Milan: Fashion Hub of Italy

The models are striking. The fashions are outrageous. The production costs astronomical. Milan is one place where runway shows are entertainment extravaganzas.

NO one can sleep through a European fashion show. Even after waiting in long lines, fighting the crush of cameramen and TV crews, and battling jet lag, there are more than enough uproarious sights and sounds at runway's edge to energize the senses.The fashion shows of the reigning design houses in Milan and Paris have become entertainment extravaganzas - second only to a evening at an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Raucous synthesized music, elaborate lighting and stage effects, celebrities, and eye-popping clothing draped over the swiveling hips of the highest-paid models in the world - these seem to be the necessary ingredients today to capture press attention and lure retailers. The expense incurred is just as dazzling. W Magazine, an American fashion industry publication, estimates the total combined cost of mounting one ready-to-wear season in Milan and Paris at $50 million. Some designers are questioning the hoopla, given the rising costs of shows and a slump in sales due to recessions in the United States and Europe. But despite the naysayers, many design houses are forging ahead with blockbuster presentations, convinced that glitzy decor and glamorous models are the best way to attract publicity. Big venues call for big effects Much of the spectacle stems from the gigantic venues where the shows are held. In the early days of haute couture, or custom-made clothing, "all the shows were held in the designers' showrooms," says Marylou Luther, a New York fashion critic who has covered European shows for 20 years. But in the 1960s, the ready-to-wear market emerged and began to draw enormous crowds of buyers and fashion press, creating the need for more space. Restaurants, ballrooms, and dance halls were increasingly used, she says. Today, the Paris shows are held in huge enclosed tents on the grounds of the Louvre, while Milan's Fiera, a large exhibition center, boasts five runway halls equipped for every high-tech necessity. "When they started doing the bigger shows," Ms. Luther says, "designers had to start making more important clothes that would hold up on the runway. The makeup became more important, the hair became more important, the models and the accessories became more important." Now fashion designers "have got to be producers." Models command high fees The average cost of a 45-minute show in Paris today is $170,000, estimates W Magazine, while in Milan the figure is slightly lower, about $155,000. In Paris, average tent rental space costs $22,460, decor is $21,185, and press kits are $34,240. But the heftiest expense by far is the average total cost of the models for one show: $50,845, according to W Magazine's report. In Milan, Gianfranco Ferre paid $100,000 for lighting and decor, spokeswoman Rita Airaghi says. This included gold-painted seats and a flashy blue backdrop. For the 20 models used - including megastars Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, and Claudia Schiffer - Ferre paid each an average of $5,000 per show, she says. Snagging the hottest models isn't enough for some designers. Thierry Mugler, one of the most offbeat Parisian designers, once had his models rise up out of the floor through smoke. This fall, he presented the Swedish rock group Army of Lovers dancing and singing - and wearing his clothes. Ivana Trump, as well as Deee-Lite's Lady Kier, a rap music star, also made runway appearances. Gianni Versace is Milan's premier showman. This month he featured a giant swing, wrapped in flowering vines, hanging from the ceiling with a model perched on the seat. If the sets and celebrities fail to wow the audience, some of the clothes definitely will. ve seen Playboy bunny suits with little ruffled tails, I've seen more bras and girdles [worn as outerwear] than you'd believe, I've seen cowboy chaps," Luther says. Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo presented an "unfinished" collection of garments worn inside out, missing one sleeve or part of the back. "I think she was trying to tell us it's time to start all over," Luther says. "Many designers use these moments to throw out ideas." Mr. Mugler made a bustier out of silver, aluminum, and plexiglass that looked like the front of a motorcycle. "If you have only wearable clothing coming down the runway, the buyers and the press are going to be bored," says Susan Cannon, senior market editor of Elle magazine. "Designers do have show pieces to make a statement.... It shows how creative they are." Some of the more outlandish pieces are not offered for sale afterward.Alternatives to gimmickry Not everyone goes in for spectacle. Giorgio Armani gives his show in his own showroom, not at the Fiera. Though invited guests like rock guitarist Eric Clapton and actress Anjelica Huston add some hype, Mr. Armani's finely tailored, classical clothing holds the spotlight and is widely considered a bellwether of style. Franco Moschino - who once presented ballerinas in skin-colored cat suits - has stopped doing huge shows altogether. m bored with fashion shows," he told W Magazine. "They cost too much money and they're nerve-wracking." He now makes appointments with buyers in his showroom in Milan and uses video presentations. This fall, the Italian house of Fendi opted for a more informal setting and threw a party. Each model was stationed in one spot on runways along the walls. Munching hors d'oeuvres, guests walked around at their leisure to view them. The Ferre show this year had a calmer atmosphere than usual. "We chose to present the girls one by one, rather than in a big group all at once, so you could see the clothes more clearly," says Ms. Airaghi. "We moved photographers away from the runway ... so that the people sitting were more comfortable." A less-hyperactive atmosphere helps sell the clothes, she says. "Mr. Ferre works for six months to prepare the collection, and you have only 30 minutes to understand everything he's done. When you have 1,500 people in the same room pushing and pressing, they all get a little nervous," she says. "It's the right season to do something more normal ... and not so impressive as before."

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