In Milan, One Designer Captures Fashion Scene : Romeo Gigli Influences the Establishment as Others Follow His Soft, Rounded Look

Times Fashion Editor

It's rare that a single designer, especially a newcomer, can change the course of fashion. But Romeo Gigli, who emerged as a design star here last season, has apparently carried it off.

Gigli's soft look, body-hugging dresses with draped bubble skirts have influenced the Establishment here. And Milan, usually a bastion of hard-edge, sophisticated tailoring, has capitulated to a fall fashion look that is surprisingly rounded and soft.

Naive, Gentle Shapes

Elements of the Gigli influence are turning up even in such houses of sleek tailoring as Giorgio Armani and Gianni Versace.

Gigli continues his naive, gentle shapes, which was to be expected. But nobody expected to see a bubble skirt at the Emporio Armani showing, which kicked off the fall collections here this week.

Armani offered long torso dresses with short bubble skirts as part of an otherwise preppie-looking assortment of jodhpurs and riding jackets, suits with long and short skirts, and coats with dropped shoulder and no shoulder padding.

The Emporio line, about half the price of the designer's regular ready-to-wear collection, will be launched simultaneously in New York and Los Angeles next year, at designer-owned shops as yet unbuilt. Where will he locate in Los Angeles? A simple question with a complicated answer, the designer said at lunch the other day. "Los Angeles has gone far beyond the glamour fixation of Beverly Hills," Armani said. "It is a huge city of museums, of culture, of wonderful young people." Rodeo Drive is out of the question for his shop. Melrose? "Only maybe," he replied. In fact, after much deliberation, he said, he begins to believe that Hollywood Boulevard is the right spot for his shop. "It is a real neighborhood," he said, as if that explained everything.

Other designers here are trying to catch up with the softness revolution before it leaves them behind. Gianni Versace's major statement was made in suits with long, narrow jackets and very short, horizontally draped skirts. The minis were slim, with fabric caught up in tiers, another variation of the theme that Gigli started.

Mariuccia Mandelli's contributions to the soft mood was seen in lacy wool knit outfits with long dirndl skirts and narrow shouldered sweaters. Her cashmere tent dresses can be worn away from the body or girdled in by wide reptile belts. Mandelli's peppiest styles are her new panda-print sweaters and her white wool mini-dresses, loosely belted at the hip under long coats.

The battle of long versus short skirts wages on, with short ones predominating slightly. They are almost always shown with flat shoes and dark stockings, which neutralize the long and leggy effect.

Many buyers here are traveling off the beaten path in search of fresh talent and affordable prices. There are a lot of the former, almost none of the latter. Prices, up about 20% from last year because of the deflated dollar and increased production costs, are staggering to many retailers. An Armani jacket will cost about $850 in the United States, and a jacket from the "lower-priced" Emporio line will cost between $275 and $450.

Torie Steele, who has nine designer boutiques on Rodeo Drive, is here viewing the collections this week. She says increased prices don't bother her customers, who are committed to a certain high caliber of style at almost any price. But department stores are suffering from a number of ills, and higher prices just add to their problems.

In fact, as Armani Vice President Gabriella Forte phrased it, "the entire future of designer label clothing is in question right now."

No Label Buyers

Consumers don't buy a label any more, they buy a look. And designers who are successful with their own special look are more and more confining their wares to small shops, which carry only their designs or a small group of designs with similar appeal.

Reports from New York are circulating here that designer Liz Claiborne will open three of her own U.S. shops in September, to offer clothes not available in department stores. The unconfirmed report is that she will eventually pull out of department stores altogether. And Adrienne Vittadini is reportedly about to embark on the same kind of venture. Her shops, it is said, will be franchised, with plans for 100 Vittadini outlets within the next few years. Spokespeople from the Claiborne and Vittadini companies in New York could not be reached for comment.

No wonder department store buyers here are busily searching for new resources. And Milan is a place to find them. Perhaps emboldened by the success of the recently anonymous Romeo Gigli, a whole cadre of young designers has set up shop in this city, at least for the duration of the fall fashion fair. Marina Spadafora, the Italian-born, L.A.-based designer, is having great success with her Merino wool and cashmere knit dresses, which she shows in a small exhibition booth adjacent to the fair. Many have narrow shoulders, small bodices, empire waistlines and lantern-shaped skirts. The styles are spare, soft and graceful.

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