In Milan, Fall Is Laced With Promise

Prada, Missoni and Burberry Take Bold New Leaps

Fashion Week in Milan began Sunday amid pressures to reduce the calendar in what some say is a dull and expensive city. Nevertheless, the city's major designers went on with the show.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 21, 2008; Page C01

MILAN, Feb. 20 -- In so many ways, it all comes down to the audacious Miuccia Prada. She's the one who keeps audiences guessing. She's the one who has editors fleeing earlier shows to make sure they arrive on time for her presentation. Prada is the one who tells the fashion cognoscenti something they don't already know.

For fall 2008, she delivered a message about femmes fatales, about hard-core femininity and tough-as-nails sex appeal. The first garments to appear at her show Tuesday night were black coats with stiff ruffles jutting from the sides like a dynamic Winged Victory of Samothrace. The shoes -- so much of the Prada business and buzz is based on the dazzling footwear -- had staggeringly high heels and sharp-edged patent leather ruffles shooting off the heels. The models didn't glower or pout, although they certainly weren't smiling. Instead, they looked rather unconcerned with the audience and with one another. Who cares what anyone else thinks? That seemed to be their inner dialogue.

The heart of the collection consisted of lace skirts and dresses. Not the fragile whimsy that looks as though it could be shredded with the rough edge of a fingernail, but a more substantial lace. Its thick lines swirled around the body and in some cases was layered to give the effect of movement and depth.

The lace came in shades of gold and copper, silver and turquoise, and it never looked precious or trite. Prada managed to transform the sweet fabric that might once have covered Grandma's Thanksgiving table into something that looked provocative, sexy, decadent and completely contemporary.

Her hemlines reached below the knee. There were no plunging necklines. And yet sensuality oozed from this collection. While other designers often seem to move in shuffling, unsure steps or consult trend reports before they commit to any significant gesture, Prada is assertive. She can be daunting -- even scary. Her doll-like models exude Chucky's brooding potential for mayhem rather than Barbie's sterile gloss.

But Prada is willing to take the bold leap. She's willing to fail in order to see how wildly she can succeed.

Missoni, Burberry

It's rare that a designer is born with that brave spirit. Few dash to the abyss and expertly balance on its edge. Most get there slowly. For a design house with patience, the payoff can be tremendous.

That's true at Missoni, where Angela Missoni, daughter of the house's founders, Rosita and Ottavio Missoni, has been at the helm since 1996. Sunday evening she presented her best collection yet.

Missoni has always been known for its multicolored, patterned knitwear. Angela Missoni's mandate, after taking over as creative director, was to modernize the house. It's a familiar goal: keep the old customers; attract new ones.

For years, the collection seemed stuck. The new knits weren't as inspired as the old ones. The old patterns couldn't be translated into more contemporary shapes. What did Missoni stand for anyway? Couldn't it just settle for selling all those scarves in duty-free stores?

But for fall, the collection, inspired by the 1939 film "The Women," was more tailored. The familiar patterns were tucked inside sculptural coats -- a way of noting that the history of the house remains safe; it's just not so obvious anymore. There were oversize flowers on simple sheaths; furs were elegant and restrained; cocktail dresses were a jubilant mix of chunky sequins and organza. And the knitwear was exceptional, not because of the chaotic patterns and clashing hues, but because of the silhouettes and the quiet details. A marigold-colored cardigan jacket, for instance, was trimmed in chiffon. Another cardigan had elongated cuffs.

The essence of the house was intact, but Missoni was able to say something about the brand that her audience never suspected possible.

Burberry Prorsum had a similar kind of success with the collection that designer Christopher Bailey presented Monday. Here was another brand that had been mired in its past; in this case, Burberry had devolved into little more than plaid trench coats. But over the years, Bailey took the British traditions of the brand and used them to tell a new story. There have been a host of good collections in the past. This one was great.

This collection was marked by tailored trousers in shades of sage and plum; short dresses that looked as though they were encrusted with velvet scales; and sculptural wool coats, in particular a single stunning coat that through the magic of fabric manipulation looked as though it had been created entirely out of iridescent abalone shells.

Gianfranco Ferré

Patience is the essential element in a successful transformation. But it is not the forte of the owners of Gianfranco Ferré, whose founder died over the summer. After only five months on the job and before he had presented a single womenswear garment, newly appointed designer Lars Nilsson was shown the door earlier this month. (Nilsson was fired from Bill Blass the day after he presented his fifth collection for that house. Five appears to be his unlucky number.) All the work he had done up to that point was scrapped. An in-house team took over and whipped up a collection in about two weeks. And whether it was hubris, ignorance or something else entirely, the brand put on a show Monday evening. It was meant to be a tribute to Ferré. It was more like a roast.

The sad little collection lacked the drama and power of Ferré's best work. The white blouses, a nod to Ferré's most iconic garment, were about as sophisticated as marshmallows. The clothes simply could not stand up to the spotlight, and they did not measure up to the Ferré legacy. For a collection that was billed as a homage, it lacked an emotional wallop.

Jil Sander, 6267

The best collections are able to capture the imagination, to speak to the heart. All too often designers seem to forget about the need to provoke daydreams. They get too wrapped up in their craft, in the drape of a dress or the architectural integrity of a coat, and the importance of pure pleasure goes missing. What is the point of an elaborately seamed garment if it offers no joy? Fashion, after all, is not about trying to make the most expensive hair shirt.

To some degree penance, not pleasure, was at the heart of Raf Simons's collection for Jil Sander. The brand is known for its austerity. But for fall, he took that philosophy too far. The high collars and substantial fabrics created a claustrophobic effect: The models looked overwhelmed by their clothes rather than empowered by them.

The designers at 6267, Tommaso Aquilano and Roberto Rimondi, also focused on the strict tailoring that has defined so many of the fall collections here. With hints of Balenciaga and suggestions of military precision, the collection spoke of the designers' tremendous technical skill, but it was also heavy and somber. One could almost see the models' shoulders slump under the heft of the embellished coats that looked to weigh almost as much as they did. And the suit jackets announced their self-importance from 20 feet away. The team at 6267 represent the new kids on the Milan fashion circuit, and one wishes they wouldn't take themselves quite so seriously -- at least not just yet. In a city where fashion is delivered with great bravado and chest-thumping, it could use an injection of playfulness.


Could there be a designer more prone to chest-thumping that Giorgio Armani? To be sure, he has built an extraordinary empire and no one deserves to toot his own horn more loudly. But his shows rarely convey the sense that he takes much pleasure in his own success. Perhaps it is the way in which his models glide onto the runway, so perfectly choreographed, each step counted out, each handbag held just so. That iron control is like an undercurrent of tension unsuccessfully camouflaged by so many easy fabrics.

In his presentation Monday, Armani sent both men and women down his runway. The men walked along in their relaxed trousers, their classy car coats with modest funnel collars and their draped velvet blazers that were marred only by the incongruity of zippers instead of buttons, like a strange hybrid of a dinner jacket and a sweat suit. What might be the right occasion for such a blazer? A Pilates potluck? Hatha happy hour?

The women are most flattered by the collection's long, slinky skirts and the colorful Gypsy-inspired gowns with their coquettish lace shawls. And countless women will be cheered by the designer's decision to pair his ready-to-wear with flats. One can practically hear all those toes wiggling with glee.

But there are some emphatically off-kilter aesthetic choices in this collection: trousers that are hitched up along the hips like droopy saddlebags, skirts that bunch awkwardly in the front, and a fur coat that hovers around the body like an enormous storm cloud. Creativity demands that one take leaps of faith, but Armani seems to lurch, while insisting that he has found the way to a bold new sensibility. Perhaps Armani's long-range vision is sharper than most. Perhaps he sees something on the horizon that others cannot: a world in which harem trousers are the new low-rise jeans, perhaps?

Whichever it is, the results are not particularly attractive. The designer might be telling his audiences something they don't already know, but in this case ignorance is more appealing.

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