The days have been sunny and bright here, what with designer Tom Ford no longer casting his long, brooding shadow over the fashion industry. With his departure from Gucci last season, it is as though one can see all the clothes on the runway clearly again. They are not overwhelmed by his smooth talk, penchant for high drama and a visceral evocation of sex appeal that comes from the groin and not the brain.
Ford brewed an astonishing spell on the runway with his sexual innuendo and a philosophy of glitz that gave an uptown woman permission to splurge on serpent-encrusted handbags, beaded jeans with the giddy flash of a showgirl and designer condom cases.
But Gucci's ready-to-wear collection for women now belongs to Alessandra Facchinetti, who spent four years working with Ford. In his final collection earlier this year, Ford gave Facchinetti the ultimate gift. Instead of setting out in a new direction, he offered a retrospective, allowing Facchinetti to choose her own path. She debuted her spring collection Thursday night with a collection that was recognizably Gucci.
It was sexy. It was luxurious. There were sharply cut crocodile jackets for the kind of woman who describes herself as ferocious. Low-cut jersey blouses revealed the tip of a golden brassiere -- or occasionally and accidentally what the FCC might deem $1 million worth of naked breast. The skirts -- inspired by saris -- wrapped around the derriere in luscious folds.
But in too many instances the collection was overly complicated. Her organza cocktail dresses, for example, were stretched and twisted from the weight of bulky gewgaws. Other dresses were elaborately draped and tucked in the front, and then, like a gym rat who exercises only the muscles she can see, Facchinetti left the backs so wan and spare that the garments looked unbalanced and unfinished. Too many garments, with their draping, fringe, wide belts, heavy embellishments and trailing hems, seemed to shout: "I am worthy!"
Facchinetti didn't need to yell. Her skill is clear. She understands how to create sexual energy with a yard of silk, a few meters of nylon and fine crocodile skin. Her cocoa-colored trousers fit close to the body but leave room to breathe. Her jackets have just the right hint of daunting cool. And the clothes -- and the company's bottom line -- were well served by the velvet and crocodile handbags and the towering gold Mary Janes created by accessories designer Alfreda Giannini.
Most notably, Facchinetti knows the difference between sex appeal and vulgarity -- a line that Ford often willfully crossed. It was disappointing to see Ford's tenure come to an abrupt end last season, but in hindsight, perhaps it was for the best. He had gone from charming to naughty to appalling. (See the Gucci advertisement depicting a G shaved into a model's pubic thatch.) The only things left to incorporate in his increasingly provocative advertisements were the embarrassing sexual escapades that leak out of sealed divorce documents or that turn up on the Smoking Gun.
Besides, in the harsh, sobering light of day, one realizes that in the past few seasons the fashion industry's great love affair with Gucci was driven more by the wicked charm of its designer than by his collections. In the beginning, Ford's work for Gucci was splendid and he created an impressive list of signature looks for the house: the mod mini djellabas, the velvet pantsuits, the white jersey dresses with the keyhole cutouts and those dazzling jeans. The ideas trickled down to less expensive labels, and Gucci, as an aesthetic force, was unassailable.
All along, the business principles were impressive and instructive. But in later years, Gucci continued to thrive because of smart money management, organization and marketing. The product was good, but was it as terrific as it seemed during runway season, when it was accented with spotlights, rose petals, bear rugs and the mellifluous wooing of Ford himself? In this morning-after moment, does one want to linger over the memories with an illicit cigarette, or creep out of the room with a cotton head, dry mouth and tattered good judgment dragging along behind?
Ford got the fashion industry drunk and had his way with it. Everyone had a good romp, but it's time for sobriety. And it turns out that can be just as sweet.
In the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, one of the more architecturally grand shopping areas in a city overwhelmed by exquisite temples to designer labels, the original Prada store -- the one whose sign still refers to the brand as an old-fashioned leather business -- sits just across a stone walkway from a new Gucci accessories boutique.
For more than a year, designer Miuccia Prada has created collections that stir irrational longings in a broad swath of fashion consumers. If one starts counting the number of photo print skirts from the fall 2004 collection swishing around the slim-hipped women here, one could easily reach double digits within a few blocks. There are Prada sweaters ringed with jeweled appliques, tie-dyed cardigans cinched with silk and crystal brooches, gilded ribbed knits and any number of whimsical Prada charms hanging from expensive handbags -- some of them Prada and some of them bearing the labels Hermes and even Gucci. Prada is Italy's most forceful and influential voice in determining the shapes, colors and embellishments defining fashion at this moment.
The collection that Prada unveiled Wednesday night blended Caribbean colors and shapes with the artificiality of technology. The colors were saturated and the patterns bold and graphic. Quivering stripes of red and orange flickered across the bodice of a sweater. Orange and purple stripes on a box-pleated skirt wrapped around the hips. There were references to the starched jackets and polo shirts that might be found in a strict British colonial boarding school. And there were pressed pleated dresses with fronts of peacock feathers that alluded to a free-spirited life on an island. Asymmetrical dresses were weighted -- sometimes overwhelmed -- with crystal flowers and stars. Knits came in the saturated hues of digital photography, in which a pale blue sky is manipulated into azure. And there were bucket hats festooned with giant colored gems or covered with bright feathers.
