Easy Elegance

TIMES FASHION EDITOR

Tom Ford spends as much time flying as most airline employees. The American designer who has made Gucci the fashion success story of the '90s jets between homes and offices in Milan, Florence, Paris, London, New York, Santa Fe and Los Angeles, and is often in any three of these cities in a single week.

So if anyone's had his fill of BDATs (Badly Dressed American Tourists), it's Ford. He sees them all the time, barreling through airports in old tennis shoes and garish jogging suits. Perhaps the runway presentations Ford masterminded for Gucci the past few seasons were his own attempt to replace the BDATs, at least in the parallel universe under his control, with men and women seeming to glide along life's concourse, consistently rich, sleek and dripping with the self-assurance great clothes can impart.

The image Ford has crafted for Gucci relied on tight pants, dark colors, short, slit skirts, lethally high heels, low necklines, sinuous fabrics and sharp tailoring. Its undeniably erotic power translated into booming sales for the company, especially in the accessories that were Gucci's foundation. But could anyone outside of a hot music video really live in those clothes? After all, a busy day usually contains activities beyond seduction.

With his fall collection shown here last week, Ford is bringing real life and the Gucci dream world closer together. "There are a lot of real clothes in the show," he said a few hours before it. "The goal was to have every woman in the audience say, 'I want to wear that.' In the past, editors have said, 'I want to photograph that.' But that's a different thing."

Ford's devotees are now, presumably, wearing Gucci underwear. So what goes over a tiny thong covered with the interlocking G logo can be less overtly sexy. Luxury is often hidden, too. A traditional Chesterfield coat is lined in sable, a trench coat is made of buttery black leather. The shortest skirts stop just below the knee and no slits are in sight. For day, in fact, there are very long skirts.

Ankle and mid-calf-length skirts have been all over the Milan runways, but Ford's innovation is a gorgeous, sweeping, pleated wool skirt that flows with each step. Narrower long skirts sit on the hips, as do looser, pleated trousers that are short enough to reveal high, round-toed pumps on sturdy (not stiletto skinny) heels.

The look captures the way people really dress, in random combinations of parkas, V-necked sweaters with room to breathe, or soft turtleneck pullovers. A black denim version of the slouchy trouser is even a Gucci jean, of sorts. Add to these basic pieces great accessories--the pump might be blue satin overlaid with brown lace; a new belt is a slim circle of red and green striped webbing that rides the hipbones and fastens with a flat silver buckle.

Spectacular evening dresses are fashioned of layers of tulle, and even some of those are less bare and not so clingy. One was shown with a parka thrown over it, a solution for the woman who, in reality, might have to drive carpool before venturing to a black-tie affair. Call it heightened Gucci reality.

"Even if you're dressed casually, you can look great," Ford says. The designers who best understand that idea capture the mood of the moment and, not surprisingly, a number of them are American.

Victor Alfaro and John Bartlett, New Yorkers whose lines are now manufactured and financed by Italians, cleverly combine tailored and sporty items. Their take on easy dressing is typical of the relaxed sportswear approach that has been one of America's gifts to the world of style.

Bartlett, a 34-year-old who began his career designing for men, presented one of the best collections in Milan. He paired a long skirt of diagonally paved matte gray sequins with a snug, beefy turtleneck sweater and slipped a beaded shell under a fuzzy cardigan to top a long, bias-cut olive wool skirt.

The maddeningly obscure phrase "casually elegant" that began appearing on party invitations a few years ago has finally found its expression with designers who have the confidence to break rules that dictated velvet was an evening fabric or white a summer color. They have taken their cue in blurring categories from women who just wear clothes they love, whenever they want to. Yet when Bartlett shows a harlequin beaded skirt and a scrunchy, ribbed sweater with a gray flannel jacket lined in brilliant pink silk, he shows a firm grasp of the way American women, who refuse to be intimidated by clothes, mix them up.

Although he is consistently refined and tasteful, Giorgio Armani gets it, too. The Armani woman wears flat shoes with rubber soles from morning through evening. She loves jackets, cut slim, without lapels and with hidden fastenings on one side. But she might just as well choose a weightless duster coat or a knitted shawl to wear over drapey, flat-front trousers or a long, narrow skirt.

Elaborately beaded evening clothes, the ones with five-digit price tags, combined gowns in the light, luminous colors of Oriental porcelain with jackets embroidered in black and white. As breathtaking as those high-wattage numbers and a striking finale featuring ombre red velvet and chiffon gowns were, they didn't disturb the enviable serenity that is the overwhelming emotion of an Armani show.

Even before tragedy visited the house of Versace, serenity was never one of its hallmarks. It is the home of flashy fun, and Donatella Versace aims to continue the tradition. So she didn't neglect the slashed-to-there "ho" gowns the crowd anticipates. There is a lot more going on at Versace than the fashion equivalent of soft-core porn.

Most impressive about the collection was the variety of ideas it included. A wool pantsuit of metallic boucle looked like it had been made of beautiful crushed mica. A black leather gown was edged in delicate, ruffled chiffon.

"The first collection I did was shortly after Gianni's death, and people were ready to forgive me more," Donatella said. "I think I have to prove myself more now."

Alberta Ferretti manages to offer a review course in the season's major themes, including endless variations of the color gray, long skirts, sheer mohair sweaters and skirts and fuzzy, felted fabrics that don't require linings. Both her signature collection and Philosophy, the excellent secondary line of younger, less expensive clothes that still reflect the designer's sensibility, contained some of the prettiest examples of the attention to detail--frayed unfinished seams and narrow kimono sleeves--that distinguished this season.

The bodice of a long, loden cloth dress was formed of metallic threads as fragile as a spider's web. A band of delicate crocheted yarn decorated the hem of another dress. By embellishing simple dresses with beading or subtle sparkle, Ferretti finds a different way of making designations like day or evening beside the point.

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