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Snakes alive! Gucci goes wild

The label synonymous with little buckles on loafers has transformed itself into the season's sensation. Tamsin Blanchard reports from Milan. Photographs by Peter Macdiarmid
There was talk before the Gucci show over champagne and canapes that Tom Ford, the 33-year-old Texan-born designer responsible for the company's change of direction - from traditional classic to deeply funky - could not pull it off a second time. A collection as hot as the one he showed last March could surely not be equalled.

But as the show opened with Amber Valletta striding down the catwalk, shaggy Afghan bag hooked over her bony, kaftan-clad shoulder, it became apparent that this show would sum up all the other Milan collections in the time it took to say "snaffle".

Once in a blue moon, Planet Real Life and Planet Fashion collide. This year, the earth tremored as Gucci completed its metamorphosis and became the last word in cool. Slip on a pair of Gucci hipsters and you will become a different woman. Add to those hip-hugging, ankle-flaring slacks a heavy belt with the Double Gs slung just below your navel, and you will find yourself swaggering out of the Gucci boutique on Milan's Via Monte Napoleone (or London's Bond Street, for that matter) with your thumb tucked into the belt, feeling for all the world like Ms Valletta, the woman who has come to personify the new Gucci.

You will look wild. You will look modern. You will want to rush into the nearest toilets and back-comb your hair until it is matted and as untamed as you feel. You will have been "Gucci'd". But there is just one problem. The velvet hipsters that have become synonymous with the 73-year- old label's new lease of life have completely sold out of the boutiques in Sloane Street and Bond Street.

Madonna, who paid the Sloane Street shop a visit when she was in town only last week (she has bought the entire autumn/winter collection), declared herself a "Gucci woman". In just one season, Gucci, the company that will be floated on the New York stock market this month, has reinvented itself, shrugging off its status-crazed, yuppie associations as Chanel never has.

But for Prada, the Gucci show at the spring/summer 1996 collections on Saturday would have been the only hot ticket.

There were pelvis-hugging trousers, maxi skirts (yes, they are back), micro shorts (on micro Moss), a whole kaleidoscope of print and, of course, those chunky, shiny hipster belts, which along with barely there thong sandals, promise to be the must-have accessories of next summer. For Gucci is cashing in big time on the fact that as fashion continues to pare down to a minimum, the emphasis is on the shoes, the belt and the bags.

Sales at Gucci are said to have increased fourfold since this autumn's collection - the first that Ford has had complete creative control over - hit the shops. And to replace the seasons pounds 335 metallic car-finish shoulder bags, there are Afghan, zebra print and peacock feather designs, each as decadent as the misspent nights of Ford's student years spent in New York's Studio 54. Think back to Marianne Faithfull's golden days of debauchery, or Anita Pallenberg in the bohemian Casbah interiors of the late-Sixties Nicholas Roeg film Performance, starring Mick Jagger. The look was here, in the steamy sounds of disco meets Morocco, in the deep pools of turquoise shadowing the models eyes; and in the North African-inspired jellabas which came in every variation - some long and sheer, to be worn over a hip-skimming bikini on the beach, others short and businesslike, with pants to match.

These are real clothes, not just catwalk fantasy. Susie Rogers, manager of the Gucci shop in Sloane Street and women's buyer for London, has witnessed the gradual transformation of Gucci since the platform snaffle clog was introduced in 1992.

Suddenly, young women who would never before have dreamt of setting foot inside the store were clamouring for these most impractical of shoes. Now Ms Rogers has to lock the doors of her shop by 11am on Saturdays to control the queue of customers, who have snapped up the entire stock of turquoise satin fitted shirts and 70 pairs of Lycra stretch hipsters. Along with the hipster belts, these never even reached the shopfloor: they were sold out by word of mouth to regular customers before they had even arrived in the country.

It seems as though Tom Ford has seen the light, and it has a lot to do with raw sex appeal, but not in the way of Barbie Doll glamour - all glitz and no brains. The sex appeal inherent in Gucci clothing is empowering. Women feel laid-back and confident when they wear it. And for once it is not necessary to have the hip-span and youth of Ms Valletta to enjoy these clothes. This autumn's velvety hipsters go up to size 16. Ms Rogers has seen some of her longest-standing customers - one of whom is in her seventies - put on a pair of those Lycra hipsters and lose 20 years, all in the blink of an eye.