WHEN IN ROME...

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It used to be the most terrifying thing that could happen to an Italian fashion designer was when John Fairchild of Women's Wear Daily, seated in the front row at the latest collection, pursed his lips.

That was then. Now we have...da dum! The Tax Police.

A couple of weeks ago they were cracking down on the brother of Gianni Versace. Now they're looking into Gianfranco Ferre, who actually spends much of his time in Paris, designing the Dior collection. And Giorgio Armani, who may well be the numero uno of Italian clothing design these days, has already admitted bribing the Tax Police.

What next? Valentino? Princess Galitzine? The Borgheses? Simonetta & Fabiani?

I lived and worked in Europe for six years and it was an honored tradition, especially in France and Italy, not to pay your taxes. Why else did the lads storm the Bastille? What was Jean Valjean battling for? Why would Garibaldi have donned the red shirt and fought a war to unify Italy?

So that poor Giorgio Armani would be hauled into court on this trivial matter of his taxes?

Of course not. It is to laugh, as Simonetta used to tell me.

Art Buchwald, who lived all those years in Paris before relocating to another funny town, Washington, D.C., got an annual column for the Herald Trib out of the European penchant for not paying taxes. And, if truth be told, perhaps it wasn't the tug of home sweet home that got Art out of France and back in the States; maybe it was, the Tax Police!

The second of two apartments we occupied in Paris was on the rue de Boulainvilliers and we got it when Bill and Suzy Blair (he was a correspondent for The New York Times; she was a fashion model) and their kids moved to Tel Aviv.

The apartment had three bedrooms, two baths, a dining room, a couple of fireplaces, a cave down in the cellar, a maid's room upstairs, and virtually no central heating, which isn't all that jolly in a cold winter, no matter how many times you've sat through "La Boheme." It cost $210 a month.

I paid the rent not by check but always in cash. The owner of our apartment was a middle-aged countess who lived nearby and once a month I would go across the street to the zinc bar where the countess would be knocking one back and chainsmoking cigarettes with her lipstick almost on her mouth and I'd hand her an envelope with the rent in francs and we'd have a quick one and I'd go my way.

But the avoidance of tax only began with paying for things in cash. Since the French version of the IRS collects, not on the basis of income, but on the basis of what they call "apparent wealth," you try to look as poor as you can.

Our apartment wasn't in our name of course. Nor was the gas. That was Monsieur Dupont or some such transparently made-up French name. So, too, the electricity. We did have a car and they could nail us on that. My name, alas, was on the license.

The two poodles didn't count as "apparent wealth," which annoyed the poodles greatly.

The fun began early when the gas guy would come to read the meter. He would demand of my wife, "You are Madame de Noblesse?" At first, she would say no and attempt to slam the door. "But of course you are," the gas man would say with a conspiratorial raising of the Gallic eyebrow, and proceed to read the meter. To the guy who read the electricity meter, we were "Monsieur and Madame Something Else," also persons almost assuredly dead since the First Battle of the Marne.

And I stress that although Bill and Sue Blair lived in that apartment years longer than we did, the name of Blair never appeared on any document known to man. Or General de Gaulle.

I assume similar dodges in the evasion of income tax have been put to imaginative use in Italy through the centuries, right back to the Medicis, the Doge and Fra Lippo Lippi. For one thing, how do you dun people with titles? And just about everyone in Italy is at least a dottore or a commendatore. Half the Italian designers I know are princesses. Also a few marcheses and marchesas. Can you imagine being a dull little bureaucrat in a cheap suit carrying a plastic briefcase and you knock on the door and the butler comes and you say, "I want to ask the count about his taxes"? Doesn't he realize people with titles believe unlimited credit a birthright?

For another thing, no fashion designer in either France or Italy would be caught without at least two sets of books. One shows the bank he's making a fortune so they'll approve the loan. Another proves he's near bankruptcy (this one he shows the Tax Police).

Meanwhile, everyone is an offshore corporation and the concealment of assets has been raised to a high art. The limo, the yacht, the personal chef, the apartment on the Avenue Foch or the Via Veneto, the pool, the ski chalet, the hideaway at Portofino or Cap Ferrat, are all carried as corporate expenses (it is up to each designer's discretion whether a lover is to be declared a personal or a corporate asset).

I wish the Tax Police well. After all, in this country, we pay our taxes. Why shouldn't the Europeans, especially the fashion designers, who make half their money at Saks Fifth Avenue or Marshall Field or at Fred Hayman's shop on Rodeo Drive? If Bill Blass pays taxes and Geoffrey Beene and Donna Karan and Ralph and Calvin and the rest, why not Pierre Cardin or Roberto Capucci?

But, as the latest fashion shows began in Milan, were the Italians in any sense abashed? Repentent? Embarrassed? Photographer Oliviero Toscani, who does those Benetton shots, told the Times in cheerful resignation, "Italy is a nation of thieves." A city council official demanded, "Why the designers? Why not the pastry makers?" And designer Mariuccia Mandelli was planning a dinner for 400. While photographer Toscani had the last word:

"The Giorgio Armanis brought good fortune to Italy. They [the Tax Police] should make sure they don't spit in the plate that's full of the good soup...."

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