Peace offering

Times Staff Writer

War in Iraq may be imminent, with the Italian government pledging to support the U.S., but the fashion statement on the streets and the runways here is pace, or peace. Rainbow-striped banners proclaiming the sentiment hang from window sills all over the city. And for the finale of their D&G; show, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana sent models out in the rainbow-striped "pace" T-shirts that are for sale in nearly every piazza. Christian Lacroix took a runway bow at Pucci with a rainbow-colored ribbon on his lapel. And, after presenting his collection for Gucci, Tom Ford said that he has "never been more embarrassed to be an American."

Not that the continental fashion flock is about to trade its Louboutin shoes for love beads. But there is a certain thoughtfulness to the clothes here that was lacking in New York and London, where many designers pinned their hopes for shopping dollars on gimmicky, 1960s futuristic frocks and Carnaby Street stovepipe pants. In Milan, most designers are taking the high road, designing serious clothes for serious times, and hoping that, in the end, beauty will prevail.

Miuccia Prada may have chosen Grace Jones' "She's Lost Control" for her runway music, but that was not the message of her well-orchestrated show, a masterful mix of masculine and feminine elements. Oversized argyle sweaters and low-slung Harris tweed pants looked like they could have been snatched from dad's closet. There was a fragile beauty to lean chiffon dresses with tattered, off-center seams and bits of embroidery and dressmaker's trim stuck here and there. These clothes felt lived in, comforting even. As the designer put it after the show, "Especially now, we all want to be attached to something."

At Gucci, Ford covered the runway in a thick carpet of white petals -- 50,000 roses' worth. It was a lovely scene, despite the fact that many of the petals were impaled by stilettos as editors and buyers rushed to their seats. The fastidious Ford had petal fresheners on hand, dashing young chaps who sprinkled fresh blooms over the bare spots.

There was a melancholy tone to the show from the moment models emerged, with blanched faces and red-rimmed eyes, looking as if they'd been crying. (Hokey, yes, but that's fashion.)

Ford sought refuge in stiff formality. Whether in snow-white wool, black nylon, leather or fur, coats were the stars of his show, with dramatic, Vampira collars, wide corset belts and puffy, three-quarter sleeves. They were worn with unforgivingly skinny, ruched satin pants and skirts that proved even models could benefit from control-top pantyhose.

Evening gowns in silvery gray or blood-red satin were also ruched, with boning at the waist, lacing in the back, and seams articulating the curves of the bust and hips. Some of it was reminiscent of other designers now in the Gucci stable, namely Balenciaga and Alexander McQueen. A woman might well have to invent an occasion to wear these clothes. But it would be worth it.

In his second season designing for Pucci, Lacroix avoided the Eurotrashy look that trapped him in October. He balanced sporty leggings, quilted parkas and hooded sweaters in the cheery, kaleidoscopic prints that made the Italian house famous in the '60's with polished, printed wool pea coats and corduroy trenches. Sheared mink coats dyed to look like a Pucci print were a clever touch, as were multicolored pastel fur hats that managed to be charming, despite making models look like they had cotton candy on their heads.

Leave it to Dolce & Gabbana to break the spell of romance, with pinstriped gangster suits and black-and-white optical print Spandex skirts, worn with vertiginous hooker shoes. Some pieces were convertible: a sheared mink coat with rows of snaps could be shortened into a bolero or made into a vest. And a dress with buttons spiraling around it could become ... well, who knows what? Even parachute pants and parkas were faux functional, with extraneous pull tabs, buckles and straps. There were a few nice moments -- a blush pink corset top covered in fringe, and a photo-print tank dress with a cat's face on the front -- but not nearly enough, unless you are the kind of woman who looks to Angelyne for style advice.

Their lower-priced D&G; collection was less vulgar. Boy George was a vision in the front row, wearing airbrushed pink and blue glittery makeup, and a hat made by the designers that was covered with little toy whistles and race cars. George, who will take his London show "Tattoo" to Broadway this fall, set the tone for the playful romp through '80s clubland. Vinyl leggings came in a Keith Haring-like graffiti print, and oversized men's Oxford shirts and blazers were cinched in back with those elastic clip garters everyone used to wear way back when.

After nine successful years in the menswear business, Canadian twin brothers Dean and Dan Caten know that, in the game of fashion, it's all about the liftoff. Their first Dsquared2 women's collection, in a smoky dance hall, started with model Naomi Campbell at the door of a powder-pink airplane, a mob of mock paparazzi below her. She descended the stairs to the runway in hot pants and aviator glasses.

The clothes were styled in the manner of accidental chic that one sees in L.A. every day, when girls go to the nail salon dressed in sweats with designer handbags on their arms.

To shield against prying eyes, the Dsquared2 girls wore fab baseball caps, decorated with military-style gold trim and the slogan "24-7STAR."

The designers are preparing for a major push in the U.S. They already have a fan in Madonna, having designed a few looks for her "Drowned World" tour. Later this month, they will be in L.A. to work with "Dirrrty" singer Christina Aguilera. Seems like a perfect match.

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