Fashion: The Shoe. The Bra. The chase

What are this season's must-have accessories? Tamsin Blanchard joins the throng of black-clad fashion editors jostling for the best buys in Milan boutiques
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The Independent Online
KATE BETTS, the chic, sleek fashion news director from American Vogue, is heading for Gucci on Via Montenapoleone, the Bond Street of Milan. She has time for a half-hour shop between shows and knows exactly what she wants.

"There is only one shoe," she says, incredulous that I should be in any doubt that the rows of shelves holding Gucci sandals, loafers, and thongs are an irrelevance. The only shoe worth buying costs 295,000 lire (pounds 98) and has a narrow, chiselled toe, a sling-back and a diamante G set into the back of the two-inch kitten heel. It comes in "buff" (fashion editor speak for beige), black, navy, deep burgundy and red. It also comes in not-mock-croc for 695,000 lire. And if you don't already possess a pair, you simply will not pass muster as a fashion victim. Oh, and if you wait until your return to London to buy them they'll cost nearly twice as much.

Twice a year, the world's most fashionable people - for whom it is a serious profession to know the shape of The Shoe or the precise length of The Skirt for both this season and next - assemble in Milan for Fashion Week.

In Italy, there is nothing frivolous about fashion. La Moda makes the nine o'clock news every night and commands entire pages in newspapers each day. Not surprising when you consider that Armani's empire is worth $752.2m and Gucci's total sales for 1997 are estimated to be close to US$1bn, with shoes accounting for $128m of that figure for the first three- quarters of the year.

And when you walk the streets of Milan's platinum triangle, bounded by Via Montenapoleone, Via Sant Andrea and the narrow, cobbled Via della Spiga, you see why. Women who are interested in fashion, power and status will stop at nothing to buy the ultimate bag, (black patent leather shopper with thin handles from Prada) the must-have shoe (need I say Gucci?) or even the to-die-for bra (Prada again).

You might think that shopping at Gucci or Prada is an intimidating experience. But not in Milan. There, the shops are usually chock full of fairly ordinary looking Japanese tourists working their way through shopping lists. And during Fashion Week, they are also full of black-clad fashion editors, elbowing the tourists out of the way and working themselves into a frenzy with their 30-per-cent press discounts.

Sally Courtis, British Elle's fashion editor, buys most of her clothes from second-hand vintage clothing shops or at Portobello Market in west London. She ventures into Prada to see what the fuss is all about. "It's like old ladies at jumble sales snatching items that don't suit them and squeezing their trotters into an extraordinary amount of brightly coloured shoes," she says. "Kitten heels."

Meanwhile, the educated shoppers who live, eat and breathe fashion are swarming through the stores like a plague of locusts. At the beginning of the week, Gucci wisely stocked up on The Shoe. Towards the end of the week, stocks are beginning to wane and, by Saturday, it is sold out of all but small sizes; a bit like Sainsbury on a Sunday afternoon. The glittery G can be seen twinkling on the heels of fashion editors from the Vogues and Elles around the globe.

Francesca Fearon, a freelance journalist, throws caution to the wind and buys a pair, admitting: "It's because I'm a fashion victim. The kitten heel suits me. I love the shape of the pointed blunt-edged toe, the glint of the sparkly G on the heel. They are sexy looking ... very sexy." Fearon buys hers in "buff'' because she is visiting Gucci at the end of the week - between Ferre and Byblos shows - and this is the only colour left above a size 36.

Despite the fact that Gucci's shows are the hottest ticket in Milan - they predict a safari look for next winter - the new season's clothes seem unimportant. Even Jarvis Cocker, seen joining in the fun, makes a bee line for the shoe department, buying a pair of men's chunky flip-flops in black leather for 290,000 lire.

At Prada, the clothes are faring better than the shoes. Miuccia's perspex wedge heels are not seducing the women who would walk on a six-inch nail if it were fashionable. But some editors are taking note from the catwalks and investing in flat shoes - plain black leather moccasins or backless, spoon-shaped numbers.

The new underwear line is another matter. The company has opened up a chic little boutique on Via della Spiga especially for the collection of banana-yellow satin slips, baby pink satin and tulle bras, silk knitted knickers and raspberry coloured vests. A bra will set you back about 150,000 lire - but how can you resist when it is in pink, this spring's official colour? I can't. Nor can model of the moment Audrey Marnay, caught shopping at Prada's younger line, Miu Miu. She can't resist two pairs of shoes - red patent ankle-strap high heels and flat sports sandals - a pair of navy trousers and a grey jumper.

But even the most die-hard shopping victim is defeated by a single item by Dolce e Gabbana that puts everything else into perspective: a pair of pop socks. As is always the way in fashion, these are no ordinary socks. We first saw them on the catwalk last October. They are black and embroidered heavily with golden wheat sheaves.

The shop assistant unlocks a cupboard and pulls out a rectangular box. Inside, the socks are wrapped in tissue paper, always a sign that you can't afford them. Delicately, she pulls them out, as though antiques from the V&A. How much? "One million, four hundred thousand lire," comes the reply. In any currency, that's a lot of money for a pair of socks. These are new stock. The first delivery of 10 pairs sold out within a week. That's almost pounds 4,750 for 10 pairs of socks that do not come with an anti-snag guarantee.

If you had the choice which would you buy? The socks or a pair of Gucci kitten heels? Or how about a return ticket to New York (you could even pick up a pair of socks for free on the plane). Or would you simply opt for a lifetime's supply of socks from M&S? Ask any fashion die-hard and I could guarantee the answer every time. After all, you wouldn't have to choose between the black and the buff.

Above, from left, Independent senior stylist Sophia Neophitou wears sage-green ankle-strap shoes by Stephane Kelian for Martine Sitbon; Observer fashion editor Jo Adams in red velvet heels by Michel Perry; and Australian Vogue's Edwina McCann wears the shoe of the season, Gucci 'kitten heel' black slingbacks

Top, clockwise from left: make-up artist Liz Collins with her Prada purchases; Kate Betts of American Vogue shopping at Prada; model Audrey Marnay at Miu Miu; Ornella Boscolo, fashion editor of Italian magazine Cento Cose, also at Miu Miu

Photographs: Kevin Foord