Before his fall presentation here over the weekend, designer Stefano Gabbana was describing the collection that he and partner Domenico Dolce planned to put on the runway. After a rather lengthy discussion about how it would reflect the convergence of romance and technology, he added that, as usual, the collection would be molto sexy -- very sexy.
The Dolce & Gabbana aesthetic has always been based on the notion that women's clothes should be body-conscious, provocative and ultimately sexy. Whenever the designers have been asked to describe a collection, whether it is based on Sicilian mothers, disco dancers or a lush market, the conversation invariably gets around to sex. One can't help but believe that in the minds of these two designers, a trip to the fruit stand is envisioned as an all-you-can-eat banquet on the order of "9 1/2 Weeks."
Some might call that point of view narrow. Others would simply say it is focused and has helped the private company grow into a global concern with reported revenue in 2002 of $343 million. But, in fact, sex always seems to be at the core of fashion here. Donatella Versace and Roberto Cavalli engage in the boisterous celebration of steamy romps in the bedroom -- or wherever the sexual pressure happens to blow. They move back and forth across the porous border between sexy and trashy. Others create clothes that are a reaction against the overt exploitation of sexuality. Alberta Ferretti, Miuccia Prada and Marni's Consuelo Castiglioni have collections that are aggressively girlish or subversively masculine.
This is a city that adores the pinup girl clothes seem incapable of containing. Indeed, many television commentators who focus on fashion arrive at the runway presentations in thigh-revealing frocks and with enough cleavage and hair volume to win a Cosmo cover.
Milan put more stock in the name-brand sexy models of the 1980s and early '90s than any other fashion center. Even when most designers in Paris and New York focused on mannequins that were wan or androgynous, Italian designers maintained their affection for the va-va-voom women whose figures could make a mourning dress and veil look like one big come-on.
Milan was where crowds of teenagers -- and a few grown men, too -- would run screaming toward a moving vehicle if they were given the slightest indication that the model Naomi Campbell might be inside. This season, Gabbana talked happily of having booked Linda Evangelista to an exclusive deal for his show. Giorgio Armani couldn't resist having former swimsuit siren Rebecca Romijn-Stamos close his show. And the design team of brothers Dan and Dean Caten, who debuted their womenswear under the label D Squared, set the entire production against the backdrop of supermodels descending the steps of a private jet as a mob of fans loudly proclaimed their adoration. The show, by the way, opened with Campbell wearing a thick, long forest green cardigan, heels and a pair of brown shorts that sat so high on her derriere it revealed parts of the rear end that should be unveiled only in the commode. She was wearing some sort of a shirt, but with all of that drama below the waist, who would notice whether it was a blouson or T?
In fashion, it's easy to sell even the dullest frock on the runway if you hike up the hemline or make it sheer enough that the model finds herself putting on the kind of show that's usually preceded by the word "peep." There is no shame in using these crass tricks; they certainly help keep the audience awake.
Alberta Ferretti Alberta Ferretti put her signature collection on the catwalk Monday night and, as usual, it was a feminine line of gentle chiffon dresses and sturdy tweeds. It was also peppered with short paneled skirts in cherry patent leather and color-blocked coats in shades of ruby and grape. Ferretti rejects the idea that a woman has to reveal herself to be seductive. She has always championed public flirtation and private consummation.
Even when Ferretti offers workday clothes, they are always feminine, deliciously colored and with a quiet delicacy. Her ribboned dresses are aimed at the woman who proudly displays her femininity and rarely feels the need for hard edges or strict tailoring to access her sense of authority.
But the catwalk is a stage like any other. It requires the bold gesture. Just as television sitcoms have loathsome laugh tracks, fashion shows have "canned" applause. It ripples through the audience at inconsequential moments and most often is initiated by an employee trying to sway opinion by the power of suggestion. At the Ferretti show, applause erupted for a playful dress of creamy beaded fringe that looked like something Goldie Hawn might have worn on "Laugh-In." But there was another burst of applause for an utterly dreary sheer black chiffon gown with knife pleats and ribbons in awkward places. The only explanation seemed to be that the crowd was applauding the model's breasts, which were visibly perky beneath the thin veil of fabric.
