Miuccia Prada and Tom Ford of Gucci, the two most influential designers in Milan--perhaps in any city--are inspired by sincerity and terror.

Gucci's Ford says the only way to stretch one's creative limits is to push until one feels the terror of having gone too far. Without that adrenaline rush that comes from racing headlong down the side of a mountain, creativity comes to a standstill, he says.

And so for spring '00, Ford has taken a risk by infusing luxury and wealth with punk rock brashness. After stepping over the edge into sensory overload in his fall collection--which included beads, sequins, feathers, crushed velvet, ruching, gathering and every other trick a Las Vegas costumer might have up her sleeve--there was nothing to do but retreat, to find some other enticing wrapper in which to package the glamorous life.

While Ford did not consciously mine the '70s for ideas, he found that he was influenced by a subconscious fascination for that decade when "things were very streamlined, simple, but in very luxurious materials."

The collection, shown this evening, was striking in its adherence to snakeskin, shimmering jersey and bejeweled trousers. Ford offers black jersey dresses with only a single sleeve and a back slashed open to the waist. There are python print dresses with drawstring necklines. Slim-fitting trousers that flare at the hem and shrunken jackets have the embossed pattern of reptile scales.

To be sure, there was glitz in this collection, from sparkling shirt dresses to glittering shoulder bags with chain-link straps. There was also a restraint that has been missing from the Gucci collection for several seasons. But spring '00 represents a shift. There was no denim on this runway, even though Ford was instrumental in the denim revival. There were no sexy stiletto sling-backs, although such Guccis adorn the feet of a host of fashionable women.

Instead, there were new choices and shapes, many of which are unnerving because they have not been seen for so long. Shimmering jersey? It has been missing from the runways for more than a decade. Sometimes it looks cheap and tawdry. At other times, it can be intriguing. His chunky sandals look too heavy, too cumbersome, but then again, maybe not.

What remains for the customer, of course, was the Gucci sexiness and haughty display of wealth. And for Ford, there should be the satisfaction that his fear, that terror before the risk, produced a provocative statement.

Last season, one could hardly concentrate on the clothes for all of the intrigue in the Gucci boardroom as the company fought off a takeover by LVMH Moet Hennessey Louis Vuitton. The business distractions of this season have Gucci on the offensive. The company is in the midst of talks to purchase Yves Saint Laurent. And the Italian luxury house also is reportedly wooing Fendi. The enticement of Fendi is its successful accessories business. But the lure of Yves Saint Laurent is emotional as well as financial. Ford could have the opportunity to design for the iconic YSL label, which for all intents and purposes is responsible for putting women in trousers.

"I think every designer of my generation has been inspired by Yves Saint Laurent and what he did in the '60s and '70s," Ford said today. "Everything I've ever done has probably been inspired by Saint Laurent to some respect."

Miuccia Prada

The early word on Miuccia Prada's signature collection was that she was returning to Junior League primness with modest skirts and the invoking of dowdy as chic. But the collection that came down the runway Monday deserved the title "sincere chic." It suggested a knowing resignation that all along, through Prada's recent history of cacophonous prints, sequined latex and hunter-gatherer glamour, we all knew that chic was something both simple and obvious. It was a fine cardigan tossed over the shoulders, a pair of sexy high heels, a skirt that leaves a little something to the imagination. These were the components of Prada's spring collection.

To be sure, Prada's version of a modest skirt is more eccentric than most. Hers is adorned with a bright red lipstick print. Other versions have prints of black or brown hearts. The shoes for spring have a high sturdy heel, but they do not come in outlandish colors or patterns. Indeed, Prada shoes, once delightfully quirky while still being wearable, had transformed into ridiculous traps for fashion victims. They came in garish colors and with absurd heels. Rather than invoking images of a slightly offbeat young woman, one envisioned a batty relative who had taken up residence in the attic.

