Saturday, July 01, 2006

Earth to Milan: Show a Little Restraint


MILAN -- LATELY it seems that the intervals separating the eras and styles designers relentlessly recycle have shrunk to the point where nobody makes reference anymore to real time. Rather, the collective fashion mind whips up whole-cloth fantasies of, say, the 1980's based not on the period so much as on whatever delirious interpretation of it was retailed six months ago, or maybe six months before that.

Of all the authentic 80's personalities design has consulted, there is one whose voice and message may be of use right now. I found myself thinking often of this woman last week during the spring 2007 men's wear collections, as the hours clocked by and 50 or more designers filled 14-hour days with their latest ideas.

No matter where I was, Nancy Reagan's countenance seemed to drift unbidden into consciousness. Maybe it was all the Adam Ant music the D.J.'s played. In my mind's eye, Mrs. Reagan's outsize head, perched atop a stem neck and framed by a broad-shouldered power dress — red Adolfo, of course — tended to morph into the disembodied face of the winsome charlatan from Oz, by way of Kansas.

At a certain point — I believe it was Frida Giannini's debut designing men's wear for Gucci — I began to fantasize about Mrs. Reagan appearing in the skies above Milan's great wedding-cake cathedral, the Duomo, and intoning in a disembodied celestial voice her famous message of abstention. Far below her huddled the poor fashion folk, modishly dressed but terribly troubled and lost.

"Just Say No," I could hear Mrs. Reagan say. "Just Say No."

And in this dream, I joined my voice to hers, perhaps for the first time in my life.

Just say no to Oxford shoes in green or orange or two-tone leather (Gianfranco Ferré). Say no to self-belted trousers, voile shirts, spray-on tans, flower-embroidered business clothes. Say no to appliqué effects, vinyl raincoats and cinched trench coats worn by girly-man models crammed into Rastafarian tam-o'-shanters (Burberry.) Say no to man-sandals (called mandals) and man-purses (murses) and suede hot pants worn so short that they produce a kind of pipe-cleaner leg not improved by fringed hippie boots worn loose and low (Gucci).

Say no to zippers so brief that they are an affront to the masculine anatomy (Costume National). Say no to boring minimalist blazers worn over tights that leave little doubt as to whether the wearer has been circumcised (Calvin Klein). Say no to seersucker swallowtail coats for the beach (Etro); to pastel golf wear seemingly designed for caddies with a sideline in a soft-core porn (Missoni). Say no to the unfortunate trouser length that, as the stylist L'Wren Scott remarked, now blights the streets of London.

"What are those?" Ms. Scott asked as she waited for a show to begin, referring to pants truncated at midcalf. "They're not clam-diggers or Bermuda shorts. Maybe they should be called Mapris," or man Capris.

Stop the Mapris, or at least make efforts to contain them before they become a global contagion. And halt, before it is too late, belt buckles and sandals adorned with a designer's profile in silhouette (Mr. Ferré).

Strange as it is to say, the most credible designs of the week were, with a notable exception, distinguished by measured sobriety. Although no word in the context of fashion means less than "modern," there is such a thing as a vital present. And like members of a recovery group chanting the Serenity Prayer, the designers who presented the most engaging ideas looked as if they were taking both life and fashion a day at a time.

The most literal example of this is Donatella Versace, whose cocaine addiction is now behind her and whose collection was well pitched to the revitalization of her family company. In the tailored proportions of jackets and trousers, Ms. Versace steered clear of pitfalls that have beset past collections. There was no Sonny Crockett flash, and few garments that could be mistaken for key pieces in the wardrobe of a made man.

Instead, Ms. Versace showed well-shaped and trim-cut jackets in neutral hues and took a Goldilocks path in terms of trouser width. Her palette was mellow; beyond slabs of neon color on print shirts, there was nothing to suggest a man who looks as if he secretly wishes to wear his girlfriend's clothes. That it was intended to be a masculine show, in the premetrosexual sense of the word, was clear from the casting.

"We really wanted guy guys," the stylist Bill Mullen said backstage. Most models working Milan's runways lately bear an unnerving resemblance to the underage characters in Larry Clark films.

One of the encouraging experiences of an intense but often dispiriting week was observing how effectively a tight palette can be deployed by designers as skilled, though unalike, as Valentino, Alexander McQueen, Raf Simons at Jil Sanders, Tomas Maier at Bottega Veneta or Giorgio Armani, who invented it all.

