Hidden under every mannish, oversized garment being worn by women this fall is a sexy female figure just waiting to be revealed.
That's the metamorphosis designers are counting on this season -- and showing on the runways on the first major day of spring shows here. Gone are this fall's oversized, long, often formless and quite masculine styles, replaced by distinctly feminine looks, often body-revealing and, on-and-off, fairly short for the season ahead.
Europe's "other" Oktoberfest, the spring ready-to-wear shows, started in Milan today with more than 2,000 buyers from all over the world and the fashion press gathered in this city's fairground to see the artistry of Italy's 30 top designers. (On Thursday most of the fashion crowd will move on to the London shows, then next week to Paris. Finally, at the end of the month, the marathon ends in New York.)
The Italians wisely put two of their heavy hitters, Gianni Versace and Mariuccia Mandelli (who designs for Krizia), at the top of the schedule. Both designers made it clear that they think women have been staying in shape in spite of the shapeless clothes that have been covering their bodies of late. Though the two collections look very different from one another, both rely on similar techniques, such as draping, cutouts, sheer fabrics and skinny silhouettes -- particularly in skirts -- to show off the female form.
There are plenty of knee-bearing skirts, but nothing to panic about -- at least after the first day of shows. There are also plenty of knee-covering skirts, and cropped pants for women who can't make up their minds about length. But it is clothes for warm weather we are talking about, and while many designers have offered long skirts for resort and summer wear, which have sold well, most women feel more comfortable in lighter, briefer clothes when the weather turns hot.
Even with all the changes around for spring, neither Versace nor Krizia has stepped out of character with their new lines. Mandelli, whose runway show celebrated the 30 years she has been in business, has continued the round-shouldered jacket she introduced several seasons back. It is still roomy at the top, though often longer and more fitted to the body than last season's. Even the jackets with zigzag edges at the neckline are very identifiable as coming from this designer.
She puts her new jacket in white over splashy silk prints and she does it in denim stitched in silver, including one sexy denim version worn over nothing but fishnet hose. And she does the same shape in navy crepe and a very long, double-breasted style that becomes a coatdress.
In fact, Krizia's only real departure was a group of clothes inspired by the opera "Carmen" -- all in white, with fringed shawl and petticoat. To make sure no one missed the "Carmen" connection, one of the models walked down the runaway with a cigar in her teeth. Francesco Rosi, Mandelli's brother-in-law and the producer of a recent film based on the opera, was in the audience, as was singer Paul Anka. Krizia saluted him by playing his song "Diana."
Mandelli hasn't forgotten the big coats popular this fall, but now they return as lightweight dusters worn over Bermuda shorts or as swimsuit cover-ups. And all the wearing of long ropes of pearls has formed a series of jackets and sweaters appliqued with pearls in a trompe l'oeil effect.
Krizia can always be counted on to introduce a big animal face on her whimsical sweaters, which designers everywhere quickly copy. Apparently she has exhausted the zoo for ideas, so this year she's borrowed a dinosaur from sketches she had seen by Luciano Pattagnello and a science fiction monster according to a design from "Metal Hurlant."
Versace had two chances to express his ideas today, one with his own ready-to-wear collection and the other a variation done in the supplest leather and suede for Mario Valentino.
Versace, too, has kept the big-shouldered and easy fit across the top of his clothes this season. But beyond that he has narrowed his line with lean tunics and vests under jackets. The outer layer is often shorter than what goes beneath, and he controls the shape by building knots into the fabric at the neckline, the waistline and even the hem of the skirt to show off the figure.
Draping gives a rounded, soft quality to a lot of the clothes. His pockets are cut so loose they have the effect of a drape. Some of his sweaters are scrunched up and draped over the hips.
He plays with some of this season's classic menswear patterns. His paisleys are oversized, his pinstripes are broken and he mixes both together handsomely. While he clearly likes black and white, in both collections he uses a generous, well-placed dose of strong pastels and a few bright shades.
Both Krizia and Versace have put away the mannish shoe for next spring. Versace has updated the sling-back with just a suggestion of an opening above the heel, and Krizia has gone to the opposite extreme of the masculine oxford by showing some platform shoes and some very high-heeled pumps.
"These pumps, the draping, the shorter length is very feminine, and the Washington woman will love it," said Aniko Gaal of Garfinckel's. "Women have been going to Somebodies and Nautilus or just exercising with Jane Fonda at home, and they want to show off their accomplishments."
According to Gaal, though androgynous clothes have sold well in Washington, "the women have tried to make them more feminine with scarves, satin blouses, big jewelry."
Versace opened and closed his show with the same black and white suit. For the opener, the model was clearly wearing the suit of a woman going to work. For the finale, in the same suit, she was carrying a bouquet, off to her wedding. Said fashion consultant Susan Rolontz, vice president of the Tobe report, "If this is what the new clothes will do for the self-assured working woman with lots of money to spend, then who can possibly object to the change?"