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Milan Days and Nights

Narciso Rodriguez, flying solo, showed real clothes for real women.

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KRIZIA: Move over, Demi. You're not the only pebble on this glorious fashion beach.

Sitting in the front row at Krizia and swathed in a golden-toned coat to match her legendary mane was none other than Farrah Fawcett, one of the first great media icons of the buff generation.

Nostalgics will be thrilled to know that Farrah still looks as taut as when she chased down bad guys for Charlie back in the old days. That's good news for Mariuccia Mandelli, too, because she likes her customers to show their assets.

And this season they'll have plenty to choose from, as Mandelli showed one of her strongest, most controlled collections in some time.

There were lots of minis, both fluid and crisp, some with nude insets and plastic straps, some splashed with vibrant streaks of color. But there were also long dresses and skirts with a vaguely Eastern feeling and, on a wilder note, skimpy asymmetric ombred dresses that had shades of Jane (as in Tarzan).

Throughout, Mandelli worked with a controlled eye -- and hand. And, after 43 years in business, she and her husband, Aldo Pinto, are assessing the company with an equally cool approach. Krizia now has 32 licensees, including jeans and young sportswear collections, two young apparel collections for the Japanese market, accessories, fragrances and a new home collection that will bow at the firm's boutiques this fall.

Pinto and Mandelli claim annual sales reached around $300 million last year.

Explaining why they might consider a public offering, Mandelli said, "It's not that we need to develop -- we already have too much to do -- but it's essential that we start thinking now about what's going to happen 20 years from now."

But for the time being, Mariuccia is content to get clothes on the front page of every Italian newspaper: Farrah may not be such big news in America, but when she jumped onstage with Mandelli, dropped her droopy coat and revealed one of Krizia's scant black minis, the paparazzi went wild.

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MISSONI: This is a benchmark season for Missoni, the first collection designed by Angela Missoni rather than her parents, Rosita and Tai, who officially passed the baton this year after 44 years.

Actually, Angela's influence has been strong for some time.

Now that she is officially directing the firm's creative efforts, a key goal is to evolve the house's legendary knitwear focus into a more complete collection, and she was instrumental in signing a licensing deal with Staff International to produce wovens.

Certainly that change brought a freshness to the Missoni look, not to mention a more realistic take on the way people dress. For the most part, the sportswear looked good, if not particularly distinctive, although some silk dresses with oversized stripes were too artsy-craftsy.

As for the sweaters, shown in versions from sexy camisoles to dancing dresses with miles of fringe -- they were characteristically strong and often discreet. But no sweater is discreet enough to slip on over a broad-shouldered leather jacket without looking silly.

Such styling conceits have run their course -- particularly in Milan.
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NARCISO RODRIGUEZ: It's time to put up or shut up.

Clothes for the runway or clothes for real life? The debate goes on, with a great deal of lip service paid to the annoyance of silly fashion tricks. But when we finally see a collection of real clothes, a show in which each and every item has a cutting ticket in the works, it's as disarming in its own way as nudity, anger and over-the-top extravaganza once were.

After all the whining and complaining, we want to shower such a collection with high praise, but high praise and reality can make strange fashion fellows.

That was exactly the case with the collection Narciso Rodriguez showed on Sunday night, his first signature line under a deal with the Italian manufacturer Aeffe.

Rodriguez believes neither in high camp nor low-life angst, but in the subtle celebration of female beauty. The clothes he showed were chic, smart and quite beautiful. There were lots of subtle gray suiting fabrics with touches of soft blues and pinks, quietly provocative shapes, discreet details. Much of the collection was shown as separates with sexy beaded shells or tabards over skirts or pants, but Narciso also showed well-cut suits, including versions with new sleeveless jackets. And he played deftly with contrasts: silk linings in Patagonia-inspired vests, beaded silk dresses and tops inset with cashmere knit.

As lovely as it all was, the collection would have been enhanced by a surprise or two. Nevertheless, it was a strong, promising debut, one that thrilled retailers, who just couldn't rush to the showroom fast enough. "I look at what's practical and what's not practical," Rodriguez said before his show. "I haven't reinvented pants; I haven't reinvented the jacket. I just see what people need, and I'm happy to address that need." That view was a long time in the making.

Rodriguez is no post-adolescent St. Martin's daredevil, ready to redefine the concept of clothes. This is someone who put in a 15-year apprenticeship, and not in the fancy-schmancy world of haute couture. "I was trained on Seventh Avenue," he says, referring to his long stints at Anne Klein and Calvin Klein, and in fact, his clothes have a distinctly American feeling.

"I'm not defensive about it. I was schooled by Barbara Warner [at Calvin]," he continues. "We spent four years together. We worked on the collection and licensees together. She taught me the machine, merchandising, how to deal with the stores, the whole bit. I had amazing experiences. I got to learn so much from people like Barbara, Zack Carr and Susal Sokol -- they're brilliant.

"I look at the papers and think, where are the clothes, what are people thinking? I love John [Galliano], he's a brilliant designer. But at this point, there's room for subtlety, too."
One trait Rodriguez does have in common with Galliano is that neither views a woman's curves as an annoyance to overcome. "I live for curves. I love the hips, the waist, the bust, and I have no problem fitting around those curves," Rodriguez says. "It's a pleasure."

Even before his show on Monday, much of the industry seemed to have rallied around him -- including the Italian press, which welcomed him with open arms. One story noted his shyness and remarked that, in terms of attitude, Narciso the man hadn't caught up with Narciso the machine. Over a drink at the Ritz, Andre Leon Talley cautioned against skipping a season, "even if you buy a bolt of fabric and make up 15 dresses, like John [Galliano] did."

During the recent men's collections, Rodriguez met Jean Paul Gaultier, also with Aeffe, who said, "Welcome to the family, you're in great hands." There was, Narciso recalls, "no attitude, no 'Who are you?"' And on the day of his show, trusted adviser Donna Karan, for whom Rodriguez worked briefly at Anne Klein, sent flowers and a handwritten note. "With all she has to do, I was so touched. I put the flowers by my bed."
To be sure, after what can only be described as the nightmare of his Cerruti dismissal, Rodriguez has landed on his feet with considerable grace. And goodwill aside, it's his talent that helped him land -- along with a single, high-profile dress.
"I'm a tailor," he says. "I don't just do wedding dresses."

Nevertheless, he dedicated his collection "to a very special friend who will be with me in spirit. I don't think I have to say her name." And he doesn't discount what designing Carolyn Bessette Kennedy's wedding dress did for his career: "Mr. Cerruti got me to Europe and Carolyn's dress got me all the attention. But that's not why I did it."
Between Aeffe and LVMH, for whom he will design Loewe starting next season, Rodriguez couldn't be happier. He says that, with Aeffe's organization and production facilities, "nothing is impossible," and the Aeffe management could not be more accommodating. "Mr. Ferretti is amazing, he's young, he's smart, he knows what's going on."

Now, Narciso the man is coming to terms with Narciso the rising star. On the morning of his show, he was doing the typical last-minute flourishes while his dad sat nearby with a sure-shot camera. That night, Narciso partied until dawn with Demi Moore. Reviewing the clothes, he indicated a pale blue top worn by Kate Moss.

"I guess," he said, "I was inspired by the sky. I keep looking up a lot and saying, 'Thank you, God."'