MILAN, Feb. 21
This capital of Italian fashion typically is celebrated for its most flamboyant design houses, Versace, Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana, which have been lionized in songs ranging from disco to hip-hop. But as designers here unveil their fall collections, it has been those using a thousand shades of gray or who evoke a symphony of moods in the drape of a neckline that have offered the most to savor.
One of the most successful was Raf Simons, who presented his women's collection for Jil Sander on Tuesday. The clothes were exquisite and mesmerizing in their simplicity. The presentation was akin to fashion haiku: controlled, focused, expressive and with a complexity that belied the streamlined design and austere approach to beauty and femininity. Simons used the sparest of brush strokes and yet managed to evoke luxury, confidence and power.
How can a designer send out a seemingly simple pair of narrow navy trousers topped with a close-fitting ribbed sweater and leave one marveling at the beauty of it all? What makes his work so much more astounding than the trousers and sweater you might pick up for a quarter of the price at Banana Republic? The difference begins, of course, with the fabric. Even a quick glance reveals its elegant sheen and luxurious drape. Then come the details: in the perfect proportion of the trousers and the impeccable fit of the sweater. The lean silhouette is grounded with chunky heels that keep everything from looking too fragile.
Simons takes a simple dress with short sleeves and a hemline that falls below the knees and artfully drapes the neckline just right. What could have been a dull little dress becomes something a thousand times more interesting because Simons used an elegant pleat like an exclamation point.
A designer has to master his details the same way any creative person must. Just as a chef understands why a quarter teaspoon of a spice is just right and a half teaspoon is too much, Simons understand that in fashion, transformations come in millimeters.
It is especially intriguing to look at his jackets and see the way he has raised the collar a smidge, minimized the lapels a tad and allowed the body of the jacket to swing just a bit. Simons not only has shown an astute understanding of all that the Jil Sander label represents -- modernity, minimalism, confidence, precision -- but he has moved it forward.
In some ways, he has taken up where Giorgio Armani left off in the 1980s when he transformed women's business attire. Armani took the traditional masculine business suit and feminized it. He gave women a jacket that was modeled on a female figure and allowed them to enter a boardroom wearing something that was appropriate in a predominately masculine world but that was undeniably theirs.
Simons makes further changes in the suit. It is even softer, even less obtrusive. The Jil Sander jacket is neither overtly masculine nor feminine. Instead, it is a uniform of elegance. For a woman who hates the idea that in her professional life her clothes are being noticed and parsed for meaning, Simons silences her frocks. He gives her a uniform akin to what men have had for generations. If Armani gave women a uniform that proudly announced their power and confidence, Simons gives them the means for taking attire completely out of the conversation without sacrificing sophistication and polish.
Armani, who put his signature collection on the runway Monday, built his reputation on restraint and refined taste. There have been times when he has turned his back on his own legacy, flailing desperately to be called hip and edgy -- two terms that are inordinately prized within the fashion industry.
For fall, however, he offers a gentle rebuke to all the trendsetters seeking to shock and rile. Perhaps it is also a quiet reminder to himself that the stylish vocabulary he created more than 30 years ago remains viable and valuable. He offered skirts with poetic bubble hemlines and an endless variety of confidently tailored jackets. Some skirts had artful folds along the waistline. Others simply wrapped gracefully around the body.
It wasn't a collection that was cool or provocative, but it contained beautiful clothes that spoke to Armani's historic place within the industry, and more importantly, his current stature among consumers.
PradaDesigner Miuccia Prada thrusts clothes directly into the center of any conversation. She creates garments that provoke arguments on the nature of beauty, our definition of womanliness and our measure of what is appropriate. In the collection she presented Tuesday, she returned to a theme that has intrigued her and baffled many observers: ugliness. She revels in taking fabrics, prints, colors and shapes that are considered unattractive or valueless and transforming them into something precious by the force of her own aesthetic sensibility, her stature as an innovative designer and a fashion industry loath to suggest that the empress's new clothes aren't so swell. For fall, Prada seated her audience on blocks of plastic foam arranged in a maze. The models walked along a pathway that resembled a tar-covered road. They wore fuzzy coats that made them look like Gund bears caught in the rinse cycle. There were charcoal coats with unfinished hems and "spray-painted" color patterns that looked so heavy they caused one's shoulders to slump just watching them pass by. Skirts and pullovers had the texture and sheen of something that one might find in a meat case cradling a family pack of chicken wings.
It was a jarring collection that left one's eyes reeling. These were not the sort of runway frocks that, while impractical and challenging to wear, raise one's pulse and leave shoppers desperate to see how this all might unfold in a more practical manner.
With each collection, Prada gives the fashion industry something to think about. Rare is the designer whose collection requires multiple REM cycles and, perhaps, a few stiff drinks, to fully comprehend. But after much contemplation about shag carpet coats and puckered dresses, spray-paint expressionism, cavewomen, Wilma Flintstone and primordial fears, it all comes down to this: These clothes are ugly. Really, ugly.
There is no redemptive magic. No intellectual rigor. No wry humor. If there is an inside joke, it is trapped so deep inside the mind of Prada that she is the only one chuckling.
Marni The Marni designer, Consuelo Castiglioni, traffics in pleasure, in smiles and giggles and knowing glances.
The collection she presented Wednesday morning mixed her signature shapes in wools and silk with fabrics and silhouettes plucked from the ski slopes and schoolyard.
Wool blazers top ski jackets, which cover print dresses that drape easily over the body. Barrel-like skirts in mesh peek out from under wool felt tunics. Glossy coats that allude to rain slickers are trimmed in a thick band of fur. Mittens are covered in Persian lamb.
Castiglioni gives women something to think about in her collections. She challenges traditional definitions of sex appeal. She experiments with shapes, sometimes capturing the look of a dress caught in a gentle breeze through the manipulation of seams and pleats. And she challenges our notion of luxury by elevating fabrics such as vinyl and polyester.
Ultimately though, Castiglioni helps a woman feel good in her clothes and smart about the aesthetic choices she has made. And she does both without leaving a woman's brow furrowed in baffled contemplation about whether ugly can ever be pretty.