MILAN -- Those who hoped designers had gotten over short skirts by now better think again. Here in Milan, where Round 1 of the spring fashion shows began Sunday, skirts are, if anything, getting shorter.
If you were looking for long skirts this week you would have to go to the showrooms of the fashion avant-garde. Short skirts are mainstream. Long skirts are being shown primarily by designers such as Romeo Gigli and Dolce and Gabbana, whose monasterial style appeals to a rather small group of women.
It is no surprise that designers here think briefer is better. They need only walk outside their offices on the Via della Spiga or the Via Montenapoleone where the chic women stroll and shop. Many Milanese women are wearing above-the-knee-length skirts. While some of the young wear them scarcely longer than a bandage, mothers and daughters, often walking together, show hems an inch or two above the knee, as do the hundreds of worldwide fashion journalists who have come to cover the six or eight shows being staged each day.
In boutiques like the Fendi shop here and in Rome, the short tent coat, for example, is far outselling the longer styles. "We were surprised," admitted Carla Fendi. "We were sure the long coat would sell better."
The signals for the short skirt are good in the States, too, according to the American buyers and merchandisers. Dawn Mello, president of Bergdorf Goodman, says that short skirts are selling over long more than two to one. At Saks Fifth Avenue, short outsells long three to two, according to a representative. And at Bloomingdale's it's short over long, three to one -- even in Washington. A pretty convincing picture.
The Krizia collection, with some of the prettiest and most agreeable ways to wear the briefer length, includes a rounded, oval-shape skirt as an alternative to the short straight skirt. It also shows many Bermuda-length shorts, meant to be worn with tailored jackets for the office. "I've been proposing them for a long time," says Mandelli. She has seen them on the streets in New York. With coordinated hose and flat shoes, she finds, they are an appropriately modest look for business.
Most other designers agree. Giorgio Armani obviously expects young women to go the office in shorts. In his lower-priced line called Emporio, Armani created the newest definition of the success suit: gray striped shorts, rolled several times at the hem, worn with a short navy double-breasted jacket, a blouse with scalloped collar, gloves, hose and flat shoes.
Gianni Versace, whose suits were the shortest and the most influential last season -- copies of his tiered, pleated and bow-tied skirts are in all the stores here now -- has come up with new variations on the short skirt. Some are wonderful, like the prints or the pleats. Others are silly, like full bloomers under short coats and jackets, or bicycle pants coordinated to miniskirts.
Carla Fendi, who leads the five Fendi sisters at the Fendi house in Rome, remembers the mini in its last incarnation and is not surprised by its return. "Women today are struggling to present themselves in a feminine way," she said before the Fendi show yesterday. For a long time women in business were confined to styles that "suffocated femininity" with mannish cuts and oversized clothes that disguised the figure. "Now that women have achieved important positions in business and professions, they are rediscovering how good it feels to look feminine again."
Fendi doesn't think short skirts are just for the young. "Women used to think that in their 'third life,' what I call women over 55, they needed clothes that would change the look of their figures. Now women are looking after their bodies -- having some intelligent surgery like removing double chins but leaving in character lines. Fashion in a revealing way used to be just for the young. But no more."
For more than a year now she has been wearing above-the-knee skirts designed for Fendi by Karl Lagerfeld. She isn't sure about the longer skirts that Lagerfeld has scattered through this collection of what he calls "nonstop lengths." Says Fendi: "I'm going to have to try it and see how it feels."
Fendi has not been the only collection where long skirts are an alternative. In a remarkable collection of pastel suede, some woven to look like the lightest-weight linen, Mario Valentino showed an occasional long skirt, always unbuttoned in front to show off a lot of leg. The two young designers for Byblos, Keith Varty and Alan Cleaver, showed a few long skirts as an alternative to shorts or short skirts.
At Gianfranco Ferre, where the shortest skirts in town were sent down the runway, the designer not only bared the knee, but the breast as well. Using a black sheer fabric usually reserved for lingerie, Ferre showed see-through tops, sometimes blouses under jackets, sometimes embroidered to give some modesty, but most often unadorned. Only by the rest of the costume could you figure out where to wear it. "The ones worn with the flat shoes are for the beach," Ferre explained. "I showed this kind of thing in my couture collection. I think it is very pure," he said after his show.
See-through tops last surfaced in the '60s and were worn with miniskirts. So far, only Ferre has put the two ideas together again. "I don't think the time has come to go back to that," said Ellin Saltzman of Saks Fifth Avenue. "I don't see any reason for it."