WHAT nobody ever says about the big fashion shows is how peculiar the models look in real life. You're sitting there waiting for these glorious visions to come levitating down the catwalk and suddenly there's a troupe of sullen twigs slouching past with spindly legs, lumpy skin and bad attitude. At the recent Anna Molinari spring/summer show in Milan, for instance, were Kate, Amber, Nadja and Trish - all the single-name, super girls - and they looked weird (particularly Nadja, who's building a whole career out of resembling an extra-terrestrial). It is consoling and disconcerting, in about equal measure. What made the Molinari scene so odd was that the clothes were great - vibrant, zippy, lots of wonderful hipsters, little 1950s twin sets, leopard-print shoes and Capri pants - but the joyousness of the line seemed to have bypassed these human clothes-hangers somewhere along the way. The most exuberant bit of the proceedings was at the end, when a tiny woman shot out, scampered down the runway, tossed a swathe of her blonde hair from side to side and treated the audience to a huge grin. The woman was Anna Molinari, who, at 42, has more get up and go, more attractive pep, than any teenage supermodel. Further evidence of this energy was supplied three days later when she was due to be interviewed in her Milan showroom but had disappeared, no one seemed quite sure where. Elegant chaos was on display upstairs among the bowls of roses (Molinari's motif) as the buyers picked their way through the racks of clothes, aided by the house models. Everyone was happy with the collection - the buzz of commerce filtered out through the open windows into the late glow of a beautiful Milanese autumn afternoon. So beautiful, in fact, that Molinari had decided to pop down to Modena, 200 kilometres away, to say hello to her student son, Gianguido. She hadn't spoken to him for a few days, so she got into her Porsche, sped along the autostrada, kissed her boy, asked him how he was, and came back, late and contrite. 'She's afraid she's got a lot of fines,' remarked her interpreter laconically. Molinari creased up her vivid face apologetically, passed around a bowl of chocolates and parked herself on a blue velvet sofa. Molinari is as Italian as pasta. She employs the sort of vocabulary to describe her clothes ('They're about seduction and femininity') which American designers, especially women, might hesitate to use. Helmut Newton, who has, shall we say, an interesting slant on the female form, has photographed her collections. She normally likes a little naughtiness, a touch of well-cut flirtation, a glimpse of lingerie, a totter of heels. She is, however, shifting her direction. The new collection is more Hepburn than Monroe. 'It's the moment to change,' she says. 'Obviously, one can get tired of the bra that is showing but still stay feminine. I haven't dropped the message of seduction but it's not so extreme. It's more clean and essential, not so obvious. I wanted to preserve the seductive woman, but on the inside.' She cannot, she declares, imagine what it is like to lack inspiration. The world of fashion has swaddled her since she was eight and her parents, who had a knitwear factory, used to take her along with them and tell her to play with the buttons and the colourful pencils. They thought it was the only way to keep her quiet but she's been making a big noise with these implements ever since. Naturally, her first collection was knitwear, for which she still retains an affection ('It's an essential part of a lady's wardrobe'). But it wasn't enough for her expanding dreams and, at 24, she set up her own fashion label, Blumarine, which has become one of the most successful names in the Italian fashion industry. Blumarine is a family concern. The commercial side of things is taken care of by Gianpaolo Tarabini, Molinari's husband from an old Italian family, whom she met when she was 15 and married, amazingly enough, when she was 16. She says that they fight all the time just before collections but that such argy-bargy usually brings them good luck. This season they quarrelled over the colours. 'He said, 'No, no, no', that too many colours would confuse the customers,' she laughs. 'But he gives me a lot of power.' Their daughter, Rosella Tarabini, 28, is in charge of the company's image through the shows, the catalogues and the crucial advertising photographs which filter a vision of both Blumarine and the Anna Molinari signature line out to the public. Molinari, who believes that her own mother was her greatest teacher, admits happily that her daughter is 'wiser than me'. And it's true that Tarabini appears to be a more sober character - no make-up, no jewellery, an aversion to publicity - than her effervescent mother. While Molinari holds court expansively on her sofa, her daughter is perched on a chair in a back room, curled in on herself like a friendly but uncertain student with bitten nails. 'My mother is more passionate than me,' Tarabini says. 