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The case for minimalism

Times Staff Writer

After overdosing on color, prints and embellishment, black is back as quiet elegance returns to the runway. That was the message from Miuccia Prada, the undisputed leader of Italian fashion, at the beginning of fashion week here, which continues through Saturday. From the very first look, a black slip dress with a lace hem, worn with chunky black sling backs, it was clear that this collection was intended to be a palate cleanser.

“I wanted to focus on the structure of the body and the cloth,” the designer said backstage. “We saw too many prints and color, from myself included. I wanted to make the piece more important without all the decoration.”

The result was a strong case for grown-up minimalism in a palette of black, brown and camel. Emphasis was on construction and dressmaker details, while shoes and bags were mere afterthoughts. A rounded black jacket rested just away from the shoulders, while a camel coat was almost militaristic in its severe silhouette, with simple bows at the collar and hip as closures. A brown patchwork leather coat was crudely stitched together, while the scratches on a floral print stretch-silk dress created the illusion of something being ripped apart at the seams. Coats were covered in gold grommets, or accented with the ultimate in pared-down decoration -- crochet appliques -- a play, Prada said, “between rich and poor.”

As to what inspired this sober turn, she couldn’t be sure. Perhaps it was just time for a change, or “Maybe we escaped too much after all these terrible dramas and we are realizing we have to face them and be strong.”

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Christopher Bailey turned back to Burberry’s roots in outdoorsy tartans and tweeds, creating a kind of minimalism all his own. Like a schoolmaster reverting to the core curriculum, Bailey embraced the classics -- pea coats with brass buttons paired with chiffon skirts in muted florals and striped pompom scarves. Patchwork leather pumps, oversized sunglasses and Sporran-style framed tartan bags added to the collegiate feeling.

The classic trench came in a navy gabardine flannel with a full skirt, and pleated kilts in loden green or gray hit just below the knee. Bailey’s vaguely Elizabethan fitted jackets in velvet or tweed with ruffles at the collar and cuffs looked just right over swing Empire dresses. It was a refreshing refrain from so much frill and fuss.

At Marni, there was nothing terribly wrong with another round of Consuelo Castiglioni’s crinkly Empire waist blouses, this season in ink-dye prints paired with loose, cropped silver tweed jackets with elbow-length sleeves, lopsided skirts and craftsy necklaces, except that trite cuteness seems to be falling fast out of fashion.

Similarly, Alberta Ferretti’s princess coats with wide ribbon belts under the bosom and crystal trimmed cuffs, worn over chiffon skirts dusted with sequins, clung to last season’s frothy femininity. It would have been nice to have seen more along the lines of the pared-down thick, black wool lace skirt that reached to the floor, and ruffle-front silver sweater.

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Tomas Maier presented his Bottega Veneta collection on the runway for the first time, instead of in a showroom presentation. But the clothes still seemed designed around the accessories, with gray flannel suits, studded shearling jackets and silk skirts weighted at the hems with beads serving as a mere backdrop for more creative shoes and bags -- woven kiltie pumps with stacked heels, crushed velvet boots and hobo bags with braided handles decorated with stones, leather leaves and flowers.

At Pucci, where the first look was an all-black dress with slash pockets with the house’s signature swirls reduced to gold embroidery on a high suede boot, Christian Lacroix struggled to move on from the trademark prints. Drawing inspiration from the gilded tapestries of the Florentine Renaissance, the result was best when he kept things simple: a fuchsia wrap coat with a bit of embroidery on the collar; an anorak in a purple, rust and blue daubed print paired with leggings and high boots; and a black short-sleeve dress with sunbursts at the hips.

But after parent company LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton sold his namesake label earlier this year, Lacroix is no doubt going through some soul-searching designing for its Pucci label. Perhaps that is why he chose to revisit his heyday of the 1980s. Unfortunately, a pouf skirt in a gold reptilian pattern and a dowdy dress with orange satin puff sleeves and a red balloon skirt proved little other than that the past is sometimes best left alone.

Giorgio Armani, on the other hand, is supposed to be the designer who would never embarrass a woman by making her look like a puffball. He is the auteur of the women’s power suit, after all, the one who gave us the uniform to compete on a level playing field. But lately, on the runway at least, he has failed his customer, first by suggesting a few seasons back that she wear harem pants and now by offering bloomers that wouldn’t even button around the model’s spindly thighs. Oversized leopard-print wrap coats pinned with saber-sized brooches, Gloria Swanson-era turbans and a soundtrack of Rosemary Clooney’s “Mambo Italiano” only made the show seem more like a Palm Springs musical revue.

Of course, most of the clothes will never make it to stores. Instead, retailers will cherry-pick a few jackets from the runway along with the basic pants offered in the showroom. Still, the derision that comes from the fashion crowd after having to sit politely through Armani’s collections every season is palpable.

Perhaps there would be more grace in the designer’s twilight years if he would stick to his original vision, instead of churning out vanity collections. But that seems unlikely.

Before Armani took his bow, the lights went down and an eerie high-pitched chortle came over the speakers, filling the house.

The billionaire king of Milan fashion, whose line is an engine that powers department stores and whose advertisements are the lifeblood of fashion magazines, had the last laugh.

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