By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 30, 2010; C03
MILAN -- If a fashion designer whispers with an elegantly cut jacket or an easy linen dress, he or she is briskly shouted down here by aficionados of sequins, doodads and baubles. It's impossible, for example, for a simple caramel-colored trouser suit from Ferragamo to compete with the sexual energy complicit in every garment that came down the runway at Dolce & Gabbana. After all, who would choose the boardroom over an exquisitely lush bacchanal?
So consider this a tribute to the subdued designers who did not succumb to spring 2011's fascination with DayGlo colors, who put no novelty prints or streamers of fringe on their runway. Sssh! They speak quietly but with admirable eloquence. They are classy. They are serious.
But first, to the bacchanal! Because we are not immune to the distractions of bright, shiny objects.
We swooned ever so delicately over the splendid show from Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana that employed tablecloth lace and bed linen embroidery in a parade of sharply cut white sheaths and coyly demure skirts. For spring, the designers looked back at the varied motifs that have informed their work over the years: a southern Italian, lusty brand of tailoring and dressmaking that defines women as tough-minded and maternal, masculine and feminine, Madonna and whore.
In addition to the boudoir imagery, which has always included exquisite corsets, there were lemon tree prints that referenced their love for Sicily. They paired ladylike cropped cardigans -- embellished with rhinestones -- with sweet baby doll dresses that were, as is their way, cut to reveal a modestly heaving bosom.
The designers flooded their runway with a fast-moving stream of models, resulting in a sensory overload that barely left the audience -- which this time included actress Jada Pinkett-Smith and daughter Willow, the rock star in training -- with time to absorb the what and why of individual garments. The collection was like a wave that splashed down and took your breath away.
These skilled showmen, with their soaring operatic prelude and sideline razzle-dazzle, overshadow understated brands such as Ferragamo, as well as Brioni and Bottega Veneta. Even Giorgio Armani, with his influential fashion history reputation among the Hollywood set and charming George Clooney sitting in his front row, has a hard time being heard.
Yet no other designer so confidently and so successfully went his own way. Armani's signature collection was inspired by the Tuareg nomads of northern Africa, who are distinguished by their regal bearing and their deep blue clothing. Armani took that dangerously precise source of inspiration, one that could easily have led him into costumes and cliches, and created an elegant collection all in an utterly perfect shade of indigo blue with occasional blasts of black.
He allowed the undulating desert sandscape to inform the drape of a skirt or the way in which a throw wrapped around the body. He played with proportions with cropped jackets layered over longer blouses and paired with loose-fitting trousers. Sometimes he topped nearly sheer pants with pagoda-tiered skirts.
Thick ropes of lapis blue and jet beads glistened around the models' necks. And stylized turbans -- a cross between a traditional head wrap and a flapper's cloche -- gave them an urban, ethnic cool.
Armani offered a blissfully sensual collection. In the midst of a season in which the colors on most every other runway appeared to have been electrified or irradiated, he came across as independent, confident and smart.
The collection from Brioni -- the first for new designer Alessandro dell'Acqua -- wasn't in the same category as Armani's. But dell'Acqua stayed true to the personality of the house, which is best known for its men's tailoring, and spoke to its female customers in terms that were dignified, reassuring yet energetic.
He injected femininity into the Brioni sensibility with an ivory lace dress and ivory coat. His trousers sat at the natural waist and were paired with fluid blouses. And when he embraced color, it was a feminine shade of cantaloupe, or maybe cherry red, but nothing so overheated that it could singe one's corneas.
Tomas Maier's collection for Bottega Veneta started strong with easy navy dresses with contrasting hems and textured bodices. And his fluid caftans in shades of ecru or pale rose spoke of Mediterranean villas and afternoons aboard yachts. Maier excels when he speaks with this luxury vocabulary.
The collection took an artsy-fartsy, oopsie-daisy turn about midway through the show when seams began to undulate and dresses began to resemble oversize works of origami sculpture. Those were distractions in a collection that otherwise had one willing to weigh the benefits of spending a gazillion dollars on a simple linen dress just because it was cut with such balance and skill.
These subdued clothes don't turn heads or push fashion forward. They have nothing in common with the 40th-anniversary Roberto Cavalli runway extravaganza in which models slithered along in sequined sheer gowns, hippie-fringed leather jeans and crocheted tank dresses that looked more like accidental frocks rather than anything planned and intentional.
But for every Dolce & Gabbana show that fulfills our fantasies, fashion needs the collections that take us from workday to workday, cocktail party to business dinner. Fashion has to help women navigate their more mundane reality -- if only so they can afford to indulge in the glittering magic.