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Allure of Rome's Runways Fades as Paris Prevails With World's Couturiers

The old expression, ``You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear,'' pretty much sums up the current state of affairs of Italian couture.

Despite all the glitz and glamour of the spring-summer 1995 showings, which ended here Feb. 1, designers and organizers were unable to stitch together the fraying fabric of the once-famous Roman collections.

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Francesco Rutelli, Rome's mayor, lent a frescoed hall of his Renaissance offices atop the Capitoline hill for the showings, as well as giving the designers permission to use a recently restored neoclassic building near the central railroad station. But the hall was too small to seat the long guest list, and the streets around the station are no place for a signora to be walking, especially in mink and jewels.

Even the sumptuous dinner offered by Mr. Rutelli at the closing of the three-day showings was not enough to lift the spirits of the fashion crowd, who fear the end of Rome as a fashion capital.

Gone is the heyday when Sorelle Fontana, Fabiani, and Capucci dressed film favorites like Audrey Hepburn and Rita Hayworth, along with the world's titled and wealthy, in the 1960s.

Gone is Valentino, who singlehandedly kept Rome couture on the international fashion map until the late 1980s when he packed his bags for Paris.

The fashion reporting pack that swoops into Paris and Milan has also long ago abandoned Rome, as have most top models, presumably because the local designers don't have enough money to pay their fees.

Despite their gratitude to the mayor, designers also lament the lack of a permanent site for the shows. The Paris shows are at the Louvre.

Last but not least is the quality of the clothes on the Rome runway. Except for a tiny few such as Balestra, Laug, and Gattinoni, the big names are gone. The field is left to little-known designers catering mainly to the Rome ``in'' crowd, with a few embassies thrown in for international flair.

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``What we have seen this week are ugly bridal gowns, and not much prettier ball gowns,'' said Olivier, who took over the Laug label from his longtime friend Andre, after the designer's death a decade ago.

Andre Laug was one of the big names on the Roman runway in the 1970s and 1980s, bringing the feminine chic touch of his French origins to Italian couture.

If things don't change, Olivier says, Rome couture has ``a maximum of two more years of life.''

For the next round of the semiannual showings in July, Rutelli has promised some of Rome's most-famous outdoor spots such as Piazza Navona and the Spanish Steps, already site of the televised fashion gala, ``Donne Sotto le Stelle.''

No big surprises came off the Rome runway for summer dressing. Colors are mostly pastel or bright shades of green, blue, yellow, and pink; hemlines go from calf to thigh, stopping most often around the knee; heels are high. Makeup is heavy, hairstyles conservative, and jewelry is expensive but subdued.

Overall, the look is very 1950s. One upbeat note: The beautiful fabrics and prints from brocade to silk chiffon, which no matter how tough times get, will always be an Italian forte.

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