With the spring '00 shows underway here this week, one can be easily distracted by the absurd.

On Sunday, designer Antonio Berardi presented his collection in a dimly lit corridor filled with cavorting gymnasts and their equipment. The collection was dominated by cropped trousers with one of the most unflattering silhouettes ever devised. The pants sat extremely low on the hips, possibly the most awkward and uncomfortable point along a woman's pelvis. The trousers dipped into a V-shape in the rear to reveal an embarrassing view of derriere cleavage. The pants were cropped at just the right point on a woman's calves to make her legs look like overstuffed wieners. And just in case all of that didn't make for the ugliest trousers ever seen, they came in stunningly unattractive colors.

Ugly by itself is not a sin, just an unfortunate miscalculation--although one would have had to put quite an effort into creating trousers so noxious. But having a model nearly tumble off the catwalk is something else entirely.

Berardi's runway was constructed so that at the appropriate time, smoke would pour from the catwalk and the models would seem to emerge from some particularly awful corner of Hell. Or maybe it was simply intended to be a poorly ventilated locker room. In any case, there was steam and a model emerged in a slim-fitting evening gown of pale pink threads looped to resemble old-fashioned Venetian curtains. As she descended the three steps from the catwalk, her spike heels got tangled in the weblike structure of the floor-length gown.

Like a trapped fly, the more she tried to free herself, the more entangled she became, until finally she was so hobbled by the horrid gown that someone from the audience had to help free the poor child. Perhaps if Berardi had been designing with more sensitivity to a woman's need to walk, an embarrassing moment might have been averted.

Incidents like those have a way of shifting attention from the business of clothes. And so one often needs to be reminded of what all this drama and tomfoolery may ultimately mean. It helps to browse the shops and eye the passersby.

For example, several shopping streets in Milan resemble an ode to designer Miuccia Prada: They are lined with knockoffs of her olive-and-orange fall line, particularly the distinctive look of leaves appliqued and grommetted onto skirts and handbags. Inspired by Fendi, store windows are chock-full of small rectangular shoulder bags in eclectic materials such as faux pony skin, nubby knits and fake fur. And the manufacturers of the decorated denim that dominates store racks from Milan to Montgomery Mall should pay royalties to Gucci's Tom Ford, who first put gilded jeans on the runway last year.

The lesson, of course, is that these runways could lead anywhere, even into extremely lucrative territory. A designer may make a few hundred thousand dollars on an iconic style. But the idea could be worth millions to a garment industry that thrives on imitation.

D&G

So it is with great concern that one examines the work of designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana in their D&G secondary line, which they presented Saturday. In a flurry of punk safety pins and glamour girl pearls, models rounded the runway in micro miniskirts, studded trousers, graffiti-splattered blouses, shirts covered with tiny metal crosses, postcard-print matching separates, enormous gold chains and fishnet tights. It was a collection of contrasts: Madonna vs. whore, rock vs. rap. There was a flirtation with pinstriped suits with provocative slits, but that idea was quickly put to rest in a hail of street style.

D&G's European expression of street style is far more erotic than American versions, which emphasize price tags and labels. The miniskirts, worn without leggings, were little more than swatches of cloth about the width of one's hand. And there was less of the American fascination with the urban armor of utilitarian trousers, androgynous shapes and rubber-soled flats.

One can't help but marvel at the woman who could, and would, wear clothes that are so revealing and that have such a remarkably aggressive attitude. But instead of envying such a woman, one wonders precisely when she will grow out of such mischievous clothes.

So far, the punk interlude from D&G has been the most visually assaulting. The other collections shown so far have been filled with ruffles, restrained servings of sequins and jewels, and fabrics as pale and delicate as morning mist.

Emporio Armani

In Armani's Emporio collection, shown today, the emphasis was on cropped trousers. In yet another example of the runway's influence, manufacturers cranked out capris and cropped pants for this summer, and women embraced them with a vengeance. Armani continues those silhouettes but moves them off the playground and into restaurants, theaters and chic bars. He cuts them from delicate fabrics in shades of ocean blue and sprinkles them with sequins or adorns them with swirling embroidery.

The roster includes filmy skirts, ruffled and sleeveless blouses and blouson jackets. Mostly, however, these familiar shapes are cut from fabrics so light and airy that they float away without leaving much of an impression. And the presentation of the clothes with heavy suede Robin Hood boots threatened to undo the splendid impression made by the enticing trousers. Indeed, the pants, with the casualness of leggings or pajamas but the perfectly pitched breathy elegance of a sari or a djellaba, remained in one's mind long after the last model disappeared.

Philosophy di Alberta Ferretti

While Emporio Armani boasts a refined informality, Philosophy di Alberta Ferretti is reminiscent of lovingly stitched schoolgirl clothes. The most striking element of the garments in this secondary line is how beautifully they appear to be made. There are cropped jackets with fine tucking through the bodice. Empire-waist dresses have gentle gathers under the bosom. The ruffled hem on a dress or neckline of a blouse looks as though it has been done slowly, methodically and with a perfectionist's eye.

To be sure, the seed for all of those ruffles, peasant skirts and off-the-shoulder blouses was planted by Prada's Miu Miu line several seasons ago. But Ferretti has allowed those ideas to blossom into notions that are decidedly her own. There is a gentleness to the collection often missing from Prada. And there is far less need to be eccentric.

But rare is the schoolgirl mature enough to take care of such finely made clothes, or even to appreciate them. And there are few women--even those in their twenties--who still relish being described as cute, precious or adorable. The great conundrum of these frocks is also what makes them special. They are so girlish, so fresh and delightful that they conjure all manner of sweet nostalgia. But they also serve as reminders that by the time one can appreciate such memories and the joy of such clothes, one is too old for them.

Byblos

Designer John Bartlett's moody red lights and runway, and the hypnotic jangling of chimes, would have been more effective after stepping in from a glimmering twilight rather than the glare of a merciless morning sun. But timing was only a superficial flaw in his collection for Byblos. More problematic were the stiff satin fabrics at odds with the figure-hugging silhouettes. Strapless dresses with swallow-tailed hemlines seemed to bob up and down as a model walked instead of gently fluttering. When the fabrics were light, as with creamy white dresses that dangled by a few well-placed threads, they seemed in danger of plummeting to the ground.

The strength of the collection was its tailoring, with mannish trousers and smart jackets in pristine white. But the rest of the collection, which focused on skirts and dresses, never made a strong statement about what distinguishes these frocks from all the others competing for a woman's attention.

Antonio d'Amico

A host of fashion shows, installations and exhibits this week also are struggling for attention. Designer Antonio d'Amico mounted a womenswear runway presentation for the first time. D'Amico, better known for his long personal relationship with the late Gianni Versace than for his fashion label, attracted a full house Sunday to see his "space wear." D'Amico's presentation ran long and came with live performers.

Unfortunately, D'Amico had little to say. His collection was dominated by simple lines with a utilitarian signature.

CAPTION: D&G flaunted the streetwalker look with gaudy prints, slit skirts and down-to-there necklines.

CAPTION: Finery has a decidedly hard edge for spring: Boots walk the walk with swingy skirts at Emporio Armani, from left, and Philosophy di Alberta Ferretti. Gold lame sharpens a Byblos bikini, and diamonds add sparkle aplenty to an Antonio d'Amico wedding gown.