-- The models at the Dolce & Gabbana spring 2006 show shimmied down the runway in tablecloth-lace suits, temptress-red dresses and voluminous Scarlett O'Hara ball gowns. The damsels in their crinolines preened and paused and cast their eyes downward as they clutched stems of straw or wheat or some sort of rustic flora beyond the knowledge of the average Dolce & Gabbana customer, who considers speed-dialing event designer Preston Bailey the equivalent of gardening.
The proscenium stage, from which the models' promenade began, was set with bales of hay, a wooden wagon and two goats attended by their own herder. There was also a wooden crate housing hens and at least one rooster. The collection was filled with the designers' signature blend of sharp-eyed tailoring, form-fitting dressmaking and the level-headed belief that fashion should never get too serious.
As always, the collection was for a woman who believes there's no point in leaving the house if her bosom has not been neatly trussed and served up for all to admire. But this time the celebration of cleavage was not overwhelming. This collection was a bit more coy, more sensual than sexy, and at times even a little demure.
It may be that the emphasis on lace and embroidery rather than beads and rhinestones reduced the level of ostentatious showmanship. And indeed the floral embroidered suits and the delicate tiers of antique white lace on party dresses emphasized femininity over sexual provocation. But mostly this was a joyful collection in celebration of the designers' 20th business anniversary.
Over the last two decades, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana have helped to define the way in which popular culture views female sexuality. Thank them for making public displays of lingerie -- from bra straps to the bras themselves -- fashionable and ubiquitous. In creating costumes for Madonna, they influenced for better or worse the ways in which millions of young women not only dressed but thought about femininity, power and sex.
With their fascination for the culture and working-class heritage of southern Italy, they found romance in kerchiefs, slips, grandmotherly sweaters and mournful black. They made the gritty, hardscrabble, rural Sicilian life seem enchanting, creating a kind of peasant chic that -- depending upon one's politics -- is either admiring or condescending.
Along the way, Dolce & Gabbana built a privately held business with total revenue in excess of $1.3 billion, according to Women's Wear Daily, with just about half of that coming from the sale of clothes. The bulk of their business is in Europe, particularly in Italy, where their D&G line has tapped into the youth culture like few other brands. Their show tends to attract an unwieldy crowd of onlookers hoping to catch a glimpse of a celebrity or just breathe in the air of anticipation. Invariably the crowd tumbles into the path of oncoming cars and trams that grudgingly slow to a halt. Even after 20 years, the company still hasn't managed to master crowd control.
But the designers have developed a signature brand of fashion that sells -- and that is no minor accomplishment. While it is the "pre-collection" -- the tailored, more modest garments that lack the drama of catwalk pieces -- that make up the bulk of their business, the runway show has created their image. And of course, some of the runway clothes sell, too.
They know how to sell their brand with the same sure hand as Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren. There is never any confusion about their point of view. And as a result, they have become one of the iconic names in Italian fashion.
A landmark anniversary, of course, requires a party and the designers hosted one Thursday night for about 1,000 people. The asphalt road to the bash was sprinkled with glitter and it led to a red-carpeted entry filled with photographers. A fashion party can be a deadly event, not so much because the industry is filled with inept hosts, but because the guests tend to be sourpuss cynics eager to complain about everything from the temperature of the room to the quality of the free champagne. But it would take quite a spoilsport to be grumpy at a party with golden banquettes, cocktail tables stocked with magnums of Dom Perignon, a performance by the bare-breasted showgirls from the Lido de Paris done up in white marabou and spangles, and Donna Summer dusting off her vocal cords -- which remain in fine form -- for her disco rendition of "MacArthur Park."
One marveled at the fact that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, with members of his soccer team, stopped by the party to offer congratulations to the two designers. There had been half-naked showgirls onstage! Dolce & Gabbana clearly have done their country proud with their iconic imagery of lusty Sicilian women with their heaving bosoms, pencil skirts and stiletto heels on their way to the market to buy fresh lemons.
D Squared, Roberto Cavalli,
Dolce & Gabbana's collection did not redeem Milan's uninspired spring 2006 season, but they offered a reminder that if fashion is fun, its lack of innovation can be forgiven. That has been the philosophy that has driven Dan and Dean Caten, the designers behind D Squared.
Their collection was inspired by ranch life as it is lived at Canyon Ranch, where the guests are massaged, not the cattle. Instead of goats, they had a horse corralled in a corner of the stage, where it was being soothed by a wrangler. Apparently the horse was unaccustomed to having a hundred camera flashes going off in its face.
D Squared was a collection of sportswear with well-considered denim and tight little jackets and not much else. The designers' creative energy seemed to have all gone into the theme of the show rather than into the clothes.
Instead of visiting a ranch, Roberto Cavalli must have spent a great deal of time at the bar of a low-rent Los Angeles hotel sketching the shady characters that slithered in from Hollywood and the tourists who just got off the bus from a polyester Podunk. There were red, white and blue nautical suits, often with panels of plastic substituting for fabric. An oddly fringed gold leather jacket would appear on the runway followed by voluminous gingham ball gowns. It was all mystifying, hideous and overwrought, and honest to God, if you wear these clothes out on the street you will be mocked.
