Even the gimmicks used to hype the fall fashion shows this week were unspectacular.
At Complice, models stepped out of a mock airplane and were sprinkled with fake snow, but the spinning runway lights used for effect made it almost impossible to see the clothes.
Two models carried lambs to call attention to Little Bo Peep dresses in the Laura Biagiotti show, and Gianfranco Ferre sent two fencers in white suits down the runway to open his show. "This could be the most exciting thing to happen all week," whispered John Fairchild, head of the Fairchild trade paper empire that includes Women's Wear Daily and "W." But the fencers never fenced until they were hidden behind a scrim at the back of the stage where much of the crowd couldn't see them.
The lukewarm showings of Milan are the start of the month-long traveling carnival that puts buyers and the fashion press on the road from Milan to Florence to London to Paris and finally to Seventh Avenue in New York in the search for clothes for today's woman.
But Round One seems a near disaster. "A lot of things look tough to wear and tough to sell," admitted Ellin Saltzman of Saks Fifth Avenue before the last show of the week. "This is not the year for unwearable clothes. I'm in the business and if I have to ask where the hell do you wear these clothes, then what is a customer going to do?"
The big disappointment for most attending the shows was the decision of movie star-handsome Giorgio Armani not to show his collection to the press at this time, but rather a month from now, which is closer to the time the clothes will go on sale. This tactic made his leather collection for Mario Valentino and his cheaper line for Erreuno far bigger attention-getters than usual and gave more of the spotlight to the incredible technicians here: the Fendi sisters for fur and the Missoni family for knits, and others.
But only a few rose to the occasion. Mariuccia Mandelli did a collection of cat sweaters with wit that will surely become conversation pieces next fall--expensive conversation pieces with price tags up to $1,500. "Some people like cats better than their children," said Sheila Bernstein, vice president of Associated Merchandise Corp., the largest buying office in the world. Bernstein has no cats--she's allergic to them--but is sure these sweaters and all their copies will be hits in the stores.
Gianfranco Ferre is the architect-turned-designer who constructs picture-perfect fashion. Even the colors on the models' eyelids match the colors on the clothes. Even the heel of the shoe matches. But his clean, spare clothes are being worn only by a few women, though more may have the opportunity to soon because they will be available in more stores. He is being watched carefully by other designers; in this world of trickle-down fashion, the Ferre house has always been a pace setter in spare, modern clothes. "His clothes are very clean and that is right for this time," said Joan Kaner, fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman.
Ferre is not alone on this wavelength. "Women need simple clothes and so I clean them up," said Gianni Versace after his show. "Women work like men, live like men, they don't need to carry extra clothes with them." For Versace, making uncluttered clothes is far harder than the opposite. "It is easier to make shocking clothes. For clothes to seem uncomplicated and yet still look interesting, it is far more difficult."
But if American store buyers came to Milan to bury the ruffle, they ended up having to praise it, at least the soft dinosaur ruffles that outlined the Krizia sweater-dresses. And if they expected finally to see an end to purple, they instead found it was on very many color charts. "Purple is back by popular demand," said Bernstein.
If there were few new trends, and not even new music beyond last season's favorite from "Chariots of Fire," a number of the fashion looks that have been building for a while were clearly reinforced by Italian designers. Among them:
* Blousons in everything from distressed leather to silk organza, in every length from Eisenhower jacket to long coat. The rounded blouson seems as if it will be the key shape for fall. It looks newer this season when belted.
* High necklines on everything. Tall, stand-up collars and wrapped, muffled necklines give the same effect. "You have to have a swan-like neck to get along this fall," said Kal Ruttenstein, vice president of Bloomingdale's. And also a clean neck, since many of the blouses and even the Ferre dresses have white stand-up collars that seem easy targets for makeup smudges.
* Leather has been lightened, dyed, painted and embroidered, patched with fur or fabric. Beaten-up leather, showing the influence of actor Harrison Ford, is part of the assortment already snapped up by women and men, too. "Now all those people who already own leather pants will be able to find a great leather or suede shirt or blouse to wear," said Bruce Binder, Macy's vice president.
* Black alone, black with white or black with a shock of bright color dominates the color palette. Black velvet is the key fabric being shown for evening. Gray is the upstart color and shows up in shearling, wool, fur and taffeta.
* Tuxedo dressing for women challenges the imagination of designers, but they have succeeded. Gianfranco Ferre has a black, fitted-bodice, full-skirted dress with white collar and satin banding of which Ellin Saltzman of Saks said, a bit generously, "It is a dress I would die for."
* Hemlines are hiked above the knee, dropped to ankle length and cut off every place in between. "I watched people in my shop and I see they want long and short and medium," says Giorgio Armani who, like everyone else, offered varied lengths in both pants and skirts in the collections he designed for Mario Valentino and Erreuno.
Low-heeled shoes abound "even though women are really ready to get back into high heels," said Janina Willner, head of accessories for Bloomingdale's. Shawls and mufflers are everywhere, and the brimmed felt hat--sometimes shaped like a padre hat, a brimmed bowler, the L.L. Bean felt hat or the "Raiders of the Lost Ark" snap brim--is so popular that several models who wore them in shows kept them on when they got back in their own clothes, and wore them the rest of the week.
There's virtually no place to hang jewelry on any of these clothes so Gianni Versace has worked his jewelry as armor right into the clothes. He uses silver- and gold-like mesh as an inset on leather jackets, as collars or shoulders on dresses or as modern body armor for jackets or vests--an idea he's had patented in Germany. "I think this is just as revolutionary as the leather I first started eight years ago," said the designer, who dressed supermodel Iman in a chador of metal mesh for his wedding dress finale.
Stripes still complement the clean look both designers and retailers are aiming for this season and one of the rare alternatives is the electrocardiogram, a zigzag pattern used by two of the more healthy businesses around, Fendi and Krizia.
Although clothing exports to the United States are only 3.8 percent of Italy's total $4 billion in clothing exports worldwide, Armando Branchini, chief executive of the Italian Apparel Manufacturers Association, was worried: "We are sad if it does not go well because we need the Americans. Their reaction is important for designers here because Italian designers can become famous through America and because of the feedback to the European and Japanese market."
"This is a difficult time for fashion," Ruttenstein said. "People aren't into frivolity and needless expenses. When they spend their dollars they want quality and clothes that will last a long time, but with some verve."
And so yesterday Ruttenstein and most of the other buyers packed their bags and took off for Florence or London to see if they could find a little more sparkle there.