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Fall With a Bang

Rural chic, rock chicks, and Rosemary's Baby ruled European runways -- while backstage, the Gucci Group and LVMH waged a turf war. And the fashion flock? They sat back and enjoyed the fireworks.

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It was the first week of March, the European fall 2001 collections were just kicking off, and already fashion's troops were shell-shocked. The few diligent American journalists and buyers who didn't skip the London shows were rewarded -- they were spared the ordeal of getting to Milan from New York. Unseasonably snowy spring weather closed the city's Linate and Malpensa airports. One unlucky flight-load of editors -- including Kate Betts and her lieutenants at Harper's Bazaar, and Vogue's Grace Coddington -- were rerouted from Milan to Zurich, where they were left stranded on the tarmac and forced to while away the hours watching Charlie's Angels. From there it was a long, long train journey to Italy, after which our plucky stiletto-clad heroines staggered straight from the Milanese railway station -- baggage in tow -- to Versace. The lights went down, the soundtrack began to thunder and pound, and it was on with the show.

It wasn't just the schedule -- the longest in history, clocking in at four weeks rather than three -- that made exhaustion the most pervasive trend at the recent European shows. The fashion flock was worn out just following the machinations of the industry, with a phalanx of designers playing musical chairs at fashion houses throughout Milan and Paris.

Perhaps uber-model Gisele Bundchen knew what was coming -- she sat this season out, walking the runway only once, at Dolce & Gabbana. Smart girl. It was one of the best shows, a rich, riotous take on the rock-chick wardrobe: striped Janis Joplin-worthy caftan tops, fur and leather coats and vests, and corduroy pants so narrow you feared for the models' circulation -- all accessorized with over-the-knee boots, leather hip belts, and fur satchels festooned with raccoon tails.

That Almost Famous refrain reverberated throughout the European collections, as spring's punk/New Wave styles took a flashy, trashy turn. With these clothes, you aren't just saying "I'm with the band" -- you are the band. At Bottega Veneta, designer Giles Deacon showed an all-star lineup of woven leather biker jackets, zippered shearling coats, and faded denim jeans, turning up the volume with logoed guitar cases and square bags the size of amplifiers. In Paris, Jean Paul Gaultier offered his homage to Prince with a mix of lingerie slips, velvet jackets, and biker leathers. And Luella Bartley, skipping London to show in Milan, took a riot-grrrl stance with suede flight jackets, denim miniskirts, and (less wearably) the imprint of a boot etched onto the faces of her models. You'll probably just want a few of the hits -- a zippered leather jacket or a furry vest to wear with jeans -- or you could end up looking like a Lynyrd Skynyrd groupie.

The European runways were being rocked in more ways than one. This was a watershed season, with many of the headlining names deciding whether to soldier on -- or jump ship. John Galliano, ensconced at Christian Dior, is one of the few in the former category. Lately, his work for the house has been the recipient of uneven critical reaction -- largely for promoting runway spectacle over wearable clothes. This time around, however, Galliano did a great job. (Perhaps the rapturous reception that met Christian Dior menswear designer Hedi Slimane's debut helped Galliano to focus.) There were lean pinstripe pantsuits, Indian-inspired mirror-embroidered jackets and hipster pants, and Gypsy-style chiffon dresses slipped under hand-painted fur coats, the whole look finished off with bags designed to look like boom boxes. And Galliano, now conversant with the first law of the corporate fashion world -- "Thou shalt turn a couture house into a global brand" -- mixed in a few lower-price-tagged items that will broaden Dior's customer base: T-shirts emblazoned with j'adore dior and a new range of handbags that will retail as low as $170.

Of the first generation of designers who went to work for big, Establishment fashion and luxury-goods houses, only Galliano, Marc Jacobs (at Louis Vuitton), and Michael Kors (at Celine) are still tenants. Alexander McQueen exited Givenchy. Narciso Rodriguez declared he was leaving Loewe. Burberry and its creative director Roberto Menichetti parted ways. With John Bartlett's departure from Byblos, the Paris-based designer Martine Sitbon is heading to Milan to take over the Byblos women's collections, while New Yorker Sandy Dalal will now handle the menswear.

Of all these comings and goings, McQueen's split with Givenchy was the most high-profile. People generally roll their eyes when those in the fashion world talk of shows having moved them to tears. But there was something curiously moving about McQueen's finale, shown to a tiny audience at the Givenchy salon on the Avenue Georges V in Paris. It could have been the way the show's soundtrack weaved in a sample from Massive Attack's "Unfinished Symphony," a hint that McQueen felt he was leaving Givenchy before his work was completed. Or that some of the models had tear-stained cheeks. It certainly had a lot to do with the clothes, which were the most beautiful McQueen had ever done for the house: a long camel trench coat belted over a pair of wide-legged check pants; decidedly chic double-breasted pantsuits, some of which came with floor-length ruffled skirts over the trousers; and fifties-inspired dresses with full, circle skirts. Still, the way McQueen cheerfully bounded out at the show's end suggested that he could have easily burst into a rousing rendition of "Non, je ne regrette rien."

