Oh, those crafty Milanese designers.
They're trying to steal the Parisians' thunder.
In their fall ready-to-wear shows last week, the usually restrained Italian designers went wild -- on and off the runway. The fashions ranged from clothes suitable for an S & M orgy to cowboy gear for Wild West devotees to enough animal prints to make Tarzan feel at home. Offstage, the designers threw parties with themes centering on transvestites, movie stars and the world of rap music. Celebrities on hand included Tina Turner, Elton John and Kim Basinger.
Usually the fashion pack has to wait for the Paris rounds of shows, which open this week, for this kind of action. But the Italian designers have suddenly discovered the great truth of high fashion in the '90s: What counts is not how well-crafted the clothes are, but how much publicity can be garnered by staging over the top shows that are more fantasy than fashion.
The Italian designers have languished in the wings for several seasons as the lion's share of the media attention and subsequent retail profits went to their Parisian counterparts -- especially Karl Lagerfeld, Jean Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler.
That troika of French designers has staged the gaudiest of shows, more fashion kitsch than anything else. But the media ate it all up and deemed them the crowned heads of the international fashion kingdom.
So picture if you will the fashion's world version of the musical "Gypsy." In the last act, Italian designers stand in the wings as Mr. Lagerfeld, Mr. Mugler and Mr. Gaultier take turns belting out "Ya Gotta Have a Gimmick," a number from the musical.
Mr. Lagerfeld sings of weighing his Chanel models down with heavy jewelry, tacking double C's on everything and adding platform heels for effect.
Mr. Gaultier boasts in a baritone voice of luring drag queens and porn stars to model in his shows, staged in circus rings and other unusual places.
And Mr. Mugler recounts seasons past when he took celebrities such as Diana Ross, Madonna and Ivana Trump, dressed them in next to nothing, and sent them on the runway amid models clad in skintight vinyl ensembles.
Well, the Italian designers must have learned the tricks of the trade faster than the real Gypsy Rose Lee because last week, the gimmicks abounded.
From the atelier of Gianni Versace came a collection designed with bondage in mind. Models wore dog collars, studded belts, spike heels, blouses that looked like leather harnesses and skirts heavy with chains. All Mr. Versace needed were whips and an obedience manual to complete his deviant fantasy.
Boudoir fantasy has been the specialty of the design team Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana for some time. Bra tops, corsets, girdles, merry widows and garter belts were their stock in trade. Last week, they dispensed with underwear for cluttered outerwear, satin blouses, jackets, wool pantsuits -- all covered with mirrors, patches, sun designs, sequins and crests. Their motto seemed to be: If it's not covered with garish objects, it's not fashion.
In his second season since moving his shows from London to Milan, Rifat Ozbek's gimmicks were the Wild West and the Civil War. There were cavalry like jackets and coats with military buttons and suits that resembled Confederate uniforms. Navajo blanket prints were prominent. So were palomino print boots and Indian jewelry.
The West also won Keith Varty and Alan Cleaver, designing for the Byblos label. They showed riding pants, jackets and skirts with cowboy embroidery and fringe, ruffled saloon girl blouses and long skirts.
Giorgio Armani, the master of understated style, knew better than to serve his fans fantasy on the runway. He saved that for later by throwing a party at a disco. For the occasion, New York party planner Susanne Bartsch flew in a cadre of female impersonators to perform.
Mr. Armani's show, however, was aimed at real women: tailored pants with a slight flare, cardigan jackets, knit jackets, silk T-shirts, suits with long, lean skirts. The palette was neutral colors such as gray, camel and cream with black occasionally thrown in.
Gianfranco Ferre also resisted the temptation to ham it up. He showed silk T-shirts, khaki parkas trimmed in furs and lots of pantsuits with tailored slacks and belted blazers.
But the Complice collection, also created by Dolce-Gabbana team, was definitely for the fashion animal. A whip-snapping ringmistress, dressed in a sequin trimmed tuxedo, led a parade of models wearing leopard, tiger and zebra prints crafted into narrow pantsuits, silky trench coats and long, slim skirts.
Amid all the gimmicks in the Italian collections were some prominent trends: animal prints, long skirts with slits, tailored slacks, embroidered jackets, tuxedo dresses, silk print parkas, touches of gold trim, military takes and menswear-inspired looks. But the news of the trends was lost in the hoopla of out-of-this-world shows and parties.
What will the Parisians do to top this?
That's the only logical query in today's fashion world where designing takes a back seat to staging, where the clothes are mere props and the news is not what's in style but who threw the wildest show. the biggest party, lured the biggest star to the auditorium.