Fashion is afflicted with a touch of sexual dysfunction. On the runways here sexuality, sex appeal and sexiness have been predictable, routine and simplistic.
In the final days of the spring 2005 shows, most of this city's sex peddlers misfired with too much attitude and not enough finesse. Only Versace had enough restraint to titillate with little more than a few yards of pale rose silk. But it was designers Jil Sander and Miuccia Prada -- brokers of charm, eccentricity, power and individuality -- who offered the more inspiring collections.
Sander's presentation Friday night was one of the best of the season. It was filled with sophisticated day dresses whose graceful tucks and gathers undulated around the torso. An olive shirt dress had an oversize, ruffled placket that snaked down the front of the bodice and dipped just slightly below the waist. And there were white shirts gently splashed with gray, and white walking shorts smudged with indigo.
The beauty of the collection was in its calm, unforced style. It was almost willfully spare, refusing to succumb to all the sparkle and the bold hits of color that are dominating fashion. But the clothes were never dull in that please-don't-corner-me-at-a-cocktail-party intellectual way. Instead, it was a collection that spoke of a designer's confidence in standing apart from the fashion pack and of her belief that her customers would stand with her.
There was nothing calm about Prada's Miu Miu collection. It was a riot of color and pattern. Mirrored paillettes or chunky green and red stones studded silk Shantung dresses and jackets. There were walking shorts in a 1950s-style wallpaper print, in mixes of blue and black as well as brown and chartreuse. Those same patterns were enlarged and manipulated in belts, blouse insets and pins.
Many of the aggressive patterns and startling color combinations were reminiscent of Prada's work from the late 1990s when she was intrigued by purposefully jolting patterns and intentionally incongruous color combinations. Perhaps Prada has changed the way in which those aesthetics are perceived because there was little unappealing about the combinations on the runway Saturday evening.
Donatella Versace didn't say anything new about women, power and sexuality in her presentation Saturday night, but she did reveal something about herself: the capacity for restraint, control and subtlety.
After spending six weeks in Arizona this summer undergoing treatment for substance abuse, Versace returned to the design helm of the family business. The spring collection is one free from excessive hardware -- although there are still signature chains and Medusa heads to let everyone know what name is on the label. There are simple halter dresses in sensual silk jersey. Blouses and dresses with prints of sea coral and underwater creatures are paired with tailored pencil skirts that sit low on the hips. There are sleeveless camp shirts in silk jersey topping bronze snakeskin skirts. And the eveningwear -- in cocoa, butter and taupe -- winds around the body with soft ruching and graceful draping. When there is beading or other embellishment, it is done with a light hand. It is sprinkled on rather than poured. The collection exudes steady confidence rather than agitated self-consciousness.
Designer Roberto Cavalli has always been an unabashed admirer of women. He loves to caress their curves, cup the derriere just so and turn a contented gaze toward the decolletage. He is a reliable partner with a steady hand and a desire to please, but without much new up his sleeve.
Cavalli's collection for spring was inspired by his vision of a resort-hopping woman with no worries about staying within a budget. She wears filmy caftans printed with lemons or translucent dresses with patterns of sea coral. His gypsy skirts are cut away to reveal as much leg as possible, and his evening gowns reveal the waistline through cutouts rimmed in gold.
In Cavalli's mix of safari hats and gypsy skirts, strong colors and embellishments collide in a way that amuses the eye but fails to ignite the emotions. The magic of a truly sexy evening gown lies mostly in the woman who wears it. But there is a small frisson of sexual energy that can be conveyed through clothes alone. It is not based on how low the neckline is cut, how high a side slit rises, or the degree to which a waistline is cinched or accentuated. Weaving sex appeal out of silk is not an easy task. Cavalli created a collection filled with raucousness, decadence and good fun. Sex appeal eluded him. In its place was simply a generous display of skin.
Is it too demanding to ask for something more complex? Something that drives home the point that sex appeal can be more interesting than a lot of naked flesh? Just after Cavalli's presentation ended Saturday afternoon, as guests milled about, it was hard not to notice one guest in particular. Let's begin at the feet. They were perched atop four-inch heels. Her dress was made of black jersey. It was not particularly short but it appeared to be only partially finished, as it covered only one breast. The other was displayed, rather dramatically, in a black lace bra. It was a perfectly shaped breast. One can say this confidently, thanks to the expertise acquired from copious viewing of shows such as "Nip/Tuck" and "Extreme Makeover." But isn't there a rule? No in-town displays of breasts before the cocktail hour?
Both on and off the runway here, sex appeal is not getting its due. It has been simplified, reduced to its most banal components. Turned into a caricature.
Twins Dan and Dean Caten are the designers of Dsquared, a collection of low-slung jeans and mini-dresses, which they like to present on the runway with the tawdry exuberance of nightclub impresarios. The show they staged for their spring collection came with the usual array of strutting models, oiled-up cleavage and full frontal bikini views that bordered on gynecological.
