Milan's Rare Gems

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"I had such high hopes for this show," said Sue, a fashion editor from New York City, fighting her way though the crowds. "And then out came another batwing, off-the-shoulder, silk jersey top."

That was in London. There were many, many batwing, off-the-shoulder, silk jersey tops on display in the four days of shows that made up London Fashion Week in late September. So many that no one can remember specifically which show she was talking about. London, usually known for the individuality and creativity-if not the commercial potential-of its designers, was in the grip of '80s nostalgia. Only stunningly original shows by Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan served to maintain the city's cool reputation.

Thoughts turned to Milan. There, it was hoped, the new fashions for spring 2001 would leave behind Flashdance, Duran Duran and Madonna's Material Girl-era outfits.

They did, in a way. The references in Milan this month were much more varied-there was Grease, Three Coins in a Fountain, Gladiator and a bit of James Bond thrown into the mix-but the result was not a diverse group of well-conceived clothes destined to sell well. The result was largely disaster.

"There are two kinds of shows you remember," said another New York-based fashion editor: "the ones that are really, really good and the ones that are so bad they're comical." The D&G line, shown first, fell into the latter category. Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana heard the "loud" and "tacky" call of the '80s and sent out a parade of clothes that a

Vegas showgirl would be embarrassed to wear: miniskirts the size of belts, leopard-print leggings and dresses, a black body suit with a big, candy pink bow tied around the hips. Lest anyone miss the point, there were T shirts that said "Diva" and "Cause I Am Worth It!" By the end, even the most stone-faced editors were struggling to restrain giggles.

There was no laughing at Gucci. "Misogynistic, evil, scary" were some of the comments editors were heard muttering as they left the Gucci show, where Tom Ford began by bringing back the bustier, à la Madonna in her Blond Ambition tour, and continued with a wet T shirt contest, à la Fort Lauderdale, Florida in April. If it wasn't a bustier and it wasn't wet, then it was big and shiny. Suits with giant lapels, a skirt with a huge cargo pocket and-oh no!-off-the-shoulder batwing tops came in bright blue, blinding white, royal purple and black satin. Ford said he was playing with new shapes, but these shapes won't make anyone look good. Luckily for him, this show has already been forgotten in the glare of his much-anticipated first collection for Yves Saint Laurent in Paris.

No one called them misogynistic, but even the labels known for being in touch with what real women wear seemed to forget their mission this season. Jil Sander's team, creating the women's collection without her for the first time since she quit the company, captured her somber, architectural style. Jackets with neatly gathered backs were almost eerily Sander-but tucked into miniskirts? Trim shirt dresses were also very Jil-but worn so tight that the buttons were pulling apart? Sander wouldn't have let those looks out of the showroom, much less put them on the runway.

Miuccia Prada's recent collections have all been about fantasy and prettiness. Sequins, appliqués, beading and ribbons have adorned shapes that most any woman could wear. This time the Prada show opened with a model in a short, tight, belly-baring twin set. Shown in her younger, more playful line, Miu Miu, it would have made sense. But when glimpsed here it seemed she had finally lost the woman's intuition that created the Prada mystique-different each season but always wearable and trendsetting-which had made her so popular. Luckily, things improved as the show went on. She skipped over the '80s and went back to the decade that influenced many of those styles-the '50s. She presented a collection of circle skirts, clutch purses, colored knit polos and skirt suits. The best pieces were those given a modern edge-jackets which closed with a strap across the chest, blazers cinched with a cummerbund. And the black shoes with multicolored sling-backs and conical heels are destined to be the shoe of the season.

Going back to the '50s was many a designer's way of dealing with the trend du jour, and the result was several collections of very pretty clothes. Marni and Philosophy di Alberta Ferretti made clothes for the Sandra Dees out there-circle skirts made full with netting, clutch bags, buttoned-up blouses. Anna Molinari made clothes for the Rizzo: tight leggings, gold metallic cocktail jackets and the inevitable poodle skirt, with a flurry of beaded poodles to close the show. Armani went back farther, with a collection of androgynous clothing stemming from the 1930s. And Karl Lagerfeld went back farther still, presenting leather tunics, big gold heavyweight champion belts and high shoes with chains that attach to the wrist, for a look which can best be called Gladiator chic.

The first women's collection done by Hugo Boss helped fill some of the wearability gap left by the other collections: long and lean jackets buttoned low for a sexy look. They were paired with skinny trousers or narrow walking shorts. The collection, more stylish than the men's version, won't set any fashion trends but it will give working women an alternative to Armani. Strangely, the only Milan show to generate universal excitement was that of Dolce & Gabbana. They must have been distracted by visions of beautiful beaded suede coats, trim black suits, rhinestone tube tops and an airy lattice fur coat dancing in their heads while designing D&G. It's not every season the same designer creates the best and arguably the worst collections on a calendar. Any celebrity who doesn't immediately place an order for one of those beaded coats-beautiful gems that are nothing less than wearable Fendi Baguette bags-deserves to be relegated to the direct-to-video market. The surest sign that they got it right was their rhinestone T shirts. Rather than pay homage to the Material Girl-cum-Mum with a collection stolen from her closet of 20 years ago, the duo created sequined T shirts with Madonna's image and the titles of her albums.

No, you couldn't escape the '80s in Milan and you certainly couldn't escape Madonna, but at least Dolce & Gabbana provided an original approach to worship.