Marni, Prada, Miu Miu Sex appeal may be calibrated to varying degrees on the catwalk, but there are few designers in this city who can avoid the topic entirely. When one considers a line like Marni, where the models clip-clopped around the runway this morning like they were on their way to the corner store, it at first seems like an anomaly. The collection is made up of a spirited mix of eccentric color combinations -- brown, gold and rose -- as well as short swing skirts and tops constructed from a collage of fabrics. It is a woman's line with a girlish sensibility. There are no traces of an adult's grave burdens or tedious responsibilities in the parade of rosy-cheeked models wearing their wool Bermuda shorts, wide patchwork belts and thigh-high boots that miraculously manage to achieve ruggedness rather than raunchiness. The collection is playful and naive, and that is a wonderful thing. Still, the line hints at warm sparks with its pale pink short skirts splashed with silver glitter.
Prada understands how to exploit the magnetism of pent-up desire better than most. Her Miu Miu collection, which she showed this evening, had the same restrained, ladylike sensibility as the Prada line that she showed last week. There were wonderfully textured tweeds and glen plaid trousers that were cropped at the ankle and worn with the kind of trim jacket that makes a woman look purposeful and assured. There were touches of luxury with fur stoles or scarves that wound snugly around the neck.
Where was the sex in this? It was all above the neck -- in red lacquered lips and hair that fell gently to one side in soft, controlled waves. It was in the aloof gaze, in the refusal to give away a glimpse of leg. The commentary on sex lay in what was so obviously missing: the sultry walks, the strip-club lighting, the models falling out of their tops.
Roberto Cavalli, Versace, Versus Sometimes it's funny to see the models sashaying down the runway, using as much sexual steam to sell a little day dress or a weekend cardigan as a Bond girl might use to catch 007. But that's the way most designers like their models here. They don't appreciate the sad faces and the zombie walks that are the standard choice for designers who consider themselves avant-garde or intellectual. Those designers may like to send the message that they are thinking only about sex. But Cavalli sends the message that everyone is having sex -- maybe even backstage, just before the show, and that's why the models' hair looked like it had been combed with a rake.
Cavalli returned to prominence several years ago, riding the fashion tidal wave of ghetto fabulous. He can pack a house now and it is invariably sprinkled liberally with Italian starlets and women who believe that a single ensemble can accommodate leopard prints, floral patterns, metallic gold and a fur. For fall, Cavalli focused his attention on tight-fitting Formula One jumpsuits in multicolored leather, micro-miniskirts worn atop leather leggings and dramatic, feathered evening gowns that are as perfectly suited to the red carpet as a little black dress is to an office cocktail party.
Cavalli's vision of sexy personifies the notion of excessive, flashy and nouveau riche. If the Versace customer came into her wealth within the last decade, the Cavalli patron arrived in her new tax bracket about five minutes ago.
Donatella Versace presented the company's flagship brand as well as Versus in back-to-back shows tonight in a warehouse. The space was transformed into a dance club, with waiters bearing trays of champagne, and singer Christina Aguilera was in the audience. As a performer, she has crafted her public image on an aesthetic that blends streetwalker with stripper. Although aspiring to a hyper-sexuality, she aims too low and winds up looking trashy. It seems appropriate that she would come to the fashion house most skilled at exaggerated sex appeal for instruction.
But unfortunately this was not Versace's best season. There were moments in Versus when she struck just the right balance, finding that perfect spot just before sexy transforms into something likely to get a lady arrested for solicitation. Her snug jackets in blocks of wool and satin could be cinched tight using rows of buckles. In Versace, there were perfect corset tops for day and daring evening gowns in which chiffon skirts fluttered from corset-style bodices. But there were plenty of misfires. In Versus, a silver leather bodice was attached to yellow fur hot pants that made the model look like an Easter Peep balanced atop a pair of stilettos. And in the main collection, dresses seemed to fit so tight that they became unflattering even on professionally maintained figures.
It was hard not to notice that the models were styled with long hair flatironed straight. Most of them even had extensions added to their locks to ensure that they would fall to waist level. The effect, as a host of blond models marched around the oval runway, was of a parade of Donatella Versaces. While the image gave a disconcerting feeling of witnessing the attack of the Fashion Clones, it also underscored how personal the notion of sexiness can be. What makes one person feel like a vamp might make another worry that someone has been digging through the Easter baskets in search of inspiration.