Pity the pundit who tries to draw conclusions about the state of the world from the spring-summer 2003 fashion shows in Milan and Paris. Fashion forecasting is a dubious business in any year, but this year it's tougher than ever. Designers at both cities were buoyantly optimistic, unveiling ambitious new shapes and colors in the face of shrinking sales, a stuttering economy and a looming U.S.-led war against Iraq.
The trends on the runways of Milan and Paris shimmering silver, tiny skirts, Asian influences, a new top-heavy silhouette, to name but a few were stronger and more varied than they have been in several seasons. Pundits in search of a pat explanation as to why this season was so strong may proclaim: "Afraid to travel, designers explore the uncharted territories of their imagination!" But, in fact, the most likely explanation for the number of new styles is a realization that if women want basics, they'll get them at less-expensive outlets like Zara and H&M. The best hope designers have of getting women into their stores is to make them feel that everything in their closet is obsolete. How can a self-respecting woman wear last summer's flowing hippy styles when all around her are tight, shimmering, sexy frocks?
The old adage "The shorter the skirts, the better the times" hasn't rung true in ages, and this year is no exception. Skirts on the runways are shorter than ever so short they make matching the color of one's underwear to the skirt a new priority but times have rarely been worse. Of course, short skirts on runway models don't necessarily mean short skirts on millions of women. Judging by the way even highly paid professionals were struggling to keep their minis in place at Gucci, the trend might not catch on. Fashion editors in Milan suggested wearing them as tunic tops paired with trousers.
Retailers in Milan loved the looks, not because they think women will rush to buy barely-there dresses, but because they know that for every edgy trend, there's a modified version that sells. The looks on the runway may be shocking, but the commercial collection retailers buy in the showrooms will be less so. For instance, Tom Ford said his skirts at Gucci will grow a magical 10 centimeters before hitting store shelves. And if designers don't make viable alternatives available themselves, retailers can always find safer versions of the same trends at other houses.
The batwing tops seen at Dior, Gucci and Stella McCartney are the flip side of the miniskirt trend. Dior and Gucci have been pushing this new, billowing silhouette for several seasons, but it's new for Stella McCartney, who showed the best collection of her short career at her own label. If a ballooning blouson jacket in crocodile seems a bit too much, a floaty top like McCartney's matched with lean jeans, not a tight mini is an easier way to wear the new look. A Dolce & Gabbana silver pant suit may not be on most women's wish lists come spring, but the silver mesh bags at Fendi and the silver shoes at Prada most certainly will be. And for those wanting to get in on the craze for surfwear spurred by the U.S. film about women surfers, Blue Crush, the sweet little neoprene skirt by Louis Vuitton may be the way to go.
The spring 2003 fashion shows may not tell us much about what is going to happen in the world or even much about what we're feeling in these wildly unpredictable days but they did tell us that creativity is alive and well in Europe. Designers have gone full out pushing new ideas. All that's left is for women to buy them.