MILAN (FNS) - North American buyers at the fall/winter 1996 shows said Milan's designers, and especially the new generation, are fueling a quiet revolution in men's wear with their slimmer shapes, stretch fabrics and successful attempts to marry tailored clothing with sportswear.
Italy's designers, they say, are seeking the best of all possible worlds by trying to fuse the slim, sleek shapes of the 1970s with the comfortable clothing of the '80s.
Buyers shopping the four-day Milan collections, which ended here on Wednesday, applauded design houses Gucci and Prada for giving a linear, architectural feel to clothing: narrow, flat-front trousers and jackets with higher armholes, leaner cuts and roped shoulders. They said they like that designers are paying more attention to tailoring and making fabrics more supple with generous injections of spandex.
'Construction and tailoring are back,' said Kalman Ruttenstein, senior vice-president for fashion direction at Bloomingdale's. 'Italy, which is known for its tailoring, was getting too unconstructed and very sloppy for a while. Today we are seeing a leaner, more shapely look.'
Buyers, many of whom are on a mission to teach customers the art of corporate casual dressing, showered praise on Giorgio Armani for the way he mixed his double-breasted jackets with knits, and paired pinstripe suits with matching solid shirts and ties.
'This is a very exciting era: proportions are changing and there is a great attempt to bridge sportswear and tailored clothing. Designers are clearing the cobwebs out of our minds,' said Derrill Osborn, director of men's clothing at Neiman Marcus.
Both Osborn and Colby McWilliams, fashion director of Neiman Marcus, said Gucci and Prada have been fine-tuning the slimmed-down looks they launched a few seasons ago, making them more comfortable and wearable.
Prada, for example, infused traditional staples like Prince of Wales, herringbones and poplin with spandex. 'Prada has been very innovative with its use of techno fabrics - especially stretch fabrics - which allow for comfort and freedom of movement with the tighter suits, ' Osborn said.
Gucci designer Tom Ford toned down his skinny pants - revived as hip-huggers two seasons ago - making them more practical. His slim, eight-button jackets with epaulets also won praise.
'The proportions in the Gucci collection were just right this time and the pants were not as tight as they were in past collections,' said Neiman's McWilliams. Osborn said Neiman Marcus would likely boost its budget for the Italian collections this year, although he would not say by how much.
Richard Lambertson, creative director at Bergdorf Goodman, said that while the new skinny, flat-front pants will likely appeal more to younger customers, they will undoubtedly have an effect on overall men's wear trends.
'There is a change in the air and that change will be reflected throughout the market - even if it's in a minuscule way. Not everyone is going to wear the slim, flat-front pants, but a trend might be for more traditional pants to become three centimeters narrower. Slim seems to be where everything is headed and that trend will take us into the 21st century,' he said.
Lambertson said Bergdorf's was planning 'double-digit increases' in its Italian clothing budget this season. The store mill be renovated next month and the space devoted to men's wear will be expanded.
Buyers also raved about the Italians' marriage of formal clothing and sportswear. They said the designs they saw in Milan will help them convince customers there are fashionable options to the traditional suit and tie.
Stanley Tucker, vice-president and fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue, said Armani did a superior job in mixing the two kinds of apparel. He pointed to the designer's mix of double-breasted pinstripe jackets with knitwear; zip-front sweaters and cardigans that looked like jackets.
'I don't think Armani thinks in terms of corporate casual. What he was doing, though, was forcing people to think about how different categories of clothes can work together,' Tucker said. 'Men want to be comfortable and Armani showed them that they can be comfortable in a suit.'
Rose Marie Bravo, president of Saks Fifth Avenue, said the seaming and cut of Armani's jackets were superior and that his clothing had an 'almost couture' detail. 'We will be buying more Armani this season - we always buy more Armani,' Bravo said.
Tucker said he liked Antonio Fusco's soft shirts and ties, and cashmere and tweed sport jackets. He said cardigan sweaters by Missoni, Dolce & Gabbana and Ferre stood out. 'This is going to be a cardigan year. The sweaters were in every collection and sometimes even worn as jackets,' he said.
Overcoats were another big trend and were able to straddle the line between formal clothing and casualwear. Gucci's dramatic, ankle-length coats with raised collars, Dolce & Gabbana's belted camel coats and slim leather numbers, Romeo Gigli's ground-sweeping chalkstripe coats and Versace's printed ponyskin coats all won praise.
'What we once thought of as traditional dress coats are becoming a piece of apparel that one could wear with sportswear, as a statement piece, said Joel Rath, president of the Canadian department store, Holt Renfrew & Co. 'They will be a dramatically important part of the wardrobe, worn as a statement piece. They're so beautiful, some men won't want to even take them off.'
Buyers gushed about camel - a color that appeared on every catwalk - and the fresh shots of bright tones in many of the collections. They talked about Versace's cherry-red chain metal evening pants, Moschino's knockout purple and green jackets and Gucci's white corduroy trousers. Another trend was velvet - in rich, dark jewel tones - which softened up almost every collection.
The darling of the week was Vivienne Westwood, who showed her first full men's wear collection, which will be produced by Italian-based manufacturer Staff International. The line was packed with bejeweled vests, tartans and what buyers called 'impeccable tailoring.'
More than one buyer gave a stiff thumbs-down to collections by Ferre, Valentino and Trussardi, saying they had no direction and were not in tune with the new slimmer, more fitted proportions. 'We get the feeling that Ferre and Valentino are not evolving with the other Milanese designers, that their shapes are overly constructed and their silhouettes too overbearing,' said one buyer.
Bloomingdale's Ruttenstein said tailoring was what made Milan shine this season. He said the store would increase its budget, particularly in light of four new openings in California in November, and would open Gianni Versace, Versus and Istante shops-in-shops in the flagship store.
'This was a good, strong, classic year,' said Ruttenstein, 'a return to Italian clothes as we know them.'