The house of Versace is trying to find its way from an earnest '80s glamour to a slithering, ironic sex appeal that will take fashion into the next century. It is a bumpy road, but an unavoidable one.

The transition is difficult because the differences between then and now are both subtle and complex, like the distinction between sipping expensive champagne from leaded crystal flutes and chugging it straight from the bottle. For several seasons, Donatella Versace's transition plan has been to throw everything into the mix, knowing that something will hit the target. Tonight, however, she presented a collection for spring 2000 that was sharply focused, rooted in signature Versace iconography and offered with great confidence.

Her best strokes were the prints--palm trees, palm fronds and spiraling sea grasses in shades of brilliant green and deep coral. They lent excitement to a collection based on the swirling lightness of scarves. They were used as the basis for blousy halters that tie at the neck, dresses that dip down to the navel and are cinched at the waist, and slinky blouses that trail ribbons of fabric.

For the first time in a long time, the clothes managed to outshine the celebrities--the bands All Saints and 'N Sync--that were, as usual, seated in the front row. But the scarf evening gowns, with their snaking strands of fabric, often left the models picking their way gingerly down the runway, flinging the dresses hither and yon. The gowns were also cut too high and in far too many places. All that flailing of fabric meant the audience got a glimpse of one too many thongs. The colors, too, presented a problem. While the lilac was mouthwateringly rich, it was overwhelmed by the sour orange and the Astroturf green.

It used to be that Versace defined a steaming sexuality that bubbled up and out of low-cut gowns. Anyone who wanted to understand diva fabulousness looked to Versace for direction. The house still knows how to help a woman create a heat wave when she enters a room, but it no longer is hitting the boiling point.

Miu Miu

Preppy rises again, this time in Miuccia Prada's secondary collection, Miu Miu. She gives the conservative iconography of school uniforms, bureaucrats and young Republicans her blessing with button-down shirts worn with turtlenecks and khakis.

In her presentation this afternoon, she injected the style with a few updated details such as mesh backs on pullover leather vests. A pleated skirt was stitched completely out of mesh. And button-down shirts were, in fact, bodysuits. There were liquid metal sleeveless dresses with jeweled standing collars and skinny jeweled belts encircling shirtwaist dresses. The sensibility was straight from "The Preppy Handbook," just with a little more glitz.

There weren't that many ideas, just one strong point of view in this collection. And while the evening pieces had a quiet, youthful elegance, most of the daytime sportswear pieces looked only slightly sleeker and more refined than what might be ordered out of an L.L. Bean catalogue. (Of course, that preppy stalwart doesn't accessorize its button-down shirts and pleated skirts with sexy sling-backs.) But then, the Bean catalogue doesn't have the fashion clout to send a host of designers and manufacturers scurrying to emulate it.

As the fashion shows finish here, they leave a host of trends for the spring 2000 season. Indeed, it has been a long time since the fashion industry boldly suggested so much candy for the closet. Buoyed by both the economy and the mood for frivolous indulgences, designers are offering delicate blouses speckled with polka dots or sequins, skirts covered with spiraling ruffles, trousers adorned with paillettes and jewels, colorful gowns in complicated patterns and handbags so ornate they look like bounty from the last gilded age.


Indeed, the handbag has become a precious commodity, as all of Milan and half of Paris court the Fendi family in hopes of becoming the lucky purchaser of the Rome-based manufacturer of furs, ready-to-wear and leather goods. Fendi bags, often dripping in fur, sequins, mirrors and anything else that one might pull from a treasure chest, are big business. Customers wait in line when word leaks that a new shipment has arrived. From Gucci to Prada to LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the suitors have been wining, dining and cajoling the Fendis.

And so it was hard to concentrate on the clothes that Fendi designer Karl Lagerfeld sent down the runway Thursday. But they were certainly worth noting, for Lagerfeld sent out a parade of chiffon dresses and skirts that washed over the body like a brush stroke of watercolor. They seemed haphazardly darted and stitched, as if a mad draper had wrapped the models in yards of the sheer fabric, and then began to tuck and tack the filmy material into place.

There were times when Lagerfeld misfired, as when he created spare sandals with virtually cantilevered heels that left part of the model's foot balanced precariously over an ominous-looking spike. At other times, the clothes looked so ravaged that folks might mistake the wearer for the victim of a mugging.

But those bags, tossed over the arm or shoulder of virtually every model, were really the focus. They came in long, narrow rectangles and slim squares. They were studded with small mirrors or pink plastic sequins, or had painted pastoral scenes. The success of those bags has undoubtedly encouraged other designers to send their models out swinging satchels of all shapes.

Alberta Ferretti, Marni

In Alberta Ferretti's signature collection, there were bucket bags in brightly dyed faux pony, and at Marni, the purses were spotted with plastic polka dots in Crayola colors. Both collections continued down a familiar path of girlish glitz.

At Ferretti's presentation Thursday, the collection was filled with topiary skirts carved out of ruffles, gauzy dresses with scribbles of embroidery, charming chiffon blouses and jacquard pants. There were plenty of familiar notes in the collection, including Ferretti's signature dresses with romantic beading. It was a pretty collection and one that would take a woman back to memories of her youth.

At Marni, the collection takes a woman back to the crib. The line was filled with bright, polka-dot-printed skirts, apron dresses and short-sleeve shirts. There were inlaid plastic circles and metallic sequins the size of quarters. There were so many spots that one's eyes began to dilate and spin like some cartoon character struck on the head with a gavel. Indeed, there was a cartoon quality to the entire collection, including the op-art flowers on white leather coats and ruffled chiffon dresses.

The image coming from the Gianfranco Ferre runway this week was women being caged. The designer put on a collection of architectural experiments in which he explored the hourglass shape with stiff basket dresses that laced up the back like Scarlett O'Hara's corset. Wrap dresses encircled the body like straw mats. And there were subtle hoop skirts with hemlines of ruffles.

To Ferre's credit, the collection offered interesting comments on the nature of shape--both natural and artificial. In many cases, Ferre used the construction of underpinnings, from corsets to bodysuits, to inspire the silhouette of the outer garment. But somewhere in the midst of Ferre's analysis of structure and line, women were lost. They were transformed into mannequins whose sole purpose was to act as infrastructure.

By the time of Ferre's finale of evening gowns, with floor-length skirts and lavish collars that swirled and curved like frozen sails, the collection had become pure sculpture. And the models were encased in his indulgent vision.

Indulgence has been the overwhelming theme for the collections in Milan this season. Aside from rebels such as Miuccia Prada and Jil Sander, most collections have focused on flash and ostentation. If a woman were in search of a pair of rock star trousers, spring 2000 is the season to make such purchases. But it looks as though designers have opted out of offering women the building blocks for a wardrobe. To be sure, staples such as fine cashmere sweaters and workaday suits were tucked away in most showrooms. But when designers put their news on the runway, when they presented their most forward-thinking visions, it was clear their emphasis and interest is in specialty items. The simple trousers, the functional sweater, the versatile jacket--let the mass-market manufacturers do that. Indeed, why should designers tout their basics when fine-quality staples have trickled down to every price point?

The spring shows reaffirm the well-known houses as laboratories of design. To buy a designer garment, so goes the new logic, is to purchase something that is loudly--even a bit obnoxiously--distinct. At least for a season or two. Even Giorgio Armani is exploring ways to distinguish himself as companies from Country Road to Ann Taylor do acceptable "Armani-like" suits. Quality still matters, and designers are quick to point out their attention to detail and their luxurious fabrics. But more than quality, it is idiosyncratic flash that is driving the fashion engine.