The day before his show today, Stefano Gabbana, half of the design team Dolce & Gabbana, talked about the famous open-air market in Palermo that inspired their spring '00 womenswear collection.

From their earliest days, the two have been influenced by the texture of southern Italy, so the market metaphor was not particularly remarkable. But Gabbana continued with a simple comment that there were no complicated or deeply intellectual notions woven through the collection. He and his partner just wanted to conjure a sense of "happiness."

But sometimes the simplest ideas are the most difficult to achieve. It is easy to create a collection that is dour and distressing. Cut a dress too tight--so a woman can't walk comfortably--and you've managed to stitch up a quite disturbing look. Put models in black and have them walk the runway looking down-in-the-mouth, and you've offered a straightforward study in depression.

But how can a collection convey the creators' joy in life? How can it lift the wearers' spirits?

Dolce and Gabbana began in the garden of their palazzo. They transformed the inside of an enormous white tent into the market that had inspired their work. Multicolored lights twinkled above a pond filled with goldfish. Light bulbs were covered with makeshift lampshades made of old citrus boxes. A woman, her red lipstick scribbled on in a mad dash, handed out marzipan fruits and fish, chocolate cookies and slices of pistachio-laden nougat.

Farther along, an enormous fruit-and-vegetable stand overflowed with pears and eggplant and grapes the size of cherry tomatoes. There were boxes loaded with chickpeas, pistachios and figs. As audience members wandered from stand to stand, their eyes lit up like children awakened by a surprising bit of sorcery.

To the mix of audience and splendid backdrop, add stars: Whitney Houston--who wore the designers' clothes on her most recent tour--and husband Bobby Brown swept in with their entourage. Houston emerged in leopard-print pants, a jeweled brocade jacket and a Swarovski crystal choker that rode high on her neck. Salma Hayek was there, too, sitting in the front row with a Dolce & Gabbana handbag planted on her lap.

When the clothes began to tumble out, it was clear that the designers had given in to decadence and fantasy. As Gabbana had explained earlier, the clothes they put on the runway are like a dessert. The suits, the sweaters, the simple blouses are the bulk of the collection--some 70 percent of it--from one season to the next. The runway pieces are those that dreams are made of.

There were black three-piece trouser suits worn with jeweled foulards and rhinestone-encrusted fedoras. Micro-miniskirts, barely 10 inches long, were adorned with a rhinestone belt buckle and worn with an oversize chiffon blouse that barely veiled a crystal-studded brassiere. There were fringed boots and sequined skirts and a host of other finery that left the eyes numb because the audience had forgotten to blink.

To be sure, this collection continues the decadent delight that Dolce & Gabbana have celebrated for several seasons. But this time, there seemed to be more pieces for women who don't live their lives onstage. These fashion splurges--for they are priced to empty the average bank account--included jet-beaded trouser suits, grand blouses with oversize cuffs and wide collars and decorated trousers that might make an appearance once a year but could keep a woman amused for a lifetime.

Jil Sander

Jil Sander presented a collection today that made her seem happier and more lighthearted than other recent offerings have. She showed pleated white sundresses that wrapped tentatively around the body. Glazed coral slip dresses reflected warm light on the model's face. Western-style shirts were cut in crisp, starched white. And there were flowers. Big, bold, op-art flowers adorned tops and bottoms and injected the collection with springtime cheer. But Sander avoided any sense of ostentation by turning the floral fabric inside out so the deepest hues were on the inside of the garment, the flowers blossoming toward the body.

Suggesting that this provided insight into how the designer expresses happiness and good cheer--perhaps with great reserve?--might be too presumptuous. But Sander offers a reticent soul ways to be comfortably gleeful.

Genny, Mila Schon

At Genny, designer Josephus Thimister showed a collection Wednesday inspired by dance and the joy of movement. While one couldn't quite picture how dance figured into his presentation of slim trousers and fragile blouses that wrapped and fluttered around the neck, it didn't really matter. Sometimes a theme just confuses the point.