'I don't like to be in front of people. I prefer to be the shadow. I'm really trying to be like my father. I respect him and I love him. And I think he gets bored with us, so I'm trying to be nice to him. He likes to stay out in the country, he doesn't like that in fashion you sometimes have to be mean or tricky. And I can get ... cheesed off, too.' Mother and daughter, like husband and wife, have a high quota of argumentative moments. 'I disagree with her a lot,' grins Tarabini. 'My very first memory is of us fighting - she was telling me that I was much more elegant when she dressed me. The strange thing is that she always complains about how I behave. But she did the same.' She has a point. Molinari, for instance, went off to get her first tattoo when she was 16. She now has seven - on the wrists, shoulders, knees and next to her tummy-button. But they're tiny little hearts and flowers, not Hell's Angel monsters, and the rebelliousness, like the flirty clothes she designs, is the equivalent of a nicely brought-up girl sticking her tongue out for a dare. In the same way, Tarabini decided to go and live in a squat in London when she was 18. 'I remember very clearly when I discovered I was rich. I was 14 and I went to a friend's apartment and it was so small and I lived in a big place, full of paintings, charming. From that time, I wanted to know if I could survive without money.' Hence the squat; but someone she knew had a flat nearby where she could wash, so it wasn't totally dire. 'I never told my mother about that. Why should I? I don't like to talk so much about what I'm doing. I have to prove myself.' And yet isn't it hard for her to do just that when she's so firmly clasped to the bosom of an Italian family? 'I just say that I work in fashion,' Tarabini says, with a shrug and a flick of her cigarette. 'I don't explain. It's very difficult to be judged by people when you feel you belong to a family that's famous. But I'm so used to this world. This is what I know, it's familiar even if there are very horrible aspects. I can find beautiful souls even here.' Such integrity must make her job as chief image-concocter (as she refuses to be categorised she doesn't have an official title) considerably more difficult than it needs to be. 'The big challenge is to make a model look real. They are kind of concerned about their image, they don't want to show other aspects of their lives.' Having seen the current super-selection of vapid skeletons in action, it's easy to see what she means. Fortunately, she works closely with her upbeat mother on the campaigns. 'She gives me so many chances and she trusts me. There is a lot of positive energy - it's a good combination.' The clean lines of her mother's spring/summer collection, of course, appeal to Tarabini, precisely because she is so anxious to move away from self-indulgent fantasy. 'This is not the Blumarine collection, it's the Anna Molinari collection, and Anna Molinari is a real person, not a brand. She's mad but she's real ...' Her mother, who is not present to hear that remark, wouldn't be one whit abashed by it. Anyway, although Molinari has her eccentricities she is shrewd enough to make herself marketable. Earlier this year, for instance, she spent 15 days in New York 'and now I understand better the American ladies'. And she likes Asian women. 'They are a little bit like me, very feminine.' She also says that she genuinely enjoys the meetings in factories which take place while the collections are being created, a time which other designers can find truly penitential. The show itself is 'an examination; you wait for the results to come out'. And what if these marks are not as high as she would like? 'It's painful because the things you show in a collection have been worked on so hard. Then I speak to the people who criticise me, it pushes me to improve myself.' As the spring/summer show was a definite hit, however, Molinari shouldn't have to seek out any critics. She can recharge her buoyant energies at home - a magnificent villa in the countryside outside Milan - with Gianpaolo and their three labradors (Tarabini, preserving her independence, has her own apartment). There she looks after the flowers she loves and plays the Chopin she was taught by her mother. 'But I am a rebellious spirit,' she adds, slightly anxious in case this sounds too bourgeois for words. 'I like going to discos too.' Then she tells a story about a wedding dress she designed for Naomi Campbell to wear at the end of a show. 'I wanted it to be provocative because of Naomi, you know. I thought of her the moment I was drawing it, it was so beautiful on paper. But when it became reality, it started getting complicated and it had to be changed and changed. It was very short, made of organza. And then Naomi was going to come out with a white teddy bear but she changed her mind ...' In the end, Molinari did an exquisite dress with a classic veil to cover the head and the show bride carried armfuls of beautiful, traditional, white roses.