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Even before the fall clothes-buying season is really under way, and even before most women have learned to pronounce the season's buzzword -- androgyny -- some designers here are trying to push this fall's masculine, almost sexless styles to the back of the closet.
Yet while many designers are abandoning those long, oversized, androgynous shapes in favor of short-and-tight or long-and-tight clothes for spring, not everyone's taste, fortunately, is so tarty as these clothes sometimes look.
In fact Giorgio Armani, who has always translated mannish garments into women's clothes, and Gianfranco Ferre, whose architectural tilt has helped him master cleanly tailored, masculine clothes for women, are both still partial to this look -- but in new ways.
"If you call a big man's shirt that happens to be in a see-through fabric androgynous, then indeed it is still with us," says Sheila Bernstein, vice president of Associated Merchandising Corp., one of the largest buying offices in the world.
"Maybe we won't call them androgynous this time, but there are some wonderful, clean, double-breasted pantsuits around at Armani, Yves Saint Laurent and Anne Klein, for example," said Ellin Saltzman, fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue.
Androgyny has fallen out of favor, Armani said after his show last night, "because sometimes the look got offensive -- when exaggerated and totally masculine, and without some feminine relief, like a blouse in a soft fabric. Such a strong look needs equilibrium."
Other designers, particularly Luciano Soprani and Giovanna Ferragamo along with Armani and Ferre, have found ways to make essentially masculine clothes more feminine for summer without forfeiting too much of the simple style that is one of the most appealing characteristics of menswear.
They have traded neckties for other sorts of wraps that control and soften the clothes where they are tied. Fabrics are often lighter, and not only because these are spring and summer designs -- clothes are also more body-revealing in lightweight or sheer fabrics. The fits are closer, the skirts shorter and the balance tilted to a more feminine style.
Ferre built much of his very successful new collection on an oversized man's shirt, in fact one of his own. He showed it in the easiest, simplest and frankly most masculine way, coupled with trousers or shorts -- the models walked freely down the runway, one hand in a pocket. That same directness carried over to a superb, simple, red suede suit that buttoned offside and was worn with four huge agate bangles. Some of his new jackets, which dip in front, seemed to have masculine roots as well, perhaps borrowed from a cutaway or tuxedo.
Armani has the best reason possible for sticking close to his androgynous scheme. His Milan boutique, enlarged considerably since it opened only a year back, is so busy that it is apparently the one fashion store in the city that simply cannot close for lunch. And according to Sergio Galeotti, Armani's partner and friend, the boutique did a volume of $1 million on the second Saturday in September -- mostly in very androgynous women's clothes. "A very small part of that was clothing sold to men," explained Galeotti, "as men usually buy their clothing much later in the season."
The focus of Armani's spring collection is the tailored jacket -- "It's my favorite thing," he said -- and for the most part the current shape is a little shorter and a bit more fitted than in the past.
He fiddled with several trompe-l'oeil versions, some of them reminiscent of those parkas with attached vests. Others look like jackets upon jackets, but are really a single piece. "At least it will cost less than buying two separate jackets," the designer teased.
Armani's was the one major collection to be shown away from the Milan fairgrounds. After champagne, caviar sandwiches and a plate of risotto in the courtyard of his new palazzo, the audience moved to the theater downstairs in the handsome building -- which also houses the designer's apartment, workrooms and showrooms -- to watch the models parade his clothes on a glass-top runway.
They often wore high-heel shoes, a departure for Armani, and the only jewelry was a white collar worn like a necklace. Sweaters were tied around the waist, a look Armani has shown for men as well, and most of the jackets were shown with skirts at least four inches above the knee or with Bermuda shorts.
When told he had some of the shortest skirts in town, Armani laughed and said, "Thank God. The point is not to make a point of length. But there are few things that haven't been done before, and this is just a way of making clothes more contemporary. A woman should walk in them without thinking that they are short -- or thinking of them and wearing them just as a long skirt."
But when these skirts get shipped to the stores, according to Saks' Saltzman, they will hover at the top of the knee.
Armani carried this spare, short look into evening with long-tailed shirts, tunics and pullovers, some of them sheer and some beaded, worn over short shorts, which were also beaded and occasionally transparent. With his shortest boxer shorts he had his models wear a scarf around the hips, "to hide the vulgarity," he explained.
To signal the final segment of the show, the designer projected on a scrim at the top of the runway a blow-up silhouette of a woman -- his fitting model Paulette James from Chicago -- on a pedestal. "She's not a pretty face, but she can wear a rag and 1,500 people would admire the way she looks," said Armani. "Young women are very confident -- they like to be looked at."
And with the models in sheer, scanty tops and bottoms, there was a lot to see.