The Catens still believe in pumped-up sexuality, the kind that is obvious, loud and exhausting both to behold and convey. All of that shoulder thrusting and hip swiveling in four-inch heels must surely burn as many calories as a 5K sprint. The theme of the Dsquared Wednesday night show was a party set in the sort of low-lying mod house that in the 1970s would have been decorated with shag carpeting and beanbag chairs. The smell of patchouli would surely have hung in the air.
At the show, the music was cranked up so loud that the bass line pounded into one's head with the force of a sledgehammer. And on stage, as models strutted by in bright caftans over jeans, pale peach crystal-encrusted cocktail dresses and skimpy swimsuits, red aproned waiters stood ready with trays of hors d'oeuvres and champagne. Even the designers were on stage, dancing and prancing and watching their own show as it unfolded.
Everyone was pretending that they were having a splendid time at some decadent party where booze, braggadocio and free love would flow in abundance. But when is it ever amusing to watch other people pretending to have fun? How annoying to be the sober one in a room full of tipsy revelers.
Somehow Milan has managed to make sexuality and decadence look routine.
The duo of Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce tried like the devil to get a rise from the audience with a collection that was inspired by luxury and the designers' recent trip to Africa. There were references to pythons, leopards, zebras and other creatures woven throughout a collection that relied on the house's signature shapes, such as pencil skirts, corsets, bras and sharply tailored jackets and coats. The collection was filled with the spirit of the Dolce & Gabbana label, but it never managed to create the kind of heart-pounding razzle-dazzle of which it is capable.
The setting was full of possibilities: a mirrored runway and rope-wrapped support poles -- the sort that might be found in a lean-to on the African veldt. And model Naomi Campbell was the first to appear on the runway -- her perfectly sculpted legs displayed in a mini-dress with myriad references to Africa's big game. There were enticing coats and shirts trimmed in python, but it all seemed familiar and it was hard to get excited about a pair of destroyed jeans decorated with crystals when this season practically everything on the runway -- including the runways themselves and the people sitting alongside them -- have been covered in glitter and sequins.
There was also the disappointment -- and aggravation -- that rippled through the audience after it had waited a little more than an hour for the promised arrival of three generations of Elvis Presley women -- wife Priscilla, daughter Lisa Marie and granddaughter Riley -- only to have their three seats filled by droopy-haired boys plucked from the standing crowd. Even the King's kinfolk are at the mercy of a traffic jam.
The D&G secondary line, which the designers showed earlier in the week, was far less ambitious but was ultimately a lot more fun. The collection was inspired by Elvis Presley and his Hawaii period. And it stood on its own -- no actual live scion of Elvis was necessary to energize it. There were photo print T-shirts that bore an image of the young Elvis, plenty of bright Hawaiian dresses and shirts and charcoal pinstripe suits as lean as a licorice whip. A gold leather blazer had a sparkling Vegas-style lapel, boots jangled with a rainbow assortment of sequins and a cropped tuxedo jacket was encrusted with bright red paillettes. It was not a sexy collection, but it was one that soared with fun and good humor.
In a conversation here one evening, long after the day's shows had ended and before a late, late nightcap made coherent discussion impossible, two topics dominated. The American presidential election is discussed with great interest and no small amount of exasperation. But if one were to be honest, the topic over which voices were raised in strongest disagreement was whether the brooch -- as a fashion trend -- was over. Please: Do not judge the fashion industry harshly. Iraq, terrorism, hurricanes, WMD and world peace already had been dutifully covered.
Could a fashion moment so celebrated for fall have gone by so fast that the average customer barely had time to run into a store, buy a glittery pin, and wear it anywhere beyond her own dressing room before it has been proclaimed finished? Such reckless abandonment of a perfectly fine style flourish leaves one worried that spring's fascination with island floral prints, poet blouses and gypsy skirts could be as short-lived. Many of the same shapes in D&G were also in Moschino Cheap & Chic, Just Cavalli and Philosophy by Alberta Ferretti. The clothes are whimsical and charming and one hopes that fashion folks aren't so quick to shrug them off as finished trends before they can even start.
Ultimately, Milan didn't offer any big, new aesthetic visions. A few designers hinted at their boredom with the overwhelming number of collections that can be described as sparkling, pretty and charming. Prada turned away from the history books and toward computer manuals and found inspiration in technology. Sander championed a little aesthetic peace and quiet.
Other designers concentrated on bringing vigor back to the hard-edge sex appeal that thrived in the late '90s. Cavalli and others went to India, Africa and a host of other countries searching for a new way to show off a woman's shape.
But fashion only made incremental changes this season. The sequins aren't quite as bright and the rhinestones aren't sprinkled as generously as they were for fall. And as for the sex, ultimately, it's just the same old thing.