If you hanker after high-level luxury, then Italy needs you now. There is the baroque romanticism of Dolce & