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Designer Gianfranco Ferre: from architecture to suede and satin

Of the 34 fashion designers who showed their collections in last week's Milan ready-to-wear collections, perhaps Gianfranco Ferre is the one whose rise to success has been the most meteoric. Only four years ago he showed his first collection on the prestigious north Italian runway. Today, his clothes are among the most coveted Italian fashions in both Europe and the United States.

A native of Milan, the designer graduated with a degree in architecture from Milan University in 1969. But there were few openings then for young architects, he explains, and ''I had no interest in becoming an interior decorator, which was the only other alternative.''

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Along with a lot of discontented youth of the late 1960s and early '70s, he fled the restrictions of Europe and traveled eastward to Japan, China, and the country he remains close to, even today, India. He returned to Milan by the mid-'70s, he says, ''because I got tired of being a gypsy and decided to try my hand at designing.''

He began with accessories, bags, belts, and jewelry. His obvious talent soon gained him recognition in the big-name fashion world that was then beginning in Milan.

When he progressed to women's clothes, his clean-cut, simple lines were an immediate hit. By 1980 Gianfranco Ferre was a leading name in the avant-garde world of Milan ready-to-wear fashion. ''Yes, there are similarities between architecture and clothes designing,'' says the one-time architect. ''Architecture is, after all, a search for a solution of form, shape, and color - and so it is with fashion.''

Ferre's solution of elementary, uncluttered lines for women is by now his hallmark. Where this caused his fashions to be criticized as stiff and structured two years ago, his clothes for next spring and summer are anything but stiff. Soft, loose-falling fabrics - light wool, gabardine, silk, and suede, tanned till it takes on the feel of velvet - are the basis of his sophisticated but uncomplicated collection.

In line with the general trend for next year, his colors are basic black, white, dark blue, pearly gray, and pale beige, with flashes of brilliant deep cyclamen, fiery red, and burnt orange. Midcalf-length full or straight or wrapover skirts, wide, softly hanging ankle-length pants, and loose, wide-sleeved jackets or full trench coats, Ferre's loose clothes are by no means formless, but carefully tailored to show every movement and shape of the body.

''I see women as more and more independent and determined - women who know their own minds without losing their femininity, whether they are working bachelor girls or wives,'' Ferre says.

His accessories are few but bold. Ten-inch-wide buckled belts of soft leather or fabric catch the loose tops at hip length or at the waist. White satin evening dresses fall simply to the ankle, with startling hip sashes of red and silver Lurex or silk chiffon. Bold, too, are his evening decollete plunges, whether in back or front, his loose-fitting knits in creamy white, and his hip-length, oversized, all-revealing white satin tank tops, which can be worn over long black silk skirts.

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Along with his fashion peers, Ferre realizes the world is ruled more by economic than by fashion dictates. Along with Milan fashion mogul Giorgio Armani , Ferre sees no reason why women should be compelled to buy a new wardrobe every six months. There is no reason, in his view, that women should not keep their men's-style jacket of several seasons ago and simply add a touch of fantasy with a silk chiffon pareu thrown over or under it, or wear their casual cardigan-style knits over this season's satin evening tops.

Again following the Milan designers' trend, the house of Ferre is trying to keep prices in check this year. Although the fact that a Ferre three-piece light gabardine suit plus wide hip-hugging belt will retail in the United States next year for just over $2,000 is of small comfort to the average clothes buyer, the price has hardly risen over the past year.

Despite these millionaire prices (Ferre customers do include Princess Lee Radziwill and Charlotte Ford), Ferre clothes are still among the most popular Italian designer clothes in the US. Bergdorf Goodman, already a main client, is opening a new Ferre men's and women's boutique.

Additional Ferre boutiques are planned for opening next year in Los Angeles, Dallas, and New York. And the number of Ferre clothes that go on sale at the end of a season is estimated to be among the lowest of any Italian designer in the United States and Europe - 3 percent of his inventory, as opposed to the usual 25 percent.

Yet this large, teddy-bearish man exudes a wisdom and calm hardly congruous with someone who has so recently tasted success. Soft-spoken and succinct, he says simply that his ideas come not so much from inspiration and ivory-tower concepts of fashion but ''from experience and participation in other people's life styles.''

He is still a traveler, and his friends, who are many, are rarely connected with fashion. ''I keep in touch with architect friends and like to help them on projects,'' he says. Twentieth-century literature (Oscar Wilde and Proust), music (jazz), and, of course, food - his figure belies his love of rich north Italian cooking - help form the basis of the busy but pleasure-filled life he leads.

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