All of this shuffling is having a profound impact on the shape of European fashion, which is being carved up between the two behemoths LVMH and the Gucci Group. The pace at which these corporations are hiring new designers and retiring others is getting quicker and quicker; now even the youngest talents can suddenly find themselves in the spotlight. Welsh designer Julien Macdonald (best-known for having dressed the Spice Girls in their high-glitter, high-camp phase) has commenced work at Givenchy, and the gifted Sophia Kokosalaki -- whose own collection and that of Ruffo Research were two of the season's standouts -- is whispered to be heading to the LVMH-owned Loewe. Someone would be wise to snap her up. For her collection, shown in London, she elevated a simple white shirt and black pants out of the ordinary by adding an embroidered tulle harness that wrapped around the shirt. At Ruffo Research, she deftly worked the house's luxurious skins into leather bustiers draped and twisted with chiffon, mottled shearling coats, and suede military pantsuits.

The challenge for a designer taking the helm of a house is to instantly establish himself -- and capture the imagination of press, buyers, and, ultimately, the credit-card-wielding public. The designer newly set up at Emilio Pucci (Julio Espada) and the one at Jil Sander (Milan Vukmirovic) both proved that this is not an easy task. Espada's take on Pucci was heavy-handed and managed to make the house's zingy prints look dull. As for Vukmirovic, the job facing him is almost Herculean. Many still long for the days when Sander designed Sander, and his efforts -- save for a few masculine-looking overcoats -- barely got him beyond the starting line.

To be fair, it could have been first-season nerves. Tom Ford's second go-round at Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche saw him get it right, with a mix of folk-inspired embroidered coats in wool or leather, jackets lined with ruffles, and the prettiest shirred blouses. This romantic look will no doubt be all over magazines and in every store window come September. How to translate it successfully from imaginary rural idyll into real urban wardrobe? Ford showed the way, by coloring almost the entire collection that perennial city staple, black, and keeping it sexy -- pairing the shirred tops with slim velvet skirts, and teaming everything with tall, high-heeled boots.

For Gucci, Ford drew on a decidedly different mood -- the sixties. His version of this trend (which caught the imagination of several other designers) was sharp and monochromatic: leather-edged wool coats and side-zippered pants worn with low-heeled crocodile boots. At Fendi, Karl Lagerfeld fused Courrèges's all-white aesthetic with 2001: A Space Odyssey, offering short patent-leather coats and shift dresses worn with go-go boots. Lagerfeld had another sixties-fest at Chanel, with miniskirt suits and Pop Art-inspired T-shirts. Miuccia Prada also looked to that decade, showing short capes and leggings mixed with sweet coats and high-waisted, square-necked dresses that finished mid-calf.

Yet this mod-squad futurism sometimes took a darker turn, with a return of that haunted, pre-sexual woman-child look made popular by Mia Farrow circa Rosemary's Baby: baby-doll dresses, tiny miniskirts, and Mary Janes. Prada took the allusion further, hanging oversize saddle bags from long shoulder straps so the purses grazed the knees of the models, as if they'd borrowed them from their mothers. At Gucci there was something disturbing about the mix of innocence and eroticism: Ford's finale of black lace baby-doll dresses (with built-in push-up bras) was the only misjudged moment in an otherwise faultless performance.

Despite this, next fall's Gucci is as desirable as anything Ford has done, a riposte, perhaps, to the criticisms that greeted spring's butch-chic clothes. The irony is that Gucci's last collection has proved to be hugely influential -- from kick-starting a trend for models who look tough (the crop-haired crew of Fanni Bostrom, Erin Wasson, and Eleonora Bose were everywhere) to kicking off this fall's love affair with the corset. The corset and its curvy, full-hipped silhouette became the flip side to fashion's championing of the baby doll. Frankly, it doesn't seem like the greatest of choices -- dress like a prepubescent girl or a late-nineteenth-century governess -- but the hourglass silhouette could look wonderfully sexy, as it did at Nicolas Ghesquiere's fantastic show for Balenciaga. His allusions to Victorian corsetry (lacing, boning, little pleats and frills) were cast into fitted jackets that he paired with his trademark skinny pants.

But to see how all these elements might come together -- folksy romance and a slightly perverse Victorian air, sixties minimalism and rock-star style -- you had to look to Marc Jacobs's stellar performance for Louis Vuitton. There were top-stitched-yoke jersey dresses and tops, nipped-waisted high-collared jackets, and rolled-up gray denim jeans and A-line skirts with heavy zippers, finished with Russian Cossack fur hats and kinky mid-calf boots that are laced like a corset. A thrilling, imaginative show: There's no better tonic for exhaustion than that.


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