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Two Paths Diverge In Italy

Armani Keeps To Sidewalks; Prada Prances In the Streets

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 26, 2009

MILAN, Sept. 25

The spring 2010 fashion shows began here Thursday with the famously reserved Giorgio Armani and the infamously unsettling Miuccia Prada presenting their collections on the same day, thus causing a severe case of aesthetic and cultural whiplash.

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Two designers could not be more dissimilar. Armani is a man who advocates elegance and beauty. Prada is a woman who once purposely created a collection that she herself described as "ugly."

If Armani sees his ideal woman as a goddess floating down a red carpet, Prada envisions her as an anarchist marching in the streets of Western capitals, perhaps with a jewel-encrusted gas mask.

Armani presented his collection in his austere, but luxurious, theater where each seat is shrouded in an ivory slipcover. Celebrities such as tennis champion Roger Federer and singer Janet Jackson sat in his front row. Prada, by contrast, showed her collection in her sprawling loft with its bare stone walls. Each seat was a simple cube of stiff gray foam.

For all their differences, both are motivated by the tension between good taste and the desire for individuality. In our culture, so much of what defines taste is the willingness to dress by long-standing rules. Common wisdom dictates that it is inappropriate to wear black to a wedding or red to a funeral. Tidiness and good grooming are equated with elegance. A woman of style would not have threads hanging from her hem. She does not show her bum. She most definitely does not wear Lucite heels. Wasn't it comedian Chris Rock who noted that he would consider himself a successful father if he kept his daughter off the stripper pole and out of Lucite heels?

If a woman follows all those rules, she is tasteful, but unremarkable. A certain blandness is inevitable and she fades into the background. Armani struggles to help a woman stay within the boundaries of cultural expectations while still distinguishing herself -- perhaps with an interesting seam on a jacket, an unusual choice in fabric or a slightly exaggerated silhouette. At his best, a woman in his clothes stands out because she is the epitome of good taste. She is the archetype of decorum.

For spring, Armani sees his customer -- a woman who is loyal and passionate in her belief that he will never lead her astray -- in a perfectly tailored little jacket with box sleeves, a top in an intricate basket weave or a bubble miniskirt kept utterly demure thanks to discreet shorts worn underneath. He also offers her full gray shorts with a slightly rounded leg that he pairs with a sparkling silver top.

Often, however, in his desire to present a collection with verve and eye-popping appeal, he rejects the archetype in favor of something more provocative. A dress with a neckline that plunges almost to the navel, for example. Or an especially slouchy pair of trousers. In those instances, his clothes look as though they are straining, yearning to be something more exciting and daring than what they are. They're striving toward youthful rebellion but are held back by a mature understanding of the trouble that youthful insolence can cause.

The clothes teeter on the edge of something audacious, but never seem to have the guts to go all the way. Change, as we all know, can be unnerving.

Prada, on the other hand, is fashion's skydiver. She relishes every opportunity to leap off a cliff. It is as though at the beginning of each season, she jots down a list of rules, a set of cultural mores, and then sets out to challenge them.

For spring, she takes a grand, shimmering fabric out of which many a designer would construct something well-mannered like a luncheon suit, and cuts a pair of walking shorts and a matching jacket. She can't be bothered to hem either. She can't be bothered even to trim the stray threads from the raw edges.

She uses a gently faded print of palm trees and boardwalks on the kind of short shorts that might be found on a marathoner. Or maybe they are modeled after tap pants and it's a case of the boudoir merging with the street. In any case, there was no stripper pole in sight; so breathe easy for the moment.

Instead of crystal-adorned dresses, Prada gives her audience garments of strung-together chandelier teardrops. And, Chris Rock notwithstanding, she takes Lucite shoes off the street corner, covers them in a jingle-jangling cache of giant crystals and declares them posh.

Waffle-textured swing jackets topped bloomers. Beach-print coats were cut with three-quarter sleeves. It was all a bit like Peggy Guggenheim meets Palm Beach meets the boardroom meets that scene from "The Phantom of the Opera" when the chandelier crashes to the floor.

The motivating force in Prada's aesthetic is reinvention. Over the years, her collections have shifted from being encrusted with baubles to being positively barren. Sometimes they have exuded a teasing pleasure in feminine wiles and then they have been nearly asexual and then have gone back to being wholly exhibitionist. Prada has suggested that a woman can be a Deauville beach bum with glistening tanned skin or a sturdy fishergirl in heavy woolen suits and waders.

Through all the changes, Prada tests the integrity of classic shapes, standards applied to femininity and presumptions about sexuality. If Armani tries to help a woman find her visual individuality while still adhering to decorum, Prada encourages her to redefine decorum itself.

The style of an Armani presentation doesn't change. The models walk down a center aisle, often holding a handbag from the collection just so. It's a little QVC in that regard. One could almost imagine a scroll across the back of the runway encouraging the audience to "Buy now! Only 5 remain!" The models walk, pause, turn and repeat until they reach the end of the runway and step off into the shadows.

Their walk is choreographed, but it isn't demeaning. Armani always gives his models their dignity. They are young women doing a job of showing off clothes. They are not sashaying along like sexpots. They aren't somnambulating with a glassy-eyed stare. Their eyes don't look dead. As one watches them move along, you think, yes, there are synapses firing in that pretty little head.

For Armani, the woman is inextricable from the clothes. And ultimately that is why his customers stay with him. The clothes don't break any rules. No matter how much Armani tries -- and sometimes all one sees on the runway is all of that effort -- he is not the renegade. Not anymore. But that's okay. His clothes give his customers cover so that they can be the rule-breakers if they like. Cloaked in the familiar and the tasteful, they can sneak into center of power and be provocative.

At Prada, the models look young and unsure. For spring, they wore their hair in two self-consciously messy ponytails. Their lips were lacquered red; their skin was smooth, poreless and, at times, virtually bloodless. They looked a bit like unblinking dolls.

Prada desperately, adamantly does not want her audience to notice the women in these clothes. It is the garments that make the statement. Every protest, every quibble with the status quo, every nagging question is discernible in the seams, the fabric and the accessories.

Could a woman, one who is essentially cloaked in cultural foment, ever finagle her way into the center of power, into the mainstream? Probably not. At least not now. But she doesn't need to. Because even if her voice can't be heard from the fringes, everyone can see her clothes.

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