The fashion circus moves on to London this weekend, but all the talk yesterday was of Armani and Versace: two designers at the peak of their powers, looking for new ways to progress.
Mr Armani, the king of subdued beige tailoring, proved conclusively that there is more to him than trouser-suits. For evening, he can out-dazzle anyone. In Milan, he showed a parade of evening outfits in strong colours and prints, with heavy emphasis on sequins and embroidery.
Across town, Mr Versace, who is usually a byword for excess in every form, was heading in precisely the opposite direction. He pared down his usual extravagance to offer a new simplicity for Spring '93.
The audience at these two shows might be forgiven for believing that the fashion world had turned upside down. Buyers and press alike agree that fashion is in a state of extraordinary flux this season. Designers are feeling their way towards the shapes and proportions that will define the mid- Nineties.
Mr Armani and Mr Versace took the decision to show both their collections on Thursday night, turning the evening into a minefield of potential social disaster.
Fashion magazine editors, who can ill afford to offend their biggest advertisers during a time of recession, were forced to go through two changes of outfit in one evening: Versace head-to-toe for early evening; Armani for after 9 o'clock.
In the fashion world, these two designers wield a power which makes them the modern equivalent of Renaissance princes. They are surrounded by ranks of fierce courtiers who make the Borgias seem a rather friendly family.
This year, the competition between the two designers has reached a stage of all-out warfare. The insults have been thinly veiled. When Eric Clapton, the rock star, switched from wearing Versace to Armani, the former said he looked like an accountant.
At this time of year, however, it is the clothes that do the talking in Milan. This despite the efforts of Madonna, who turned the opening days of the shows into another spoke in the publicity wheel for her new book of sexually explicit photographs.
It can be safely said she is not Mr Armani's kind of woman. Madonna favours corsets and fish- net tights for night, while Mr Armani prefers layers of chiffon and intricate embroidery.
The designer has been placing greater emphasis on evening wear for several seasons, although the results have not always been successful. For next spring, however, he has pushed all the right buttons, transporting the Armani woman into a dreamy world of embroidered prints and flowing wisps of chiffon.
He wants no part of the hippie revival, although the emphasis on layering and ethnic influences did recall some of the spirit of that period.
The designer, who showed at his headquarters in the Via Borgonuovo, expressed his distaste for the regurgitation of Seventies themes at the shows this week. 'The idea is to take the spirit, the gesture, and translate it in today's terms, not to copy the look literally.' Mr Armani is rightly proud of his ability to translate ethnic colours and motifs for western sensibilities. This season, the inspiration was North African: loose jackets and blouses like caftans, apron skirts worn over soft silk pyjama trousers, and the elaborate trimmings and watered-down colours of Moroccan costume.
Earlier, Mr Versace turned out a collection of rare restraint that displayed many of the inspired cutting skills of a couturier. The first (barefoot) model, wearing a long white dress slit deep at the back, set the tone. A succession of long dresses followed, with hardly a print in sight.
The designer who used to champion the short skirt is now showing ankle-length hemlines too. He has also chosen to move the centre of erogenous attention upwards, from the legs to the breasts, via off-the-shoulder long dresses, low-cut plunging necklines, and panels of fabric sculpted across the chest.
The spirit of much of the collection was unreservedly Seventies, from bell-bottom trousers to funky silk chiffon jump-suits worn with hoop earrings.
The prints emerged eventually, allowing Mr Versace to give way to more predictable flights of fancy. They drew inspiration from the flowers of Provence, hippie stripes and colour blends, and the rock'n'roll atmosphere of Miami Beach.
Miami is not, however, the sort of place where Mr Armani goes on holiday.
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