Frida Giannini, who showed her first full runway collection for Gucci on Wednesday evening, pronounced the house's iconic hypersexual, predatory woman dead. That image was replaced with one that is less intimidating, more accessible, but as of yet not nearly as distinctive. At other design houses, the penchant for the "molto sexy" frock has simply turned into a cliche.

Giannini was promoted this year from creative director of accessories to the top job of women's ready-to-wear designer. The night before her presentation, she noted that her spring 2006 collection would be more joyful and without such a heavy emphasis on sexual bravado. Giannini's most visible success at Gucci before all this had been her reinterpretation of the "Flora" scarf patterns on a collection of handbags and shoes. That success was particularly significant because the Gucci brand is built on its leather goods.

Still, designing a handbag is a far different endeavor from creating an entire line of clothes. The accessories on the runway, from the bamboo-handled bags with their beaded archival prints to the patent leather Beatle boots with gleaming horse bits, were beautifully conceived, confident, even a bit brazen. The ready-to-wear often lacked the same kinds of distinctive flourishes.

Giannini, 32, said that part of her inspiration came from her grandmother and the way in which she and her friends dressed in the 1940s. She had recently seen pictures from that period and was intrigued by the pleasure that the women seemed to take from their clothes during a time of war. The collection, she cautioned, wasn't nostalgic but it did incorporate the strong shoulders of that period and the eveningwear reflected the more covered-up reserve of the era. Her most distinctive pieces played with the notions of strength and demureness, from a full-length fuchsia gown that rejected any display of cleavage to her rock-and-roll suits with their cigarette pants and pagoda-shoulder jackets.

It was reassuring to see Giannini take on the Gucci brand with a clear, personal vision. And it was either gutsy or foolhardy to promote an image of a tomboy in a motorcycle jacket at a time when fashion has turned resolutely feminine and charming. (The answer will, of course, unfold at the cash register.)

But her short floral dresses with their beaded flowers lacked distinction and seemed more like runway filler. Giannini showed that she's willing to take a risk. But this rather thin collection also made one wonder if she has enough bold ideas -- at least in ready-to-wear -- to keep the monster constantly fed.

Just Cavalli, Prada

The spring 2006 fashion shows began over the weekend and overwhelmingly have left their devoted observers slack-jawed with boredom. With only a few exceptions, Milan no longer surprises the eye, and desperately needs a savior. Miuccia Prada, despite her flights of fancy and her delight in the intellectual surprise, simply is not enough.

Designers have become trapped within their own aesthetic visions, failing to challenge themselves or inspire their audiences.

The question, for example, was not what Roberto Cavalli would do in his Just Cavalli collection. The audience could rest easy and wait for free-flowing expressions of indulgence, luxury and sexuality. One only needed to ask: How heavily will his denim be embellished? How dizzying will his prints be? There are a lot of ways in which to express a sense of Bacchanalian glee; there are many ways to evoke sexual desire. Cavalli, however, does not stray from his well-trod path of glitz and cleavage.

His show Monday afternoon started off in a promising manner with a stage set with 12-foot-tall replicas of tropical drinks. In one corner loomed what looked like a colossal mai tai; in another, a gargantuan pina colada. He sent out a collection of Polynesian-patterned frocks and baby-doll tunics that looked like they'd be fun to wear during the right island vacation; but then he seemed to lose his focus and the next thing one knew the runway was populated by models in mod blazers, as if Peggy Lipton and Clarence Williams III had suddenly landed in Tahiti. None of it made much sense -- not that a fashion show has to be either logical or linear -- but it wasn't compelling enough to support all the chaos. (And it's hard to imagine that any lissome young woman with a platinum-card-carrying boyfriend would be willing to spend even his money on bloomers masquerading as shorts.)

For several seasons, Milan fashion has relied on Prada to be its single most unsettling force, someone whose creative energy would challenge audiences, leaving them stimulated and, at times, confounded. Prada continues to do that, but hers is a daunting responsibility and she sometimes can't be as creatively eloquent as she might like.

One never knows what she might say. Prada is the main draw here -- is there any reason to come to Milan before Miuccia has spoken? There is always a crowd in front of its gray-walled facade and narrow doorway at her show space. The crowd hums with anticipation and reeks of cigarette smoke. When the guards -- burly in black and with well-gelled hair -- finally stand aside ever so slightly to let the first guests through, the crowd rushes forward in a wave. The movement is propelled by eagerness but also a deeply held paranoia that just as suddenly as the entry was opened, it will be closed.

On Tuesday night, Prada's show space had been transformed into a large, mirrored room, tricking the eye into seeing corridors and rooms that went on forever. It all alluded to the clothes themselves, decorated with trompe l'oeil folds and tucks. She distilled her penchant for rustic pleats and heavy embellishment down to mere suggestions.

A simple sleeveless dress looked white from afar, but on close inspection it was gently washed in a khaki tint. Sundresses were embroidered with tiny flowers of the sort that one might see on handmade linens. Tiny woodlike beads were sprinkled on antique white dresses that hung precariously from the shoulders.

It was an intriguing collection that underscored the beauty of subtlety. It suggested that things are not always what they appear to be; those who are willing to indulge in a second look, a more lasting gaze, will be rewarded. This was not a collection destined to send the fashion industry charging off in a new direction, but it left one intrigued and wondering about fashion's possibilities.

