Two American store buyers were sitting in the bar of the Hotel Gallia playing the fashion folks' favorite new game. "Twenty-five years from now, which Italian fashion will be most memorable?" one tested the other. They bounced the possibilities around and came up with the same answer that most are coming up with these days: the oversized blazer of Giorgio Armani and the geometric cuts of Gianfranco Ferre.
But both Armani and Ferre have moved away from the designs that others call their most notable efforts. As the spring ready-to-wear shows here have demonstrated, neither is content with what he did originally to earn distinction.
"It is not right to impose a look on someone," Ferre says now. A master of clean-cut, architectural clothes, Ferre came to that style of design quite naturally. He trained as an architect before designing clothes.
"My look was too strong for the normal woman. The look of my clothes was stronger than the shape of the woman who bought the dress," he says.
A lot of that has changed with his spring collection. He hasn't abandoned the geometric cuts that other designers have tried to copy. But now he has done everything in very soft fabrics so that the woman brings about the shape of the clothes "rather than my imposing my look on her," Ferre says.
Most everything has a roomy cut with wide armholes and the emphasis on the hip rather than the waist. Ferre's fabrics are so soft the clothes sometimes seem draped on the body. Pleats control some of the fullness in his blouses and tunics.
Often the geometric scheme is carried out by combining sections of different fabrics in the same garment -- a sweater that is knitted in suede, silk and linen looks at close range like a geometric patchwork. An easy-fitting white blouse for evening is silk in front, wool knit in the back. Another has pleats that tuck partially into a skirt while the rest moves separately, like a jacket.
Armani may have abandoned his recognizable oversized blazer, his curved-hem jackets and culottes, his pinched jackets and samurai jacket shapes, but his strong signature of color and uncluttered shape is still on his clothes.
"When I did fashion in the extreme, women took whatever I did as a blind trust," says Armani. Now, he explains, he is playing with "normal elements," as he calls them, and making them new. There's the blouson jacket that now cuts off just above the waist, but on Armani's cutting table it is shaped with slightly extended shoulders in gabardine or silk, in patterns borrowed from menswear. Another, more classic jacket is pinched at the back to give it a softer look. Pants are often banded at the bottom, and skirts -- more skirts than he has ever done before -- are usually slim.
"It is harder to work with given elements and make them look new than to invent something new," insists Armani."There is so much less to work with."
He still works most ably with leather. A vest attached over a shirt, a formula Armani introduced for fall, shows up in menswear stripes in the softest suede for spring--so soft it is often hard to tell if his trousers are silk or suede.
His favorite accessory is the belt; throughout the collection, two belts hang loosely over the hips for decoration. Shoes remain flat and hats are center-creased straws.
"Given the price our things have to sell for, particularly in America, we can no longer make anything too extreme," he says.
If you create something extreme, it will soon go out of style, he says.