The collection is filled with delicate knits, from cardigans to turtlenecks. There are ostrich leather skirts in purple and camel and they are paired with matching coats or a high-neck blouse with a scarf tie, an inset yoke and shoulder pads. It's the dress-for-success look of a long-gone era. But in this case, a woman can choose whether to wear it, rather than follow some unspoken mandate that keeps her femininity under wraps.

It seems early for the fashion pendulum to shift away from girlishness, overt glamour and glitz. It feels as though the bartender is announcing last call before the clock has even struck midnight. But Prada has always been ahead of the wave and if her track record endures, it's best to get one's fill of glitz now because fashion is headed toward a moment that is more refined and mature but unfortunately not nearly as much fun.

The influence and assuredness of Prada and Ford were particularly striking as they were presented in the midst of collections from Max Mara, Anna Molinari and Missoni, which all seemed to be struggling creatively.

Max Mara

Max Mara, the powerhouse sportswear firm, presented a collection today that tried to take advantage of the interest in denim and jean styling. There were dusty brown coat dresses and gold studded coats. Navy pinstripe backless dresses were worn with opaque tights and low-heeled sling-backs, which kept slipping off the models' feet as they walked the runway. There were awkward prints in plum that harked back four years to Prada's ugly phase. And rest assured these prints haven't gotten better with age.

There were a handful of enticing items, such as a patent leather western-style jacket in pale lilac. But such pleasant memories were quickly erased by purple knee-length skirts covered in shark's-tooth paillettes. The collection was unfocused and left one with the feeling that the design team had had a brawl backstage and the models were emerging splattered with conflicting ideas.

Angela Missoni

Angela Missoni's presentation Monday was not burdened with vagaries and cross-purposes but rather too few ideas. There were beautiful ponchos in the Missoni signature zigzag weave. The poncho reached beyond the knees and hung off one shoulder, giving one a look of distracted chic. There were beautiful tunics and caftans in an op-art weave with golden circles, chocolate-brown rectangles and bars of green. It conjured up romantic visions of exotic beaches, champagne and oysters. There were knit bikinis in stripes and abstract patterns. But they were topped with fishnet coverups that left models looking as though they should be trailing seaweed and fish. Coverups constructed of fine swags of thread--like some elaborate tapestry that had unraveled--revealed far too many nipples. Is it too much to ask that a model put on the whole bikini and not just the bottom? Missoni is a clothing manufacturer, after all, not a breast merchant.

Rosella Tarabini for Anna Molinari

Rosella Tarabini for Anna Molinari offered a more modest collection this morning, but it was burdened with awkward silhouettes that even the most regal model could not infuse with dignity.

Tarabini's less ambitious ideas were the strongest, including her pantsuits with long, flared jackets and full trousers and hot pink sequined slip dresses and pants. Her searing colors and exuberant use of floral patterns gave the collection a festive mood. But high concept notions such as pieces based on the classic Pierrot figure had models wearing polka-dotted organza dresses, with huge, cheek-grazing, puffy sleeves and a full ruffled skirt. Looking as though they were headed to some Brobdingnagian tea party, the models were an incongruous sight as they slunk down the runway in high-heeled gold sandals. Who could imagine a woman dressed in such a way operating a mobile phone, engaging in e-commerce or boarding a plane?

The trick of great design is to create for one's time. Those who spend too much time savoring the past become obsolete . . . or costumers. Those who aggressively try to create something new--to reinvent the skirt, for example--wind up, with only a few exceptions, making clothes that look exactly like what they are: failed experiments.

And while there are clunkers in every collection, at least a collection inspired by the here and now, by lives filled with technology, time deficits and popular culture, offer insight and lessons that have enduring worth.

CAPTION: Streamlined and luxurious: Tom Ford adds glitz to the Gucci collection with sparkling dresses.

CAPTION: Modest and eccentric: Miuccia Prada is sincerely chic with a beige leather skirt and lilac cardigan.

CAPTION: Shirt and shorts by Max Mara, left, and Missoni's net poncho over swimsuit.

CAPTION: A cutout bodysuit by Gucci and a patterned jacket and skirt by Anna Molinari.