Marni, Pucci, Jil Sander

As always, there is a wide gulf between commercial success and creative influence. Milan continues to produce a host of collections that sell well because they are reliable and reassuring. Its great success is that it has developed a field of designers who have clearly articulated their point of view to their customers. Milan's distress is not from an inability to make a sale. While every city needs designers who push the industry to take chances, the veteran designers should not be let off the hook.

At the Marni collection Tuesday morning, designer Consuelo Castiglioni rehashed her basic set of jacket styles and layering effects. Textured jackets with three-quarter sleeves were cinched at the waist and loose-fitting dresses were decorated with macrame details and knickknacks that resembled a preschooler's building blocks. The most compelling prints -- and the house is known for its unique swirls and hash marks -- took the spirit of Rousseau paintings and transformed them into abstraction. Many of the shapes in this collection were more straightforward than they have been in the past, reducing the slapdash, asymmetrical look that has always suggested the models had buttoned their clothes in the dark.

Christian Lacroix presented a collection of simply cut camp shirts and shifts for the Emilio Pucci brand. They should sell well. But they are more commodities than accomplishments in design. This is a week that should be devoted to uncommon beauty, not banalities. (Pucci also announced that spring 2006 is Lacroix's final collection for the house. He is leaving the company to focus on his signature line.)

The Jil Sander collection was overseen by the anonymous in-house team of designers charged with preserving the brand's legacy until the arrival of designer Raf Simons, who will take the creative reins for fall 2006. In the spring collection, each piece reflected an element of the Jil Sander point of view -- simplicity, fabric manipulation, androgyny -- but taken together, they lacked the discreetly daring vision on which the house built its reputation.

Emporio Armani

Stuck in their niches, the designers here are communicating with a vocabulary that seems limited by their imagination and their fears. One wanted to applaud designer Giorgio Armani for deciding to present his Emporio Armani collection in a new location. Instead of inviting audiences to his spare and modern theater in a neighborhood of warehouses outside the center of Milan, he closed down his shop on Via Manzoni in the heart of the city and filled it with long rows of chairs that snaked from one end of the building to the other. That allowed his audience to get much closer to the clothes to inspect their details; the models themselves become far less rarefied and more approachable.

There were moments when the collection expressed a delicious giddiness, as with charming camisoles that covered the hips with a spray of fan pleats. Lovely floral prints in delicate lilac brought a vibrancy to his jackets with their trim waists. And his long skirts with their childlike flower prints in black and white suggested an easy elegance.

But the collection also had a tendency to get tangled up in tricky details such as cropped trousers with large flower corsages attached to the side pockets that had the effect of drawing the eye directly to the widest part of a woman's hips. And other trousers looked oddly Napoleonic with flourishes of fan pleats at the hem or along the side.


For several days now, the editors and retailers have sped from one show to the next, causing traffic jams wherever they went. They descend on well-placed coffee bars ordering up double espressos, typing furiously into BlackBerrys and leaving piles of tiny lipstick-stained cups behind.

They are a marvel to see, this ever-hopeful lot, dressed in their new fall finery despite the warm late-summer weather. (Is it so wrong to wear a tweed jacket with a fur-trimmed collar even as the rest of Milan is in shirtsleeves and even shorts? It is an absurdity born out of optimism and enthusiasm for the best that the fashion industry has to offer.)

They are desperately eager to get on to the next new and gorgeous garment. They want to be amazed and inspired, not only when it comes to plotting out their personal wardrobe but in their professional lives as well.

Consider that Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana asked guests to drive nearly 45 minutes away from the city center to a far-flung warehouse to view their secondary line, D&G, where the show began an hour late.

A single long, wide runway led to a proscenium. The curtains were pulled back to reveal the models posed in an ethereal boudoir -- tiny Lolitas in a 19th-century bordello. The models' hair had been teased and whipped into a meringue of a coiffure and they were dressed in variations of a single theme: white lace and lingerie with an undercurrent of coquettishness that was only barely contained.

The models strutted the stage in white lacy dresses with their white brassieres peering over the bodice edge. Pale pastel pedal pushers were worn with frilly blouses suggesting corsetry with lacing and decolletage.

It was a flirtatious collection -- the sort that would delight an adolescent girl and leave her parents to wonder why all of popular culture is out to lead their daughters down the path to social disgrace. The show lasted eight minutes and it was less than magnificent. But for the fashion industry, with its snarled traffic, summer fur and willful inefficiency, they were eight minutes that held the possibility of magic.

A swirl of fan pleats adds charm to Giorgio Armani's Emporio Armani collection, whose change of venue made it unusually accessible.In her first full runway collection for

Gucci, Frida Giannini toned down the

house's penchant for sexual bravado.

Her suits, left, were inspired but her

short floral dresses lacked flair.

Setting the tempo in Milan, clockwise from above: Just Cavalli's tropical-flavored flair; the subtle beauty of a Miuccia Prada dress; a design-by-committee offering from Jil Sander; a more straightforward approach by Consuelo Castiglioni for Marni; white lace and lingerie from D&G; and a dress from Christian Lacroix's last collection for Emilio Pucci.