If Prada broadened her reach over the past two seasons with full, knee-length skirts, polished jackets and decorated sweaters, she narrowed it somewhat for spring with dresses that reached only to mid-thigh and color-blocked jackets with a boyish sensibility. Prada has always alternated between speaking broadly and then whispering conspiratorially. But she uses the same fundamental vocabulary of iconoclastic luxury and reserve.
The spring collections being unveiled here have been filled with light. They are breezy and flowing -- the dresses seem to be forever aloft on a gentle gust of wind. The show spaces have been flooded with bright, clear light. The colors have been sharp, the patterns enchanting but not dizzying. The intent of these presentations is not to seduce. There is no need to watch your back and/or worry about leaving your sparkling water unattended. These shows suggest confidence on the part of the designer. The clothes speak for themselves. Go ahead, inspect them. Consider how they might look in the real world. These are pretty clothes. Yes, there's that P word again. Pretty. But they are not fiddle-dee-dee, worry-about-it tomorrow, empty-headed pretty. They express all of the complicated considerations bound up in such a simple word.
The clothes are flattering. They can be sweet but they also are polished. They are not in danger of unraveling or dissolving in a rain shower. They are grown-up but not matronly.
Christopher Bailey at Burberry presented a collection filled with gentle floral prints in mint green, butter yellow and pale blue. His blue floral trench coat with its banded sleeves had a bucolic sensibility rather than the traditionally urban one. The same kind of spirited use of color and respect for a house's history was revealed at Missoni where designer Angela Missoni raised the waistline on dresses, fixating on the area around and just below the breasts as the place for gentle tucks, twists or perhaps a rakish belt or flash of sparkle. In the mix of chipper floral prints, there were references to her family's traditional knitwear patterns. And while many dresses floated in lightweight silk, they were often topped with a tiny, delicately knit cardigan.
Evolution is always a subtext to the fashion shows here. So many are old, family-run businesses headed by second and third generations. Or, like Gucci, they have a distinguished history that has been put into the hands of outsiders whose names are not on the label but whose reputations are certainly on the catwalk. Others, such as Consuelo Castiglione and Miuccia Prada, essentially created the ready-to-wear image of houses whose reputations were in another area. In the case of Marni, its history lies in fur.
Castiglione has established Marni as a house with a bohemian spirit. The clothes have a naive sensibility with appliques, embroidery and prints with the looseness of a child's joyful scribblings. She continues in that vein for spring with a collection of airy sundresses that fit close to the bosom. Left alone, they would float out on the air and swirl around the body, creating a balloon effect that does no woman any favors. Castiglione solves that problem by reining in the dresses with string belts, or belts that look handcrafted, as though the beads and crystals had been strung together by an inventive summer camper. There are charming bird appliques on short, rugged skirts. But beware the long version -- it made the model look as though she'd hopped into a potato sack for a Fourth of July race to the finish line.
Castiglione also branched out into evening wear, with soft taffeta dresses in dove gray that wrap and fold around the body. One has a beautiful rear view with an oversized bow twisted on its side to rest just below the model's shoulder blade. Another dress, with its portrait neckline, is decorated with a spray of crystals.
Pollini, Gibo, Armani
Pollini and Gibo are Italian companies trying to establish fashion labels. The former has the help of veteran designer Rifat Ozbek. The latter is relying on a relative newcomer, Ichiro Seta, who has his own small label and who worked for the renowned designer Yohji Yamamoto.
In his second season for Pollini, Ozbek moved away from the costumelike suits and dresses of his fall collection -- clothes in which rainbow tassels dangled inexplicably from jacket sleeves -- to a more subdued aesthetic of orange and saffron printed silk dresses that moved gracefully around the body. Not bad, but still not reason enough for a customer to come running, hand outstretched with a wad of cash.
Gibo's first collection with Seta, who replaces Julie Verhoeven, was more promising. Although Verhoeven, an illustrator by trade, was fond of discomforting shapes and prints filled with doe-eyed girls with a smirk, Seta is more intrigued by adventurous twists and ties in his fabric. His work has an intellectual quality that is thoughtful without giving one a migraine.
Designer Giorgio Armani did not so much declare his right to evolve and experiment as remind an industry that has transformed jeans and a spectacular jacket into a uniform for business and leisure that no one can play such sleight-of-hand with a blazer as he. In both his signature collection and in Emporio Armani, the emphasis was on the jacket. In the main collection, which he presented Tuesday, there were jackets with tiny belled sleeves and others that looked like they'd been constructed from tiny silver twigs. Armani's inspiration was Asia and the influential designer Elsa Schiaparelli, who was fascinated by surrealism and soft, sculptural forms. So there were frog closures and standing collars as well as prints that reflected Chinese lettering and Japanese cherry blossoms.
At Emporio, the designer was influenced by nomads and India. A group of jackets resembled shrunken poet's shirts. One exquisite top lay gently on the body like a delicate crystal spider web.
It was best not to spend too much time inspecting what the models wore above the neck or below the waist. In the signature collection, turbans topped heads and there were curious trousers with tiers of ruffles so that they resembled little pagodas, and skirts with hems wired to form a stiff circle. And in Emporio, trousers had dangling pelvic pouches that looked like the sort of post-weight-loss skin flap that could be remedied with a tummy tuck.
The beauty of the collection lay above the waist, where proof was offered that fashion can thrive without drama, whispered nothings or a lot of heavy breathing.