In his moment of ascendancy, Mr. Armani was often praised for a controlled use of color and tone-on-tone effects. Revisiting the lessons of his early career, Mr. Armani concentrated this time on unfussy suits in shadowy colors and fabrics that were fluid but not blowsy. The full pinstriped trousers he presented with ironed creases looked appropriate to the sartorial moment, cool although not nearly so hip as the Al Parker mustaches glued on all the models at his earlier Emporio Armani show.

THE Bottega Veneta and the Valentino shows, so neutral they were almost monochrome, seemed to have been created by designers with an ear cupped to the complaints of men, who, it turns out, lost interest in becoming the new women once it sunk in that women have to rethink and refresh their wardrobes constantly.

"I was focusing on the leisure suit from the 1970's," Mr. Maier said backstage after his fine show of simple, short jacketed and close-fitting but unconstructed suits in colors like khaki and basalt gray. "Two pieces and you're gone from the house," he said. Don't forget the $3,000 woven leather tote on your way out the door.

If one can fantasize Nancy Reagan as a blob of ectoplasm adrift in the streaky Milanese sky, I suppose it is O.K. to float the hope that Mr. Maier may one day design a line for H&M, so that ordinary mortals can buy his clothes. It seems unjust that the only people who can afford to look like expensive slackers in his version of a leisure suit or in Valentino's handsome khaki Sahara jacket and lean linen trousers are those with a Gulfstream V or, at the very least, a fractional share.

The Trussardi presentation, designed by Beatrice Trussardi, was brief, tightly edited and unexpectedly assured. The theme of surf culture seemed like a stretch when Ms. Trussardi explained her brief beforehand.

"Actually, it's all sports and the way that sports are not so elitistic any more," she said in charmingly imperfect English.

Anyone who has studied photographs from the pre-Gidget era of the sport once called wave-riding would recognize how effectively Ms. Trussardi approximated, with slender trousers at ankle-grazing lengths and boxy lightweight jackets, the intense detailing that went into making surfers' studied nonchalance so ineffably hip.

Another kind of cool was evoked by Raf Simons, who has somehow managed to channel Jil Sander without compromising his own aesthetic or lapsing into parody. Mr. Simons's swing coats and one-and-a-half-breasted blazers came straight from the Sander lexicon. His contribution was to shift the silhouette and subtly widen the shoulders, which makes it clear that he is designing for people with Y chromosomes.

Beneath the risible "Death in Venice" styling was an Alexander McQueen show in which fashion's most gifted underachiever once again proved his ability to cut and shape a suit, most successfully one in lightweight glen plaid with checkered piped lapels.

Is this the place to note that the most inescapable, not to say oppressive, theme of the week was short pants? It is. There were short shorts and Gurkha shorts and Bermuda shorts and cuffed shorts out of "Chariots of Fire." There were tennis shorts and shorts worn as the bottom half of suits and shorts so abbreviated that they were little more than cummerbunds with a zipper and a seam up the crotch. If these presentations said anything about the larger culture, it could be that the West is being readied for a future in which China has conquered the planet and the rest of us have been hired to make UPS deliveries or mow the lawn.

As usual, it was Miuccia Prada who kick-started the trend with a collection so obstinately noncommercial that it made this viewer fall in love all over again with Italian fashion's resident intellectual iconoclast.

"If you don't get it, how do you think we feel?" asked the president of one high-end American retailer after the show. He gave a defeated shrug.

The beauty of the Prada show was its designer's eccentric, albeit financially risky, insistence on finding the oddest materials, most unexpected shapes and the most degraded sartorial conventions imaginable and proving what she can make of them.

Ms. Prada's short shorts looked like the kind worn by African game-trackers, although rendered in the colors of road-caution signs. They were worn beneath vinyl jackets impractically fastened with Velcro slabs and with open-toed sandals of vinyl paired with heavy socks.

If a bus happened to stop on Milan's fancy commercial drag, the Via Montenapoleone, and disgorge a group of tourists dressed like the models on Ms. Prada's runway, the shopkeepers would yank down their riot gates so fast they'd risk hernia. It is a fact that all designers put on airs, but less often true that they are willing to take a look at their own aesthetic pretension. What is rare about Ms. Prada is how compelled she is to stick pins into the bloated balloons of the fashion business, sometimes even pricking her own.

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