For a precious moment, Prada conquers the world

THE AUDIENCE, perched on their cream silk cushions in the intimate Prada showroom, were hoping for a "fashion moment". And that was exactly what they got.

Perhaps it was the fluid chiffon dresses printed with love hearts, or the dainty ruffled tops, tying at the neck, which sent the fashion clan's pulses racing. Maybe it was the elegant high gold sandals (far more desirable than last season's mushy-pea-green clod-hoppers) or the snazzy bowling bags that made mouths water.

Prada's near-perfect spring/ summer 2000 collection, shown last night in Milan, summed up what those in the know want to wear now: A suit-yourself, pick 'n' mix range of discreet styles (twin-sets, shirt dresses, plain macs) and modern quirky pieces (spotty chiffon dresses, bohemian boudoir negligees, or ostrich leather jackets).

Even if there were a few no-no's - a white beaded chiffon dress pulled up at the hem like a venetian blind, an egg-yellow polo-neck too reminiscent of Seventies soap operas - Prada will have a feeding frenzy on its hands in January when the collection hits the stores. And, no doubt, copies will simultaneously fill the rails up and down British high streets.

It's no wonder that Prada, with sales of more than $1bn (pounds 600m), recently set its sights on world domination. In August, Prada snapped up an 8.5 per cent stake in Church & Co, the traditional British shoemaker that supplies the Prince of Wales with his brogues. And a few weeks later it had moved in on Jil Sander, the German fashion equivalent of Porsche, paying $109m for a 52 per cent stake in her company.

Those acquisitions, along with the alliance formed with Austrian-borne uber-designer Helmut Lang last year, make the Prada group one of fashion's most powerful giants.

While Prada was conquering the world, the new collection from Byblos, the contemporary fashion label owned by the Italian giant Genny Spa, showed a couturier secure under the focused direction of the American designer John Bartlett.

After just three seasons at the helm, Mr Bartlett unveiled his most desirable collection to date. A trench coat pinched at the waist with a karate- style belt and a strapless white linen dress secured with a knotted sash were contrasted with some sharp, all-black ensembles. Once famous for its excessive use of floral prints and embroidery, Byblos appears to have cleaned up its act with more geometric floral patterns or scarlet pinstripes.

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