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Italian fashion comes back to life

The Italian couture showings ended with a splash when British pop star Geri Halliwell took a dip in a fountain at the end of her performance on the world-famous Spanish Steps.

Halliwell was the guest star Wednesday night at the outdoor fashion gala Donna Sotto le Stelle (Woman Under the Stars) that traditionally closes the midsummer Italian high fashion showings for fall-winter 2001-02.

There were plenty of thrills in the three-hour fashion extravaganza, ranging from Chanel's first tribute to Rome to Armani's ethereal gypsy ballerinas.

Models in black thigh-high boots paired with hot pants or sensually slit evening gowns added Parisian heat to the warm summer night as Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld paraded his models down Rome's most famous staircase.

"I love Rome, and I love Chanel," the designer, also the creative mind behind the Roman Fendi label, said in a televised interview.

Italian designer Giorgio Armani presented his collection of evening gowns in sparkling nighttime shades worn with shawls, clutch bags and low-heeled slippers _ all in flaming red.

More than 600 outfits were shown during the event, including the latest collections of Italian couture designers who had shown earlier in the week.

Rocco Barocco opted for a glam look of tight-fitting evening wear in shining black sequins worn with ultra high heels. Gattinoni took a more romantic approach to top-drawer dressing with light chiffon gowns in dainty pastel shades. Renato Balestra devoted his collection to the artisan skill of hand embroidery, from elaborate beaded roses to animal prints drawn in a myriad of hand-stitched sequins.

Italian high fashion seemed to be on a rise this season for the first time in several years.

With the Italian film industry boom in the 1950s and '60s, Rome became a reference point for made-to-order fashion, with such stars as Audrey Hepburn and Rita Hayworth faithful clients. Valentino put Rome couture on the international fashion map.

Valentino's defection to Paris in the '80s marked the beginning of the decline of Italian couture. Last year organizers threatened to reduce the showings to once a year for lack of international interest.

But the Rome millennium celebrations brought new life to the city, with new roads, restored monuments, prestigious art exhibits, and more than 50-million new tourists. The fashion industry seems to be shining in this new light.

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