Designers show lots of restraint Fashion: In Milan, the bare spring looks are transformed into more wearable fall lines.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MILAN, Italy -- After their recent infatuation with transparent dresses and skirts, Milan's top designers have come to their senses.

They are turning their backs on the see-through clothes that dominated the spring collections, focusing instead on the sleekly tailored suits, luxurious coats and supple knits that are their trademark.

Much of the early attention at the Milan fall '97 women's collection focused on the Byblos collection, now under the dTC direction of Richard Tyler, the Australian-born, L.A.-based designer known for his exquisitely tailored suits and Hollywood clientele.

With its bright colors and charming ethnic details, Byblos was an American favorite in the 1980s. But the line slowly lost its luster, and Tyler was hired last year to replace Byblos' longtime design team.

The new Byblos is sleek and spare, based on a small shoulder and a straight cut that makes the wearer look long and lean, Tyler said before the Byblos show.

"It's pretty much what you're all wearing," he said, gesturing to the eight American journalists in the room. "Dark shades accented with color."

On the runway, the collection had a sharp urban look, with beautifully cut black jackets and knee-length coats worn with long, lean pants and spike-heeled pumps.

Skinny jersey dresses shot with glitter also had a citified look, though a few crossed the line that separates body-conscious from tacky. Still, with jackets priced at $550 and up -- very reasonable for Italian fabrics and artful detail -- Byblos seems poised for a resurrection.

Tyler was not the only designer thinking sleek thoughts for fall, thanks to other Americans who also design for Milan fashion houses.

In her colorful collection for Genny, Rebecca Moses looked back to the 1980s for a fresh take on the power suit, squaring the shoulders and softening the cut to skim the lines of the body. The bright scarlet suits and coatdresses paired with dark brown turtlenecks and tights looked especially new.

Tom Ford, the Texas-born designer for Gucci, one of the hottest labels in retailing, showed a sharp-edged, sexy look also reminiscent of the 1980s.

There were sexy power suits with strong shoulders and nipped waists, done in crisp black wool, charcoal gray leather and the occasional pinstripe, now a Gucci trademark. Even the slim black sweaters had shoulder pads.

There were few distracting details to get in the way of the sleek, sharp lines. Jackets closed with hidden buttons. Skirts were trim and slit high, held up by the narrowest of black patent leather belts. Pants were slouchy and mannish, with low-riding waists, flat fronts and long, wide legs that nearly obscured the shoes.

And what shoes they were, veritable weapons with their spiked heels and toes so pointed they could serve as emergency ice picks.

Ford's evening looks were equally spare: narrow black gowns held in place with straps of gleaming patent leather.

There were a few hits of color, including a brown wool coat with a huge green fox collar and gleaming silk-print shirts in teal, sapphire and grass green. Fabric purses with the Gucci logo in the weave came in hot shades of pink and red. That's about as user-friendly as it got, however. This collection is tough, not timid. And its wearers had better be, too.

Like Ford, designer Miuccia Prada is playing around with androgynous looks, but her Prada collection was neither as directional nor as focused as his.

She began with boy-meets-girl polo coats done in basic black, worn with wide, straight-legged pants and killer high-heeled pumps. There were simple, boxy jackets, too, usually paired with slim skirts slit high on each side.

Prada soon abandoned the man-tailored stuff, though, and began to explore her feminine side, most successfully in the high-waisted gray wool coats that fit closely through the chest.

She also showed plenty of the delicate blouses that filled her runway for spring. The fitted charmeuse shells looked charming and wearable, even in the dead of winter. Plain white cotton undershirts simply looked cheap, however. Why pay Prada prices when you can find the same thing at K mart?

The evening wear was uneven as well. For every successful dress -- a floaty purple frock edged in silver beads -- there seemed to be at least a half-dozen duds, including too-sheer tank dresses with beaded flaps that banged against the models' backs as they walked.

Because Prada's influence has been so strong and so pervasive the past few seasons, the fashion pack was hoping to be transfixed by this latest collection. No such luck, however. Even Miuccia Prada can't break new ground every time, it seems.

Nor can Dolce & Gabbana, Madonna's favorite design duo. It was their breasts-on-the-half-shell bustier dress that she wore to accept her Golden Globe.

But for their real-life customers, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana are once again traveling through familiar territory, dabbling in the themes that have become their signature: embroidered corset dresses, leopard prints, fur-collared coats, tightly fitted man-tailored suits.

The fall collection had all that, repeated in endless versions, as well as a new dimension: fitted, floor-length coats that resemble priests' cassocks, some of them shown with the Roman collars of the clergy.

Which, unfortunately, does not give working women many options, unless they are involved in companies that permit the wearing of costumes at work.

And that's just what much of the collection resembles. Those floor-length cassocks with their wide, pleated skirts may cut quite a swath on the runway, but it's hard to picture anyone hoisting them into the driver's seat of a snappy new Corvette.

The red corset dresses with sheer skirts, though beautifully constructed and delicately embroidered, have a limited audience. The sleek black pantsuits, worn with white cotton shirts, had an appealing masculine edge, but they were so tightly fitted that they seemed appropriate mostly for the runway.

What seemed to be missing were the distinctive prints and unusual fabric mixes that made the Dolce & Gabbana spring collection so memorable. Perhaps by next season, they will be out of their rut.

Part of Giorgio Armani's genius lies in his ability to design jackets and trousers for women who don't look masculine, and gowns that are far too elegant to go all girlie and gooey. While his boutiques will have the full complement of perfect daytime suits, he dedicated much of his fall show to evening wear.

Armani's heart now is in scene-stealing effects too precious for mass production: gowns, jackets and trousers in combinations of black, white, silver and gold sparkled with jet, sequins, bugle beads, seed pearls or crystal fragments. If these silk, chiffon and velvet masterpieces dominate the Oscars March 24, as well they might, it will be a very starry night.

Pub Date: 3/13/97

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