Too sexy for their skirts

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 October, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 October, 2002, 12:00am

FASHION VISIONARY and armchair anthropologist Vivienne Westwood once declared that the main motivation for getting dressed in the morning is to ultimately take it all off, in the presence of one's beloved(s), later that night. Judging from the sexed-up ensembles that strutted down catwalks during the Milan collections, which wrapped up with a lot of heavy breathing last week, fashion insiders are inclined to agree. With relatively few exceptions, designers seem to have a one-track mind for spring. If it's micro-mini, dangerously low-cut and spiked, stiletto heels, then it will soon be hitting a store - or bedroom floor - near you.

As is often the case, the naughtiness started with Tom Ford. Abandoning Gucci's gothic-inspired looks of autumn/winter, he went against the old adage that correlates sky-high hemlines with a booming economy. Days after Gucci Group announced a 55.1 per cent plunge in second-quarter net profits, and with the threat of war with Iraq on everyone's mind, Ford sent out skirts and dresses so brief that even models, a species not known for their modesty, were seen pulling at their hems for fear of a Sharon Stone moment. His logic? That sex sells, as will many of these looks once crucial centimetres are added to the selling collection that eventually ends up in stores. (Another alternative: wear them as tunics over his super-skinny, satin drainpipe trousers.)

Whether or not Ford's Asian fan base will buy into his Eastern-inspired ensembles - cheeky cheongsams decorated with hand-painted flowers and ornate embroidery, or kimonos worn open over the tiniest of bikini bottoms - is another story. The consensus among Asian buyers is that customers here are wary of looking like colonial caricatures or, worse still, as if they have just walked out of a Wan Chai bar.

Which could make for slim pickings next season: the Suzie Wong look was all over Milanese runways for spring. At Blumarine, there were sexy, little trompe-l'oeil dresses studded with grommets to resemble cheongsams, and satin kimonos and bomber jackets bearing dragon embroideries. Gianfranco Ferre wrapped colourful obis over jackets, or sent them out as skirts, and Roberto Cavalli - not normally my cup of cha - showed a relatively tasteful collection inspired by chinoiserie. Against a gold and red lacquered backdrop, he sent out colourful, micro-mini cheongsams, corsets and fur-lined kimonos with faux-tortoiseshell stiletto heels.

Miuccia Prada, who heralded the return to sexiness with last season's stellar Prada collection, showed crisp cotton shirts with cheongsam closures at both Prada and Miu Miu. Yet the look at Prada was more futuristic than literal, mixing sporty separates, brocades, 1960s-inspired shifts and miniskirts with irregular, plastic bead applique (applied only to the front of outfits, an idea inspired by little girls who only care about what they can see in the mirror). The finishing touches: youthquake goggles, high, white wedges and flat, silver sandals. 'She's a fresh, foxy, young girl, but really badly behaved,' says Prada stylist and Pop magazine editor Katie Grand of this season's imaginary muse. The Miu Miu muse is a little less girlie than usual. A gamine at heart, she wears oversized sweaters, low-slung surfer shorts and mega-wedge shoes that should do a brisk business in Japan.

On a harder note, Jil Sander, Fendi and Dolce & Gabbana all got hot and bothered over bondage motifs. The latter looked to its archives (think black, side-laced corset dresses and bustiers from the 1980s) and Vivienne Westwood's iconic punk and pirates collections for its show, held in a venue decorated to look like the Love Boat. But don't expect cruise director Julie to hit the decks in the design duo's battered, engineers' boots, biker jackets, chain-mail, buckled bondage trousers, togas or chokers bearing large, gold letters spelling S-E-X.

This message was also loud and clear, if not tricky to wear, at Fendi, where Karl Lagerfeld opened the show with bootylicious bathing suits that would not look out of place in a bad hip-hop video. These were followed by his interpretations of the toga - a mini-trend in Milan - worn with second-skin suede jackets, leather, lots of hardware (chains, cut-metal jewellery) and so-kitsch-they're-cool platform shoes with Perspex soles.

Another trend to watch is zippers. They criss-crossed sexy, 1980s-inspired Perfecto jackets, mini-dresses and bondage trousers at Jil Sander, where designer Milan Vukmirovic showed his most distinctive collection since taking over design duties at the house. He also played with utilitarian, parachute-shaped separates with drawstrings and neon-bright colours - a utilitarian touch which also turned up on runways as diverse as Emporio Armani and Burberry, where designer Christopher Bailey proposed outsized checks, more miniskirts and a great, leather-trimmed blouson.

Of course, when it comes to looking sexy the old-fashioned way - in figure-flattering, colourful clothes with eye-catching patterns and prints - Italians really do do it better. Pucci, the Florentine fashion house that has been in designer limbo for decades, is getting back on track under the direction of mix-master Christian Lacroix. His debut collection featured the brand's iconic, kaleidoscope prints in sporty shapes such as tracksuits and hooded bathing costumes, as well as some chic, one-shouldered chiffon dresses. It also boasted the most talked-about shoes of the season: strappy, printed slingbacks that are guaranteed to appear in every glossy magazine come March.

Missoni also had its best collection in seasons, although all anyone could talk about after the show was model Gisele Bundchen's near spill and miraculous runway recovery when she lost her shoe mid-sashay. Also on the runway were culottes, bustier dresses, 'trenchcoat' tops and leggings in all manner of patterns, from sunbursts and stripes to fruits and flowers. Graeme Black, Giorgio Armani's former assistant and the new name at Ferragamo, also gets top marks for wearability. 'I want women to keep these pieces for six, 10 years,' he said backstage after a show. 'I don't believe in disposable fashion. It's all about richness and quality.' The season's keepers are fitted, leather jackets with three-quarter sleeves, timeless beaded tunics for evening and an updated Ferragamo wedge.

Psychedelia was in the house at Versace's palazzo, where Britney Spears was front row and centre for the first joint fashion show of the Versus and Gianni Versace collections. Prints, patterns and colours collided at Versus, for a look Donatella Versace describes as 'lacquered Lolitas and naughty schoolgirls taking their first communion'. For those who don't quite follow, this translates into pleated micro-skirts, shrunken blazers and mini-jumpsuits worn over skimpy, lace bathing-suits with PVC pumps. Colour theory, form and optical effects were the basis of the Versace collection, which started out with more mini-dresses and short pantsuits, moved to skimpy swimwear and ended with lacy, lingerie-inspired evening dresses combined with chain-mail with varying degrees of success.

At the opposite end of the sartorial spectrum is Giorgio Armani, who, like Miuccia Prada, rejects the 'obvious' sexuality typical of many Italian designers. His is a more sensual approach, focusing on superbly cut summer suits, intelligent eveningwear and subtle, ethnic influences (think Himalayan jackets, Moorish leather work and flat, babouche slippers). Armani doesn't, however, have a problem with the front-row, celebrity formula: his marathon show, which started an hour late, was attended by Tina Turner, George Clooney, Kim Cattrall, Mira Sorvino, Sophia Loren, Olivier Martinez, Kristen Scott Thomas and Milla Jovovich (the latter three will appear in his spring/summer ad campaign). As always, it was a refreshing - if not particularly pulse-quickening - reality check to the who-would-ever-wear-that-and-why outfits seen on many other Milan runways.