Every fashion CEO in Europe dreams of "pulling a Gucci." In the four years since Tom Ford was named creative director of the moribund leather goods company, its sales have quadrupled and its image has once again zoomed into the style stratosphere, where the air is thin and the atmosphere is very, very hot.
If Gucci could put its fate in the hands of a clever, charismatic Texan and, in return, have to employ security guards at its Milan boutique to control the eager shoppers begging anyone to take their plastic money, couldn't other once-prestigious but now sleepy European brands, many of whom also operate their own stores all over the world, catch some American magic too?
The first important show of more than 90 fall fashion presentations scheduled here this week tested that premise. It was the debut of the Louis Vuitton ready-to-wear line, designed by New Yorker Marc Jacobs. His mandate was to create clothes with the quality and spirit of Vuitton's famous luggage and leather goods while invigorating the brand with a little of his downtown cool. Vuitton never sold its own clothes before, so despite the fact that the company founder began making trunks for the French aristocracy 143 years ago, there is no tradition of Vuitton style.
However, there is a tradition of French style: Much of French ready-to-wear is tolerated as haute couture's disadvantaged stepsister. If hand beading is too costly to use on off-the-rack garments, big, gold buttons and a profusion of color and pattern seem a good substitute. One could almost hear the French spectators viewing Monday's exercise in understatement say, "This is a fashion show?"
A white-on-white Vuitton nylon feed bag accompanied the first model, but it was the only accessory to appear. The models slouched across the floor wearing pointy-toed, backless slippers (elevated runways are not currently in vogue). They wore natural makeup; clean, shiny, straight hair; and simple, well-cut, sporty clothes made of luscious cashmere, thin leather, rubberized cotton or heavy silk.
Jacobs comes from a mink-lined ashcan school whose motto is: "Don't try too hard." Don't accessorize too much, don't fuss, just speak softly and carry a big wallet. He is master of the unpretentious detail--buttons on the shoulder of a lean cashmere pullover, a test pattern of pale beading traversing the bottom of a brown wool A-line skirt.
The story of the snake who promised not to bite its savior, then reneged when rescued, comes to mind. "You knew I was a snake," he explains to his pained victim. You don't hire Marc Jacobs, whose subtle haute Gap sportswear appeals to sophisticated, skinny, young urban women, and expect gold buttons big as door knockers that will please French matrons and Asians who like their logos obvious. It seems Vuitton may have misunderstood their Great Yankee Hope. Its dazzling new megastore opened on the Avenue des Champs-Elysees, a street that is busy with tourist traffic but not known for chic. Locating the store there, where Vuitton bags rest like works of art in cubicles bathed in museum-quality lighting, would correspond to taking space at Universal CityWalk instead of Rodeo Drive.
The fussy, flamboyant, wild and wacky French style survives at Christian Dior, now designed by John Galliano. In a one-word program, the designer announced that the theme of the collection was "Sportswear." And what sport would that be? Sportshopping? Sportlunching? Sportflirting? Perhaps Galliano was trying to point out that, unlike his last show, which featured hardly anything but extravagant evening gowns, this one would offer daywear.
Well, that depends on where you spend your days. The collection's key piece, a parka, of sorts, could be worn before dark. But with its fur-trimmed hood that unzipped into a collar; wide, elasticized waist; deep peplum and full sleeves, the jacket is far from a wardrobe basic. The parka, and a sleeveless vest-like version, appeared in metallic brocade, aqua wool shot with Lurex, hot pink silk adorned with orange fur. A promiscuous decade plunderer, Galliano showed '20s silhouettes and gaudy '80s short-skirted suits. The opulence was dizzying, but amid the glut of eye-assaulting color and 900-pound headgear and jewelry were pieces to love--like a pewter crocheted twin set edged in ivory lace.
"These clothes are very appealing and whimsical," Saks Fifth Avenue fashion director Nicole Fischelis said after the Dior show. "They make you smile."
Stella McCartney, in her second collection for Chloe, continues to show an understanding of sexy, feminine clothes without providing the refuge for the terminally overdressed that Galliano seems intent on maintaining. Abandoning any concessions to seasonal climate differences, she presented ruffled satin georgette bias cut dresses in pastel moderne prints inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright. While much at Chloe is deliberately girly--silk camisoles embroidered with pansies and romantic corset dresses laced up the back--some of the most elegant evening looks were based on the Duke of Windsor's shawl-collared smoking robes, worn with drapey trousers.
We know Beatle daughter McCartney is a rock 'n' roll baby, but her punk looks, complete with studs, mean zippers and spikes, were a sad alternative for the woman who thinks she can't wear sweet. A prettier alternative was tulle cut into fish scales, then embroidered and shaped into skirts, dresses and tops with scalloped edges. A strapless black gown of the beautiful, delicate fabric would be anyone's candy.
Dries Van Noten, fashion's premier cross-culturalist, specializes in combining colors, prints and shapes of exotic origins into rich hippie get-ups. He mixes the genders too, pairing a masculine jacket with a sheer skirt whose triple ruffle cascades charmingly from hip to hem.
So much of what was presented in Milan was spare to the point of drabness that Van Noten's exuberance provides an alternative. Australian designer Collette Dinnigan, who began her career making lingerie, is another fearless proponent of the layered look. She'll pile a velvet coat over a stretch lace top and fringed piano shawl skirt. Anything for a party.
Dinnigan's show opened with a moppet lip-syncing to Shirley Temple's definitive version of "On the Good Ship Lollipop." It ended with a bridal gown, marched down the runway by a handsome groom, and the wedding guests twisting the night away. In between, swing-skirted '40s and '50s dresses, satin slip dresses and skirts of gilded lace lined with silk and topped with beaded cardigans campaigned for a place on the dance floor. As much as Dinnigan loves a good time, it looks as if she still gets up early enough to hit the flea markets.