Tamsin Blanchard watches the designers fall back on their archives at Milan's fashion week Photographs: Chris Moore
If you stand still for long enough, sooner or later fashion will catch up with you. At the fashion jamboree of Milan's ready-to-wear shows for autumn/winter 96 last week, many designers seemed to be treading water, regurgitating the trends that are now filtering into the shops for spring.

Once again, there will be demure princess clothes - closely tailored little coats, and prim dresses that appear to have been designed with no one else but the petite Kate Moss in mind (Anna Molinari will be happy to oblige); military detailing with army pockets on short A-line skirts, safari jackets and officers' coats - albeit in fruity shades of lime, strawberry and peach at Versace's second and superior line, Istante, and in sombre khaki at Prada. The Seventies kaftan shapes are still floating around at Alberta Ferretti and Missoni, while lace, the trend that swamped the catwalks last season, only to be shunned by store buyers who know better, was given another airing at Versace, SportMax and Ferretti.

Furnishing upholstery prints, from Fifties chintzes at Dolce e Gabbana through to bathroom tile geometric designs (from the bathroom you thought you'd left behind 25 years ago), at Prada is another old chestnut that refuses to die.

And if you thought Madonna's days of wearing her bra and underslip in public were over, the Milanese designers have another idea: Dolce e Gabbana (celebrating 10 years and so at least with an excuse for looking back through their archives), Versace (Gianni's sister, Donatella, just loves showing off her scants), Prada (delicate little chiffon nightdresses worn to show off - would you believe it? - woolly schoolgirl tights beneath) and SportMax.

For two labels, however, the future looks brighter than it has done for some years. Both the German minimalist Jil Sander and the Italian knitwear specialists Missoni have not strayed from their design aesthetics during their combined years in business of over half a century. Now fashion has come to them.

The husband and wife team of Tai and Rosita Missoni are in their forty- third year of business. One of the biggest surprises of the season was that, suddenly, their trademark, multi-coloured, zig-zag knitted dresses, tunics and trousers look as desirable as a pair of granny-style shoes from Prada. (And, in case you are wondering, that is the absolute pinnacle on this month's must-have scale). Who would have thought that the famously stripey knitwear of a silver-haired couple old enough to have a bus pass would become some of the hippest attire in town?

Of course, like Prada, deck yourself in Missoni head to foot and you will look like a fashion danger zone. But choose carefully and wisely - a scarf, a simple tunic or a pair of patterned trousers - and your wardrobe will be given a new lease of life. If you have an old piece of Missoni lurking in the dark depths of your chest of drawers, pull it out, get it dry-cleaned and revel in the knowledge that you, like the Missonis, were ahead of your time.

Jil Sander's clothes, on the other hand, could be worn head to toe quite easily. Her shows are purposefully intimate (press and buyers rammed into a narrow space) so that the fabric and detail are not lost. But it is not until you go backstage and feel the cashmere on a terracotta coloured jacket and skirt suit, or the softest wool on a knitted dress and cardigan suit, that you really understand just how desirable Sander's clothes are. Her luxurious coats are light as air, and her luxe minimalism is modern and functional without being bland or sterile.

The 52-year-old designer has been paring down of fashion since she began in 1968. Now she can sit back and relax as the fashion world comes clamouring to her.

Giorgio Armani, the other designer of gimmick-free clothing, pulled out all the stops to present a collection that built up from his usual territory of neutral shades of putty and slate to vivid pinks, reds, mossy green and cobalt blue. His attempts to update the Armani suit (which has looked tired on the runway of late) resulted in clean-cut tailored jackets that fastened with zips and Velcro. For evening, his rose print, star-spangled, column dress upstaged the satin-and-lace, red light dresses of his rival Versace.

But it was down to Tom Ford, the American designer at Gucci, to create the only big buzz of Milan Fashion Week. Once again, he showed nostalgia for the early Seventies of his youth, with funky, leg-hugging trousers that flare over high-heeled platform boots, and slim-cut shirts that unbutton to reveal the newest Gucci accessory, a shiny gold, pebble-smooth pendant. For outdoors, there is a choice of chunky fake fur, cropped into a blouson, or a strictly tailored, military-style cashmere coat, cut long to the floor. Anyone doubtful that Ford could cast his spell again heaved a sigh of relief as the carefully edited and beautifully tailored collection swaggered before them.

And if the days of Studio 54 are over, the glossy glamour that went with it still lives on at Gucci, at least: a long, slinky, silk jersey evening dress in brilliant bright white, with a heavy flash of hard gold belt around the hips, or a cut-out over your favourite erogenous zone, to reveal your tattoo or pierced naval, will be all you need to make those around you fall away into insignificance.

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