In the middle of the Giorgio Armani show, a huge panel decorating one end of the runway flopped over, grazing model Pat Cleveland. She fainted, but was quickly picked up by a male model posing nearby against a corrugated cardboard palm tree. He patted her cheeks, gave her a big kiss, and she was on her way.
It was the only misstep in a collection that brought buyers to their feet stamping and cheering in this weeklong presentation by Italian designers. And when Armani, wearing a sweater with a tiny eagle on it, entered a nearby restaurant filled with buyers, models and press shortly after, the crowd stopped mid pasta and cheered again.
What Armani had done, along with bringing to life the Italian collections, which had gotten off to a slow start, was to express the current mood of clothes without dropping a stitch in what brings everyone to Milan in the first place -- super tailoring, beautiful fabrics -- and a sense of elegance that works here or in New York, Washington or anyplace else.
Among those fashion statements that Armani made (as did others) were:
An easier fit with looser cut pants, and skirts eased up for comfort;
Pants of all lengths, including a heavy dose of Bermuda shorts;
Hems clearly inching up;
Shoulders still shaped with padding though somewhat scaled down;
Black, gray and white as popular colors plus bright colors used in blocks or graphic prints;
Charmingly simple schoolgirl dresses;
Flat shoes, colored stockings and belts as the the important accessories.
If the last couple of fashion seasons had swung too far with exaggerated shoulders, skin-tight pants and sky-scraper heels, this one features the designers responding to customers' pleas for comfort. Pants are eased up, often baggy, starting with front pleats. Skirts no longer wrap the body like an Ace bandage, but get their ease from drape treatments as well as shirring from below a yoke, flat over the stomach.
"I think the success of the baggy jeans clued us that women wanted a more comfortable cut of clothes," said Bloomingdale's Kal Rutterstein. At Bloomingdale's 40 percent of all jean sales are now baggy, he says.
Designers may well have taken their tilt to shorter hems from beach resorts this summer. In Sardinia, St. Tropez and other expensive resorts, sundresses and long caftans of the previous season were replaced by short shorts and Bermudas, according to Bruce Binder of Macy's, who snoops out such things. And the oversize T-shirt, another nod to comfort, has become a popular mini-dress, he added.
The constant reappearance of Bermuda shorts on the runway, shown as a way of dressing up for lunch or for work with a jacket and colored stockings, was a strong hint that designers feel hems eventually should go well above the knee.
"There are so many shorts here, you have to say it is a trend, but I wouldn't expect customers to buy them at the high price of Italian imports," says Ellin Saltzman, of Saks Fifth Avenue . "I love Bermuda shorts but I buy them at a reasonable price, not in white leather for $600."
"We had shorts from Krizia last spring, and once we marked the prices down, they sold very well," said Barbara Schweitzer of Woodward & Lothrop. She thinks they will be a great sportswear item next spring.
Woodies already has seen an acceptance of the shorter hemlines, according to the store's fashion director, Nancy Christolini."Length really is not an issue," she said. "But once customers realized that the shoe had replaced the boot, they wanted a shorter skirt."
Ruttenstein admitted he is constantly asking artists to airbrush shorter hemlines for Bloomingdale's ads, and shortening skirts on mannequins.
For those who want the comfort of shorts but care to disguise them, designers are showing a lot of dresses and skirts over shorts and pants. In the 1950s, they were called playsuits.
Geoffrey Beene stretches his push for comfort with elasticized treatments at the top of skirts and pants and at the hem of tops. He has ignored an American fashion around Italy, passing up Bermuda shorts for short shorts or mid-calf-length pants.
Until the Armani show, buyers feared that they wouldn't be able to find a successor to the suits that had sold so well this fall. But his sleekly fitted long jacket with padded shoulders and minimal details, such as the single lapel or a cardigan fly-front style decorated only by the asymmetrical collar of the silk blouse underneath, were winners. He showed them with loose ankle-length pants, full shorts that looked almost like culottes and easy skirts in fabrics that didn't always match the jackets.
Buyers also liked the suits at Walter Albini, Mila Schoen, Andre Laug and Gianni Versace.
But only Armani had enough confidence to poke fun at the goings on and himself in particular.
The man who brought on the blazer boom and gave the world several new shapes in suits -- including the draped suit -- came out with another new design.
Armani was so confident of his new jacket shape and his lapel treatment that he put all the meticulous tailoring of the jacket into a shoulderless and sleeveless style jokingly called the "strapless suit." The coveted swimsuit for next summer is sure to be the Armani maillot with one lapel.
On the same day as the Armani collection showing, the value of the dollar rose -- and so did the American buyers' confidence in Italian fashion.