Romeo Gigli's fans have been worried: what happened to all that elegance and grace? Is he changing direction? But his recent involvement with five young designers suggests that he remains a true romantic
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The Independent Culture
EVER SINCE last October, when Romeo Gigli presented his spring/summer 1995 women's wear collection, whispers have been going round the fashion world: "Romeo's lost it. What is he doing?" It's not that the collection was a flop - it's just that it jarred. It was, felt the pundits, simply not Gigli. His earlier collections reflected an eclectic mix of different cultural influences from around the world; this one was focused almost exclusively on Africa, with beaded bra tops, shells a-plenty and body stockings that emulated body-scarring. Had someone else designed the collection, it might not have raised so many eyebrows. But this was Romeo, the great romantic, the man who designs for ethereal princesses. These primitive African influences were uncharacteristically off-the-wall, and all too few of the garments in the collection had his signature cut and flow. Gone were the Florentine waifs, the Byzantine, medieval princesses. As one leading fashion editor put it: "There was no real structure to it, none of the fantastic suits that we have come to expect of him. He had drummers on stage; he seemed to have thrown himself totally into African culture. He maybe took it too literally."

All of which may explain why Gigli is currently a little wary with the public and press (he rarely gives interviews, even at the best of times)."Buon giorno," he greeted me earlier this month, shaking my hand so firmly that I thought he was checking for loose body parts, "but Teresa is not here yet" - at which point he retreated to the other end of his open-plan flat, some 60ft away, "to make some phone calls; please excuse me". Teresa is his PR; he was reluctant to be drawn into a conversation in her absence.

His Milanese apartment is half-flat, half design studio. It is surprisingly cosy, full of knicknacks like shields (from New Guinea), little boats (from Greece) and, everywhere, globes. But it is also unmistakably a fashion designer's apartment. Everything in it looks intimidatingly expensive, and the desk at which he made his calls is so big it could double as a dance floor.

Gigli, tall and slender, his greying hair tied back in a pony-tail, was dressed simply in a navy shirt and jeans. Smoking unfiltered cigarettes, he seemed nervous. At the end of his shows, he practically has to be kicked out on to the catwalk to take the applause, and he seemed no less shy in his apartment, even after Teresa's arrival. For a while, conversation was strictly limited to the agreed subject: Gigli's role as this year's judge, jury and setter of brief to the annual International Wool Secretariat design "competition", otherwise known as the Royal College of Art Wool Project (an honour bestowed in the past on Stephen Marks, MaxMara and Giorgio Armani). Five students are chosen from the RCA MA Design course to design a capsule collection, in wool, to a brief that Gigli has set them, learning in the process what life in the industry is like, designing to a brief, to a budget and to a deadline.

The winner, chosen this Thursday at the IWS gala dinner by Gigli, will have the chance of a lifetime - to work for him. Gigli loves working with young people - "I love seeing the way their minds work" - and he takes pride in the unrestricted brief he has set them. "I have set a fluid brief without constrictions, because the students have to let their minds be free, so that they can fly with their inspirations. The idea was to see a collection between men and women, playing with men's fabrics in women's shapes."

As he talked, he seemed to relax. Teresa went to field phone calls at the other end of the apartment, and conversation turned to more general subjects. What was the thinking behind the Africa collection, for example? "Well, I didn't know Africa that well. I was a big traveller. I've travelled all over the world, but not really to Africa. But my parents used to be in Africa and when I was a child they used to talk about it, so I knew the culture. I decided to do it in a strong way, because we are losing our culture, our roots." But the reaction wasn't all positive, was it? "Some people were shocked, but a lot of people loved it. People can get funny when you touch black culture. The actual pieces weren't that African, it was more the presentation and the accessories. The idea was to be in Africa, but I like to mix and match cultures, so I did the colours and fabrics of Africa with Savile Row."

Does it hurt, getting bad reviews? "Of course. But not because I think I am the best in the world; I am in fact my own worst critic. I am never happy about what I'm doing.

"I never had great help," he adds, sounding almost bitter. "I really clawed my way to where I am today. When I first started it was very difficult for me, my work was very criticised, my designs were too simple. When I did my second collection I got huge support from French Marie Claire and British Vogue. But not the Italian press, they didn't talk about me." Did this upset him? "Of course, I am Italian!"

None the less, for 11 years Gigli has been getting it right, not at the cutting edge of fashion, but by consistently designing beautiful, easy- on-the-eye pieces - "Very Gigli" has now become a familiar phrase. And in any case, the Afri- can volte face was not permanent. Although his next collection, for autumn/ winter 1995, appeared to be "Not Very Gigli" at first sight - the models wore mirrored sunglasses and sported big Elvis quiffs - the clothes themselves were 100 per cent Gigli. They were a sumptuous mix of masculine tailoring and the bizarre, beautiful fabrics we've come to expect from him. And despite the shades and the quiffs, Gigli's fairy- tale image of women as waif-like prin- cesses persists. Even the collection's extravagant evening dresses, with scooped necklines that cry out for a bit of decollete, were shown on rakish models.

"Yes I do see women as princesses," he admitted, "but princesses don't have to be a particular shape. What I mean about the princess is that I really like a woman to keep her enigma, a sensuality, a fragility. It's very important, that must be part of her personality."

Was his mother (who was a collector of fine art and antiques) like a princess, perhaps? "My mother was really very feminine, absolutely." !


Clockwise from left, models showing the work of the five RCA Wool Project students:

ANTHONY CUTHBERTSON's skirt with pleats sewn on silk bands (trousers underneath). White shirt with waistcoat.

STUART STOCKDALE's woollen tail-coat over jacket and woollen trousers.

BERNHARD GUSSREGEN's coat over lime woollen shirt. Brightly coloured 'waistcoat' over pinstripe trousers.

ANDREAS ANGERER's wool jacket, wraparound top with wool trousers.

LAURA WATSON's felted coat with mohair and chenille trims.

The winning designs will go on sale this autumn at Browns, 23-27 South Molton Street, London W1, telephone 0171 493 1716