Max Mara's collection wasn't as flashy as Cavalli's, but it was almost as bewildering, mostly because the design team kept sending out long, sleeveless cardigans that were also backless. The only thing keeping them from slipping off the body was a hood. So really, a customer would essentially be purchasing an elaborate hat. Which is so astonishingly ridiculous a proposition that one might assume that it's a joke. But it is not. It is Fashion coming from a design house that makes its money selling tailored trousers and tasteful coats and for which a runway show is just an opportunity to publicly preen.
Missoni, Bottega Veneta, Fendi
The Missoni collection, under the creative leadership of Angela Missoni, was focused on breezy dresses in lush prints and tailored pieces such as a car coat in bold shades of lapis and violet. There was a hint of vintage to the collection when Missoni made references to the house's signature zigzag stitch knits. But she has moved away from that tradition, at least on the runway, and the prints are lively and often embellished with sparkling paillettes.
Bottega Veneta still is trying to get a ready-to-wear collection off the ground. Designer Tomas Maier does a breathtaking job with handbags and shoes. The intricately designed leather goods are driving sales at the house, transforming it into a star brand within the parent company Gucci Group. If anyone has a few thousand dollars they'd like to put into a leather shoulder bag, Bottega Veneta would be a fine place to start. But so far there is little reason to recommend the clothes. They wobble between pretty and serviceable but they do not stand apart from the crowd.
The same can often be said of the ready-to-wear that Karl Lagerfeld creates for Fendi. This season the collection was softer and more feminine, without the gimmicks that amuse Lagerfeld. In addition to his job at Fendi, Lagerfeld also works in Paris where he designs for Chanel and his own brand. This Fendi collection was heavily influenced by French fashion, calling to mind the ruffled primness of Rochas and the belt obsession at Yves Saint Laurent. Put a belt on a ruffled dress and you've succinctly described the Fendi collection.
Luisa Beccaria, Armani
Luisa Beccaria seems intent on dressing every woman for a garden wedding. Her dresses have a fitted bodice with a full skirt and are delicately embellished with ribbons or printed with flowers. Everything is soft and gentle and pastel and all of her models are sweetly made up with their hair piled high in loose curls. They have angelic smiles and rosy cheeks. It's enough to make one go all "Mean Girls" and fantasize about pushing one of them in the mud.
One of the most amusing elements at a Giorgio Armani show is watching the arrival of celebrities. The design house is quite organized about their entrance. Ushers stand at attention near their assigned seat. A small photo area is cordoned off with velvet ropes and the photographers quietly position themselves. The celebrity enters, smiles and waves to the crowd.
The crowd applauds appreciatively. The star is photographed. The star sits. The photographers leave. The end. Tina Turner arrived at the show Wednesday evening, shook her lion's mane of hair and gave a smile and nod to the audience. Sophia Loren entered and gave a wave worthy of a presidential contender. The rapper 50 Cent arrived late, halfway through the show, and had to enter through a side door. (Why are rappers always late? Don't those Jacob the Jeweler diamond-encrusted watches work?)
The rapper missed the bulk of an elegant Armani collection. His daytime pieces focused on delicate jackets worn with fluid trousers or cutaway skirts. Armani stayed focused on his signature palette of stone, ecru and khaki. He combined subtly different textures and patterns that never became distracting because they were rooted in the similar hues. The slip dresses had cascading ruffled skirts and bodices adorned with jewels, but all in an understated shade of taupe.
There were Armani indulgences such as shorts that narrowed into a cuff at the hem, but they were long and loose enough that they steered clear of looking like bloomers. And as usual, there were ridiculous hats that rose like souffles from atop the models' heads. But those moments of ill-considered whimsy were few. This was a collection that was defined by calm and reserve and it served Armani well.
Versace, Miu Miu
Donatella Versace showed one of her strongest collections in a long while on Thursday night. The collection had been inspired by Palm Springs, Los Angeles and the desert sky. There were slim-fitting skirts and trousers the color of sand, softly draped day dresses in colors reminiscent of a sunset and other dresses the color of lapis lazuli.
This collection registered like a sigh of relief, coming from a house where aesthetics have been tested by burdensome stylistic expectations, financial woes and Versace's struggles with substance abuse. The easiness of the collection -- a sensibility that continued through the evening gowns -- suggests that perhaps Versace has found a way to communicate her vision of what it means to be both womanly and strong.
The presentation of the spring 2006 collections ended Friday night with Miu Miu by Miuccia Prada. By the time guests arrived, it didn't seem that anyone could stand another moment of fretful hoopla. No one wanted to see another set of bleachers, another room with too few exits and not enough ventilation. Enough with the big security guys in black studying invitations with an intensity reserved for passports.
But ending the Milan shows with Miu Miu meant they finished on a high note. The collection contained many of the same broad ideas that have dominated the shows here: white dresses, lace and eyelet, more dresses. But instead of cutting her dresses from traditional eyelet, she chose a fabric with cutouts in the shapes of circles and clovers. The look is geometric and suggests a pop art sensibility. Her dresses are in blocks of multicolored fabric, stitched together in an informal manner and with all the prissiness drained away thanks to the wrinkles and imperfections worked into the fabric. Instead of banal prints of flowers, Prada uses prints of cockeyed stars that look like they have been lifted from a comic book and should be accompanied by the word "Kapow!" It wasn't the kind of season that elicited many exclamation points. But at least it ended with a bang.