The important matter is that the clothes were beautiful. They were light and airy, the kind of garments that can make a woman feel pretty on days when everything else is conspiring against her.

The Mila Schon collection had moments like that, too. When a model came down the runway Wednesday in the most delicate pale peach dress, its ruffled edges fluttering like butterfly wings, one was transported from the center of concrete-and-steel Milan to a meadow of sweet grass.

But then, something awful would appear. Cumbersome skirts stood away from the waist. A polka-dot clown suit assaulted the eyes.

Still, one has to marvel at the transformation of Mila Schon from a line dominated by stodgy old-lady suits (and who wants to be thought of as an old lady regardless of age?) to one dotted with sleek tunic dresses and cropped jackets with zippered sleeves. The collection slowly is finding its place.

Narciso Rodriguez

Narciso Rodriguez managed to find joy in a collection with such punk overtones as slashed sweaters and staple-studded dresses. He made punk refined and pretty, using it to bring character or reassuring imperfection to a glossy sensibility. He layered gauzy sweaters over sequined underpinnings. The hem of a tank top was torn but covered with beads. There were sleek suits in a season when suits have become rare. And there were slashed dresses in white, sugary pink and black.

The collection was a soothing departure from the Vegas glamour that has dominated the runways, but it also had warmth. Rodriguez kept a firm hand on his collection, never allowing it to ruminate on gloom or disillusionment.

Giorgio Armani

When a collection like Dolce & Gabbana goes full-throttle glitzy, Giorgio Armani can be expected to be the voice of reason and cool restraint. But at a time when Cher, David Bowie, Sean "Puffy" Combs and other extroverts are hailed as style icons, is there a place for those who prefer that their clothes not announce their mood? When good taste is pushed aside like a party pooper, how does a man known for his ability to see beauty in 100 shades of beige respond?

Armani throws a party. He launches a new fragrance, Mania. He puts on his show in a recently purchased warehouse space and flashes bold colors such as fuchsia and cobalt blue throughout the building. He calls in celebrities: Glenn Close, Tina Turner, Sophia Loren, Ricky Martin and more.

And he presents a collection inspired by the work of Russian expressionist artist Wassili Kandinsky. Using his signature geometric shapes and gently faded colors, Armani on Wednesday presented a collection of beautifully cropped jackets in delicate colors with metallic finishes. He offered some of the season's most beautiful swimsuits in soothing shades of pink and periwinkle blue and demurely topped by long, sheer skirts or barely there shorts.

The use of color and pattern became bold as the collection moved into evening wear. And that is where Armani showed that he, too, can offer a full palette of color and a fireworks display of beading. He offered skirts that merged Russian peasantry with '60s hippies and high-voltage Technicolor. Blink once, twice, three times. And there was more color, more beads . . . more, more, more.

Still, it wasn't enough to wipe away a lifetime of reserve and control pulling at the collection. Like a fella on a dance floor who just can't cut loose, there was a holding back, an inability to put everything out there.

To be sure, he should be applauded for dancing at all, for taking a risk. Instead of sophisticated beading on a sleek sheath, Armani moved into the realm of splashy beading on a full skirt or a sexy camisole. But still his models walked slowly, serenely. It's a perfect attitude when one is draped in sophistication and elegance, but it is distinctly at odds when decked out for brashness.

After the finale, Armani exchanged his usual quiet stage bow for a trot down the runway with his arms raised. It was nice to see him so animated. And it was invigorating to see so much color on his runway. But Armani hasn't quite found his niche at a time when fashion is ruled by designers who wear their emotions on their sleeves.

CAPTION: Dolce & Gabbana created a market to display their rich confections.

CAPTION: Genny's dance-inspired slim trousers and fragile blouse.

CAPTION: Narciso Rodriguez's collection opts for refinement, while stripes brighten a stretchy Dolce & Gabbana tube top and a Giorgio Armani peasant dress.