Italy just weathered its coldest winter in 40 years, so no wonder all the designers here are showing big, long coats for next fall.
The biggest, warmest and most luxurious by far were shown by Fendi this week in a collection by Karl Lagerfeld, who proved that there isn't anything others can do in silk or wool that he can't do in fur.
No matter that he doesn't always know what fur he's using -- the pros in the audience were often stumped as well. He has created the most lavish styles, worthy of any czarina, layering fur upon fur, embellishing the look with double sleeves, huge fur hats that look like free-form clouds, and big fur shoulder bags, often teamed with fake fur stretch pants. For the fun of it, he even showed fur-trimmed glasses, a fur leotard and fur-trimmed shoes.
"The truth is, I really prefer the simpler things," said actress Catherine Deneuve, a Fendi fur collector who watched the show, chewing gum, in a front-row seat at the Fiera, or fairgrounds.
In fact, it is the simpler cuts, the oversized, classic shapes, that are the most extraordinary. The first coat shown in a collection of more than 200 pieces was a stenciled Persian lamb that looked brocaded, an extraordinary feat of technology by the Fendi sisters and one that separates their designs from most others.
Like the jackets or sweaters shown under them, these new coats -- which Lagerfeld also showed in wool -- are shaped with huge shoulders more rounded than last fall's. While the silhouette is hardly new, the refinement of this look through fabric and color is expected to stir up healthy sales.
But coats are not the only designs American stores hope will catch on with customers. Among the other offerings they are banking on:
* Pants, showing up in all the collections, stretched in a sleek line from hip to ankle like ski pants, anchored with a stirrup under the arch of the foot. Jodhpurs and narrow trousers are a popular variation.
* A leaner look in general, often with the waistline defined by a belt or shaped into the cut.
* Slim knee-length skirts, usually worn with colored tights and flat shoes. The longer, fuller skirt is a popular alternative but never looks as new.
* The short jacket, sometimes cropped at the waist, or a bit longer and belted to flare over the hip.
* Dark colors, particularly black and gray, although in virtually every collection bright jewel tones are used as accents.
* Mixed fabrics, this year including more luxury weaves, such as velvet and Lurex, for daytime wear.
Stores have always counted on the Italian collections for tailored sportswear handsomely done in fabrics produced here. But this season the designers have put a strong emphasis on evening clothes.
"My customers ask me for more evening clothes -- they are the ones who decide what I do," said Gianni Versace, who used generous doses of lame', velvet, Lurex and sequins in what Wendall Ward, merchandising manager at Garfinckel's, thinks are the best dressy clothes in Italy at the moment.
But it was Giorgio Armani who surprised everyone. He has always included some evening styles in his collections, but for next fall he showed dressed-up versions of the clean, spare daytime clothes that have created his following.
In his 10th-anniversary collection -- shown over two consecutive evenings to crowds sitting on velvet-covered bleachers downstairs in the house where he lives and works -- Armani made only gentle changes in his daytime designs. His suits continue to be short and spare, except for the long, straight coats often with the flat Peter Pan collar he has used before on blouses.
He has added waist-length jackets this year, and has made some of the longer jacket styles more fitted with cartridge pleats at the waist. Jackets are paired with knee-length skirts, sometimes surprisingly matched to the fabric of the jacket, or with straight-cut pants or the best jodhpur in town, sometimes done in stretch velvet and finished with a spat over the shoe.
For Kal Ruttenstein, fashion director of Bloomingdale's, Armani's evening clothes (along with the Keith Varty collection for Byblos) were the strongest shown all week. "There are a lot of women who don't want to dress up in fancy ball gowns for evening, and Armani gave them an alternative," he said.
Armani's alternative was a natural one -- the same simple day-wear shapes, the same fabric mixes, the same menswear patterns, such as plaids and herringbone, but shown with shine for evening. Sometimes he added clear sequins to his strong black-and-white plaids to make them sparkle. To make them more feminine he added crinolines. Better still were the lean, shimmering chemises and gunmetal pleated pants and matching tops.
For his finale, Armani presented his gleaming evening clothes in a tableau, the models posed in two-story cubicles like dolls on curio shelves.
Said Marilyn Kaplan, senior vice president of Neiman-Marcus: "That grand finale was real showmanship. Isn't that what the fashion business is all about?"