Milan Days and Nights

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

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."'

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