Fashion: The multi-layered genius of Ozbek: The British designer of the year has shown Versace and Armani the way to go, says Marion Hume in Milan

A bald Londoner called Eve swaggered out first in front of an audience accustomed to models with neat chignons. She wore an ankle-skimming regimental coat, an exotically embroidered gilet and a fluid batik-inspired peasant skirt. And by the time Naomi Campbell - in a sliver of a sheath dress that lapped her body like molten gold - brought Rifat Ozbek's show to a close on Tuesday, the British Designer of the Year had conquered Milan.

Rifat Ozbek, who was born in Turkey, has his collection manufactured by the Italian industrial giant Aeffe. He is based in London and is already proven as a designer of international stature. Perhaps it is this wide frame of cultural references tempered with commercialism that made him the man to show Italy the way forward with his fourth collection there.

Fashion in Italy is clearly in a state of flux. The re-examination of the Seventies, the search for new proportion and the desperate quest for replacements to the short, sharp suits of power dressing are perplexing many designers - some multi-millionaire big guns included.

In contrast, Ozbek's collection was his most focused to date, his sense of proportion and skill with layering was at its most flattering and his off-beat colour sense at its most assured. The costume cupboard garments of past collections - sometimes it looked as if he had raided the army museum and the souk, and sent out the spoils just as he found them - have been refined into desirable pieces.

The military story was hoofed up and down the catwalk at many shows throughout Milan fashion week. But Ozbek's embroidered officers' jackets went beyond an over-priced re-issue of army surplus. He avoided the clumsy bulk of garments piled on top of each other that has no place in our centrally heated lives.

Here were tribally inspired clothes for urban wear, which did not look as if he had brought them home from a far-flung holiday. Here, too, were lush textiles like those seen in other collections - a mother-of-pearl sheen on velvet, delicate devore patterns burnt through the pile of rich cloth - but the shapes and the mixes were modern rather than reminiscent of an antique shop.

There have been some delicious clothes elsewhere in Milan fashion week - Dolce e Gabbana's girlish chiffon dresses with handkerchief hems; Alberta Ferretti's bugle-beaded chiffon evening wear to suit an Evelyn Waugh heroine at cocktail hour; Callaghan's deep-velvet tiered skirts teamed with stock-necked shirts complete with cuffs encrusted with shards of jet. But these all looked like items we either remembered in the original or wished we could still find in Portobello Market for a fiver.

The difference with Ozbek's offering, which nodded at all things from the Seventies and many things ethnic, was that you would not find the like on a market stall, no matter how far you dug. Those who still have one would flex their credit card for these clothes, rather than searching for originals or waiting for the knock-offs.

All-important now is looser, more fluid proportion created by layering short over long over longer. Ozbek struck it right. Indonesian printed shirts wafted out over wool jersey sarongs topped with precise, tailored jackets. These were cut into points over each thigh, so that the eye was drawn down a lean line.

Chiffon-thin skirts flowed from under asymmetrical jackets and over cigarette- slim trousers that then flared out over the shoe - a curious mix of skirt and trouser which other designers attempted with a heavy hand.

It was the mighty Milanese who seemed to be having the most trouble. At the time of going to press, Giorgio Armani had yet to show his main line. But his younger label, Emporio, included the expected softly tailored jackets, fluid knitwear and snug coats - as well as the ugliest experiment with the new layering seen in Milan.

Who would want to take a pair of Armani trousers and an Armani jacket and then don a plaid tablecloth as an asymmetrical skirt in between? Who would want to team a Dickensian one- button jacket, pulled over slender trousers, with a spare tyre of fabric in the form of heavy asymmetrical skirt in the middle?

Gabriella Forte, the forthright vice- president of the mighty Giorgio Armani company, was at pains to stress that the designer hates to be seen as a sacred cow: 'He welcomes criticism,' she said. However, it is true that his popular opposite, the other maestro of Milan, Gianni Versace, hates anything but praise. The respected fashion journalist Susy Menkes, of International Herald Tribune, was banned this season because she wrote what she thought about Versace's recent couture show. So there may be a few empty seats next season, for in some quarters this week's ready-to-wear show went down like a lead balloon.

Versace is good at 'rock 'n' roll' sexy clothes. And he can cut with a laser. Last Sunday, he proved once again that if you want a severe, simple floor-length sheath dress that is slashed and cut to mould over one exposed, well-toned buttock, he is the first man to call.

This season there were sexy clothes in abundance. Ted, a part-time model and part-time musician in Alice Cooper's band who can sit on his long blond hair, had his eyes out on stalks half the time. But even he looked confused when Versace started sending out knitted tube dresses. And even Christy Turlington looked daft in a baby-pink round-necked sweater and straight knitted skirt teamed with Versace's tough bovver boots laced to the knee. It looked like a Robin home-knitting pattern restyled for a lark by the Face. But Versace does not joke. Presumably what looked like floor-length thermal vests dip-dyed bright green and purple were not supposed to be funny either.

Versace was finding the new layering even more difficult to grasp than Armani. Versace's women wear short. So he made it his mission to show the trophy wives who love his itsy bitsy, pelmet-level pieces how to update them - until the long skirt goes out of fashion again. Out came Naomi in a microscopic suit of green plaid with a vivid floral patterned sheath beneath, which stretched right down to her heels.

Other teeny-weeny suits followed, elongated by popping on something full- length and floral as well. You can have long and short, Versace seemed to be stating. But you cannot, of course, have your cake and eat it - there is no room at all for spare flesh in these clothes.

In contrast, another mighty Italian name is looking timely. For the woman who has to work for a living, Gucci offered some sumptuous, smart alternatives to power dressing, including what may be the first-ever desirable ponchos - in chocolate suede lined with grey flannel or in Pyrenean angora. Instead of a scratchy, mannish tweed suit, Gucci showed what looked like herringbone tweed, but moved like the softest crepe. Even his black leather appeared butter-soft and fluid.

Gucci's deep sapphire panne velvet coat, over a Fortuny-inspired, plisse, empire-line chiffon evening dress was outstanding. So was a devore velvet, semi- sheer shirt with the Gucci snaffle bit as a repeated relief pattern.

The heavy silk shirt patterned with parrot tulips, which also comes in chiffon, is destined to become the must-have among Gucci's clientele. And following this season's de rigueur Gucci clogs (for which there is a waiting list in London), autumn's offering is a new desert boot. The Gucci version comes on a high heel.

(Photograph omitted)

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