Science inspires at Milan Science inspires at Milan

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 March, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 March, 1998, 12:00am

Have the Italians caught a bout of Asian flu this season? If so then they are positive the only remedy is to head for the science lab to concoct some weird and wonderful medicine.

Italian fashion designers are playing down their sick-looking order books in Asia by making determinedly bold gestures with their autumn/winter 1998 collections. In an extraordinary week of fashion shows they have been revolutionising fashion fabrics and delivering an excitingly new silhouette that pays a lot less heed to feminine curves than would be expected from the land of la dolce vita.

For a country renowned for its luxury sportswear we have witnessed a parade of inventiveness, perhaps a little too much so.

From a stylist's point of view, it has been a wonderful cavalcade of padded silks, hi-tech wools and fluffy mohair fabrics with which they can create edgy new fashion pictures for their magazines. These bulky clothes look magnificent on the willowy models, but will add five kilograms to the average woman.

If the designers are looking to woo back Asian customers or develop new markets for their designs one questions the commercial value of such a radical 'medicine'. Designers are forging ahead with challenging new ideas, but thankfully have not abandoned the refined feminine touches on which they originally built their business in both the eastern and western hemispheres.

There has been a huge growth in marketing Italian fashion labels in Asia in recent years, but the economic downturn has hit them badly even if companies such as Gucci and Ferragamo are trying to put a brave face on it.

Asia accounts for 45 per cent of Gucci's sales, 18 per cent of Gianfranco Ferre's, 15 per cent of Dolce & Gabbana's and 30 per cent of Ferragamo's. However, despite dips in sales, many of the Italian designers believe it is crucial to stick around and weather the storm.

Genny, Prada, Krizia and Fendi are all planning to expand in this region. Fendi is looking at two stores in Hong Kong and others in Shanghai and Beijing. Prada is planning a new shop here in the Lee Gardens and Krizia together with its Hong Kong business partner, Grace Silver, will push into China with a locally produced collection, Basic by Krizia.

The latest catwalk collections give a hint of just what these shops will be stocking and it will be rather different from the feminine prettiness that have been filling wardrobes recently.

The gorgeous florals, intricate embroideries and lacy looks are still very much around in collections from Dolce & Gabbana, Armani and Iceberg, but it seems that in the no-nonsense 1990s minimalism is what really sells. The dilemma has been how to push this look forward.

Prada and Jil Sander believe they have found the answer with inventive new fabrics and imagination. Aware that pared-down simple shapes are easy to replicate - especially the clean, graphic lines of the Cardin and Courreges 60s space-age look now doing the rounds - Prada and Jil Sander have hit upon a new formula.

They are using the appliance of science to create experimental fabrics that look strangely beautiful even if a little challenging to wear.

Miuccia Prada paid homage to Courreges when she created silk shifts pressed with a large gridwork of permanent creases and coats with strips of film celluloid that are a stark replacement for embroidery and sequins. Even more intriguing was the white padded silk jacket, with the red felt filling somehow pushing its way through the weave of the silk like feathers protruding from a pillow. The result gives a pink bloom to the silk.

Prada's clothes were cut into the simplest box jacket and A-line silhouettes with short, pleated skirts projecting flying panels. Velcro-fastenings and magnets replacing buttons give an original twist to the Star Trek theme. At Miu Miu, Miuccia Prada continued this spare modernist theme with her 'Skylab' collection.

Shiny white leather or wool laboratory coats and dresses featured moon-shaped cutouts, paper was turned into dresses while white silk faille versions were splodged with lacquer to look like sequins.

Jil Sander worked her alchemy with cashmeres pressed to look silky and smooth, wools starched to give coats a stiffened structure and thick-haired alpaca tamed by a surface veneer to appear finely glazed. For a woman who likes to show off her gym-honed body the padded coats and jackets with their dirndl skirts will take some adjusting to.

However, as the fashion silhouette moves away from the body with straighter lines and boxier shapes - the norm on the catwalk this season - there is little choice, unless she heads for Versace, Armani or Dolce & Gabbana.

If you like the new romance of Chritian Dior, then you will like the pretty hand-painted mimosa floral kimono coats with their big fur-trimmed collars and the sinuous stretch-brocade dresses with their flowered corsages from Dolce & Gabbana. The duo stuck to their body-hugging dresses and developed it with skin-tight mercury-mirrored plastic sheaths and long stretch wool and tweed pencil skirts. They have found a way of making modern hi-tech fabrics look wonderfully sexy.

Versace has never been short on sex appeal and now, as Donatella Versace's confidence in her design ability grows, we are seeing the collection take on a new, slightly edgier image. With her tongue stuck firmly in her cheek she made a little joke of the house's former glitzy image by laser-printing diamonds on lilac and yellow satin skirts and teaming them with rhinestone-embossed cashmere sweaters.

Versace, though, still knows how to turn on the heat with slinky silver mesh dresses, but Donatella muted the shininess slightly by slipping a layer of black tulle on top.

One of the strongest messages of the season is that 'long' is in. From Ferre to Ferragamo there was barely a kneecap in sight. Ferre sheathed legs in skintight grey wool tailoring or space-warrior gunmetal chainmail gowns that clung to the body unlike anything else in Milan. Even here science had glazed fabrics with a metallic sheen.

Alberta Ferretti, renowned for her sweet ethereal dresses, played it long and austere this season. Her long, linear shapes in somber grey and oatmeal wools and mohair, though, were cut with a curvy swing to the hemline and lightly freckled with seed pearls or mohair slip-stitch embroidery. Iceberg showed one of the prettiest collections of the week, embroidering long tweed skirts and amethyst and emerald shot taffeta padded gilets with purple flowers.

Highlights of the week though were Gucci and Armani. Tom Ford has a knack for identifying a trend and making it hip - the Milan shop was full of fashion editors last week, snapping up long kitten-heel shoes with the diamante 'G' on the heel and the new lingerie - next season it will be the shirt and sweaters belted just under the ribcage to wear with low-slung trousers.

Giorgio Armani, however, presented the best collection of the week, with gorgeous snakeskin printed shearling coats, fluid tailoring with asymmetric fastenings in blush pink, eggshell blue and grey and the lightest and most desirable mohair knits of any collection. His finale was a line-up of beaded Oscar dresses in black and white, fragile pastels or searing reds that actresses will be falling over themselves to wear. They were just the tonic Milan needed this season.