satisfaction.

* * *

So often, Milan is obsessed with helping a woman exude a very public kind of sex appeal. And indeed, female sexuality was celebrated at both Gucci and Versace. But the omnipresent bold colors tamped down the sexpot imagery. At Gucci, the jewel-tone blazers, loose-fitting trousers and three-color jumpsuit were more effervescent than sexy.

And at Versace, the story of the clothes was about turning heads and provoking smiles with dizzying, brightly colored prints. It was not a tale of provocative glances and aggressive sexuality.

The designers here have tapped into the joy and pleasure that can be found in color -- the way in which a candy-colored garment can transport us to a time of greater innocence and easy delights. And in these economic times, the ability of a designer to make a customer smile is nothing to be devalued.

But designers have done more than that. They have challenged consumers -- average consumers, not the Facebook egotists who already believe the world revolves around their every update -- to stand up tall, to stick their neck out, to declare themselves special.

Designers have challenged people to shake off their greatest fear -- the fear of standing out.

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