Fashion: Look back in languor

The mood in Milan was gloss and glamour, with a hint of retro and some mud around the hem.

Arriving in Milan only days after the London shows, you could be forgiven for thinking you'd landed on another continent. As you fly into the airport you can almost smell the money and feel the cashmere. London fashion concerns itself primarily with the nurturing of young talent in possession of new if not entirely financially viable ideas, but Milan has no place for such indulgences. In Italy, fashion is big business.

Here, magazine editors go from business breakfasts to lunches to teatime appointments, then on to dinners, with one powerful PR after another. Such extra-curricular activities are as important as the shows themselves. Milan is where the world's major advertisers gather for one week every six months, after all. Fail to keep the advertisers happy and, not to put too fine a point on it, that award-winning magazine might be headed for hard times.

There is, thankfully, a less blatantly commercial reason for attending: the Milan shows are also where the next season's trends are established. If the Pradas and Guccis of this world say that the only skirt to be seen in is mid-calf length, then so be it. If they say that the late Sixties/early Seventies is the era to plunder for inspiration, then six months later we'll all be wearing those velvet bell-bottoms. And if the powers that be decree that sludgy hues - from ochre to olive and from mustard to, well, mud - are the colours of the season...

Blame Miuccia Prada, whose show was a veritable quagmire of such muted shades. Actually, it doesn't look as bad as one might imagine - it certainly beats lime green in complementing the average British complexion. If nothing else, a neutral background is essential to show off the new Prada shoe: buccaneer boots in flame, chartreuse and/or puce, with a heel that looks blocked from behind and pencil-thin from the side. These were ugly in the supremely modish way that only Prada can carry off.

The clothes themselves were more pleasing to the eye, with a sweet, pastoral feel softening a deliberately dowdy silhouette. Oak leaves were appliqued here, there and everywhere - Babes In The Wood Go Bond Street. Prada brought back chiffon to her collection too - skirts, shirts and shirt-dresses, best in deep forest-green. Although she thinks nothing of sending her models out baring their all, once the clothes make the rails they'll thankfully appear rather more modest, produced in layers. Prada's autumn/winter skirt looked good mid-calf length and in burnt orange and olive, with a strip of purple-pink to confuse the eye. More clumsy were backless breastplates suspended from thick straps and what can only be described as long-johns teamed with thermal-style cardies: even the world's most enviably beautiful wobbled unattractively in these.

MaxMara is a label that takes the season's trends and makes them more palatable. This season, its colour spectrum was similar to that adopted by Prada, minus the more virulent hues and with softer caramel and honey shades thrown in. The hippy-chic look that dominated last season's Milan collections was still in evidence, if more subdued: more Annie Hall than acid casualty. Full, floor-sweeping skirts in soft wool or suede worn with skimpy tops were lovely. Evening wear looked modern in the same winter- weight fabrics, appliqued with diamond patches of antiqued silver, bronze and gold at the hem. As always, MaxMara gave great coats. Full-length and narrow in softest cashmere, they looked most desirable.

Rock chicks dominated at Tom Ford's super-slick collection for Gucci and there was far less colour than in his spring/summer collection. Black is back, along with ruby, amethyst and emerald. Ford's trousers were indeed bell-bottomed and very skinny to the knee. Rather than being pure pastiche, they seemed entirely of the moment. Sleeves puffed from elbow to wrist were a new, pretty addition.

There was an awful lot of leather in the collection, which is just as it should be: the Gucci label made its name with leather. Skinny tops looked glossy and expensive, softened by a sweet leather rose at the throat or waist. Panne velvet, too, was very much in evidence, in pretty bell- shaped or narrow, ruched skirts (a little too ironic for comfort, this one). The amount of fur in the collection - jackets, coats, gilets - was uncomfortable to the average British eye. The Italian market, of course, revels in the status. A pair of leather trousers with a mink-tail fringe, however, was taking this concept a step too far. The new Gucci belt is a leather thong, tied in a bow at the waist and about as thick as a riding crop. The Gucci shoe/knee-boot, meanwhile, is taller than your average sky-scraper - more than a few models fell out of theirs, which doesn't bode well.

Autumn/winter 2000 wouldn't be complete without a millennium-inspired space-age element. At Strenesse, the daywear was modern, understated and sexy. The label is gathering momentum as a less austere, more conventionally sexy option for the customer who's a bit intimidated by Jil Sander. But coated metal-mesh evening dresses and skirts seemed out of character and looked rather like designer tin-foil.

Sander herself sent out the seemingly requisite futuristic pieces too: but crinkly, sparkling coats are not what people invest in the label for, nor is emerald-green rubber. Elsewhere, however, Sander didn't disappoint. Coats were the loveliest of the season: knee-length and moulded to the body in a complex web of perfectly executed seams. New this season were coat-dresses with dropped waistbands and pockets. We all want one. We don't want this season's Jil Sander shoes, though. Platformed lace-ups in blue and green played havoc with the streamlined silhouette.

Dolce & Gabbana is a label unlikely to travel the sludge route. Instead, Italy's most famous design duo sent out a riot of clashing, even fluorescent, colour (fuchsia, lime, lemon and flame) and colliding prints (animal and floral), reminding their audience that fashion is a joyful business. The Dolce & Gabbana woman is not shy - she's a brazen designer hussy and proud of it. Skirts were shamelessly short, the silhouette saucy, right down to the shoes. Evening wear was truly beautiful, the jewelled evening coats in particular. They looked super-cool worn with skinny black jeans cut off below the knee - a relatively new and sassy Dolce & Gabbana signature.

Neither is Versace a label for shrinking violets, and this season's star- spangled glamour was good to see. Now in her fourth season as designer in chief, Donatella Versace has her work cut out. January's couture show may have been streets ahead in terms of fabric development, but was somewhat overshadowed by the influence of the young Brits. At her autumn/winter ready-to-wear show however, Donatella cracked it. A marine theme dominated throughout: there was coral, turquoise and mother-of-pearl trim on narrow trouser suits and body-skimming dresses. Floral tops, trousers and skirts looked at first as if they were knitted - actually they were constructed from rainbow-coloured caviare beads. For evening, Donatella had gone back to her Versace roots: exquisite bias-cut gowns in sea blues and greens.

Donatella had cleverly maintained and updated all her brother's signatures - and those beloved of the Versace customer. While a Gianni Versace sequinned trouser suit would have dazzled, Donatella's interpretation came in muted gun-metal grey. Signature chiffon sheaths, meanwhile, looked more contemporary worn over slim black trousers.

Elsewhere in Milan, Alberta Ferretti sent out beautiful layers of chiffon slip after chiffon slip, at their most modern peeping out from beneath felted wool coats. Antonio Berardi, meanwhile, rose to the challenge of showing in the Italian fashion capital with considerable aplomb, bringing a much-needed dose of bright, young blood to the proceedings. Hats off to him.

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