Taking a Hard Line

Times Fashion Editor

Italians understand why pasta must be immersed in scalding water: When the noodles have been softened to perfection, a world of sensuous eating pleasure awaits. But at the beginning of a week of fall fashion shows here, the question being asked is: Why would anyone want to boil wool?

Because the same pasta-eating Italians know fashion and its constant hunger for change. If delicacy and romance aptly described the look of last season, many of the fall collections are defined by harder edges and rougher textures.

That was certainly the case at Prada, one of the places fashion meteorologists go to see which way the wind is blowing. Miuccia Prada's vision of the present is the product of a hall-of-mirrors view of the past and the future. She tests synthetic materials, trying new ways to embellish simple garments. The result brings to mind the futuristic styles of the late '50s and early '60s, when Paco Rabanne, Courreges and Cardin imagined that come the millennium, women would wear dresses cut in spare, geometric shapes adorned with discs of Mylar. So the Prada present looks rather like the past's vision of the future. Adopt an "Alice in Wonderland" logic, and it all makes sense.

Prada's influence is so strong that the lines of bugle beads or sequins that bordered a hem or traced a neckline in her previous collection are now ubiquitous in stores. The materials Prada decorates her fall styles with may be harder to imitate--plastic, rubber, even blank strips of film are applied in random patterns.

The problem is the stiff silhouettes rest on the body but don't relate to it. A woman's curves are obscured beneath the straight lines of boxy tops and A-line skirts. Interesting angles are at work on the heels of the new Prada shoes worn in the show. They're a mix of colors--a red patent leather triangle of a heel supports a white shoe fastened with a black strap, for example. These quirky, color-blocked Mary Janes may appeal to more women than pleated skirts slit so their flaps of fabric resemble the strips of cloth at a car wash.

Nevertheless, there is real artistry in some of Prada's experiments. When seams are left open, then held together at intervals with big, obvious stitches, a garment's construction becomes part of its design. Prada has become enormously successful by following her whims. Although a loose white slipdress garnished with an abstract collage of shiny nylon and plastic would be an ideal choice for Buck Rogers' prom date, whether many women will be eager to wear it remains to be seen.

It is possible to work with looser shapes and still reveal the body. Narciso Rodriguez did it in his sophomore collection, proving he has courage to back up his restless imagination.

His debut collection was designed for a modern film noir femme fatale. Those tight pencil skirts and shrunken camisoles have been replaced by slouchy trousers and relaxed tops of brushed and, yes, boiled wool. A modern Catherine could stroll the moors longing for Heathcliff in these rich but comfy clothes. Straight dresses that fall to midcalf are shaped but not tight.

Rodriguez can tailor a simple dress with intricate seaming, then add the kind of precious detail that separates designer clothing from the serviceable (and indispensable) offerings of the Gap. At the top of an oatmeal wool sheath, a web of spun silver threads imprisons the upper back and chest in a fine cage. It's as formal as Rodriguez's boho country girl wants to get. She'll wear a long-sleeved T-shirt embroidered with sparkles but tone it down with a sporty, long skirt. Her version of a little black dress might be in charcoal gray--long, V-necked, part felted cashmere, part sweater knit.

Collections, like people, have personalities. They can be nervous, mean, stupid or too eager to please. The Rodriguez collection is so relaxed in spirit that a closet full of his designs would inevitably be a stress-free environment.

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There's a little more angst in the air at Missoni, where second-generation designer Angela Missoni is trying to honor the legendary knitwear company's tradition while introducing change. Like a natural beauty who can take her looks for granted, Missoni's confidence rests on a wealth of exceptional knitted patterns. I've seen the Missoni archives, where wearable tapestries of poetic symbols and skewed geometrics used since the '60s are kept. They could be excerpts from the diary of a well-traveled life--mosaics from Ravenna, the tiles of San Marco, the bargello stitching of a Florentine needlepoint, preserved autumn leaves from a Tuscan town square.

In the current collection, Missoni employs the classic knits sparingly and invents a new alphabet print that spells Missoni without suffering from logo fever. She isn't afraid to work with solid colors and knows that distressed leather, furry mohair and jackets of poodle- looped yarn provide texture. Angela is a Missoni, though, so when she wants to go for a great mix, she's a master. A lean, brown and red dress is a knockout under a patchwork shearling coat in the same warm, earthy colors.

Even when certain colors and eras dominate a season, some happy rebels eschew groupthink. Missoni's palette ranges from red, rust, orange and brown to deep green and purple. Most other collections have been dominated by beige and gray. Chumbawamba could write a song about it: "You take your charcoal gray, you take your heather gray, you take your foggy gray, you take your flannel gray."

While other designers stage revivals inspired by earlier decades, Blumarine and Dolce & Gabbana continue to make a party girl's essentials--extravagant coats and sweetly sexy evening gowns. There are echoes of the past in these collections too--embroidered fringed shawls at Dolce & Gabbana, and fur-trimmed and beaded sweaters and flapper dresses at Blumarine. But the aesthetic is defined by the designers' radiant muses--a naughty teenager at Blumarine, and her older sister at Dolce & Gabbana, a hot-blooded, young Italian widow.

A Sicilian garden inspired Dolce & Gabbana's beautiful and witty collection, filled with sprays of pastel blossoms hand-painted on magnificent, body-hugging dresses. The exaggerated femininity of Dolce & Gabbana's designs never reaches parody. This time, some of their peerless bustiers are fashioned from elasticized plastic and silk treated to look like mercury. The reflective material provides a contrast to the traditionally romantic elements the design team uses--fragile black tulle, silk fringe trailing the hem of a hand-painted satin dress. Sometimes doses of masculinity infuse their collections, but even herringbone tweed suits feature narrow, calf-length hobble skirts instead of trousers this season. When trousers appear, they are decorated with tuxedo stripes at the sides and a hand-painted vine traveling up one leg.

If there were any doubt that Anna Molinari, who designs Blumarine, reveres trashy women, the models' makeup would dispel it. Fuchsia lipstick, blue eye shadow and rosy pinked cheeks are the perfect complement to the femme details Molinari relies on--lace; fluffy, dyed fur trim; clingy satin skirts; gauzy, nearly transparent knits and ruffles.

A three-quarter-length sleeve was called the bracelet sleeve half a century ago. It's suddenly everywhere again, on both the girly clothes and the sharply cut '60s stuff. That's what happens when designers go thrift-shop scavenging.

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