Freedom Saunters into Style
Polar opposites, Isaac Mizrahi and Romeo Gigli lead a runway renaissance

Long or short? Fitted or full? Dressed up or down? Who cares? In the '90s those questions are as outmoded as the style dictums they recall. The first fashions for the new decade have strolled off the runway and into the stores, and already consumers from Paris to Pacific Palisades are registering the exciting—if unsettling—news: There are no rules anymore. One moment, clothes are stark and simple, the next, lavishly decorated. Now day is night, and night is day—with velvet adding verve to breakfast meetings, and sporty leggings giving dinner jackets a new kick. There's no method to the mania and no manual to get you through. "In the '90s," declares Norma Kamali, "trends won't exist as we know them. What makes for style? Humor, confidence and intelligence."

Welcome to the Age of Options. Fashion designers have declared a moratorium on "Think Pink" edicts. There is no universal hem length anymore. Everything is relative. The possibilities are endless. So, maybe it was easier in the '50s, when everyone had the same twinset and pearls. Even in the psychedelic '60s, blue jeans and beads offered the solace of a uniform. But by the time the '70s faded into the '80s, denim was part of the Ralph Lauren life-style, and there was a certain sameness to clothes everywhere. Power suits and Polo play clothes. Boring, boring, bor-ing.

In the fax-paced '90s, the distinguishing feature is personal style. "In the past we put together preconceived looks," says Sal Ruggiero, fashion director of Marshall Field stores. "Now the consumer is being forced to develop—and individualize—a sense of style."

Every era has its stylesetters, and in the last gasp of 1989 there was a historic split between youth and experience, as two young stars stole the limelight from the old guard. While Yves Saint Laurent, Giorgio Armani and Karl Lagerfeld are still masters of the artful cut, Romeo Gigli, 40, was the talk of Paris. His sumptuously dour designs have ignited a controversy and spawned an international fashion cult. In New York, Isaac Mizrahi, 28, wowed 'em with a display of daring high spirits that hasn't been seen stateside in ages. Together they've brought fashion back to its roots—pure design. They are two for the future: imaginative, innovative and fearless. Visionaries who have common themes and uncommonly different approaches.

Call it a Madonna complex. Or clothes for the Ethereal Girl. But ROMEO GIGLI, high priest of the penitent look, has revolutionized fashion's shape and palette with his muted style. The fashion elite took one glance at his rounded, languid lines and were smitten. From his design base in Milan, Gigli, in effect, "got rid of shoulder pads around the world," says Susan Rolontz, editor of the Tobé Report, an influential industry newsletter. His soft statement cropped up in designer collections on both sides of the Atlantic, from Armani to Donna Karan.

Then he set off a craze for strange colors—ocher, mustard, mahogany—that has swept over everything from T-shirts to tube socks. Gigli's signature ethnic style is equally ubiquitous, from his sari-inspired wrapped dresses, Middle Eastern notched necklines, Bohemian beaded scarves, Oriental pointy-toed shoes and this year's long, long, glass earrings that look like small mobiles and, yes, are called shoulder dusters. The copies, the clones, the knockoffs and look-alikes are on every sales rack and Skinny back. Women wear his fashions from head to toe or collect the components piece by piece, pairing them with jeans and other outfits to get that Gigli look. "We sell Gigli clothes like popcorn," says Joan Weinstein of Ultimo in Chicago. That is mighty privileged popcorn—prices soar from for a jacket up to $32,000 for one ankle-sweeping velvet coat.

From the moment Gigli (pronounced JHEE-lee) first exhibited that brooding elegance in 1984, his stripped-down style became a magnet for both devoted fans and diehard critics. Gigli's dreamy dresses—shoulder-baring tunics that appear to bind the body and restrict the legs—strike many observers as more outlandish and antiwoman than inspirational. Detractors also find his lush silk evening clothes and hand-embroidered velvet jackets too costumey and otherworldly—especially the prices. But his devoted followers defend his extravagances as ahead of their time. "His clothes are really cerebral—it's like wine, you have to learn to appreciate it," argues Ruggiero of Marshall Field. "Gigli presents a lot of shock value to the average American woman, but he also provokes her thought process."

Gigli, for his part, seems unperturbed by all the fuss over his singular sensuality. Extremely private and retiring, the still boyish designer never appears onstage after his shows and rarely ventures out in public with his girlfriend of seven years, Carla Sozzani, 42, a former editor at Italian Vogue. In person he is as composed and dignified as his clothes, expounding his philosophy in a voice that is just above a whisper. "I hate to conform," he says simply. What does he hope his somber designs achieve? "I like to think that nobody is going to come up to a woman wearing one of my suits or blouses and chat her up inconsequentially." Not a chance.

Where Gigli's sense of style tends toward the spiritual, ISAAC MIZRAHI'S belongs to the here and now. He designs for the woman on the go who wants easy, efficient, elegant clothes. His bold silhouettes, bright separates and whimsical touches—who else could make the anorak the height of fashion?—have reinvigorated American sportswear. "He's loosened up fashion tremendously and influenced a whole coterie of young designers," says Lynn Manulis, president of the trend-setting Martha boutiques. "What defines a young look? Freedom of expression. For the designer and the woman who wears it. It's an attitude that's going to become universal."

Mizrahi's basic seasonless sportswear and tongue-in-chic symbolize the contrasts that constitute '90s style. "The future is about being very clean or eclectic," asserts the energetic designer, who grew up in Brooklyn in a "semi-Orthodox" Jewish family and got into fashion apprenticing for Perry Ellis and later Calvin Klein. "Fashion is always about glorifying the figure, but now it will be polarized: You will want it to be very simple or very decorated." Extremes are in, be it a sleek unitard by day and sheer chiffon after dark, or the other way around. Anything goes.

The whole notion of adornment is also changing. Jewelry is becoming more sculptural and less cluttered. Stow those rhinestones and ropes of pearls. Echoing the themes of Gigli and Mizrahi, designer ROBERT LEE MORRIS is leading the way with his simple shapes, silver icons and matte gold finishes. "What's important is purity of form over decorative surfaces," he explains. "Jewelry in the '90s has to have intelligence and content—a thought behind it. It has to be more than just a pretty bauble."

All fashion is moving into such uncharted frontiers. The hard, aggressive edge of the '80s is being replaced by a kinder, you-know-what slouch. Instead of handing down rules, the new decade will offer up themes: Femininity is in again, along with all the unisex Spandex. Simplicity serves, though not necessarily after dark. Change is being celebrated—if sometimes only for itself. But don't sweat it. Transitions are always difficult. Though the mixed messages might seem confusing, one fashion signal is coming through loud and clear: After a decade of taking our dressed-to-excess selves too seriously, it's time to relax, let our shirttails hang out and have a little fun. "Bawdiness," predicts Mizrahi. "It's coming back."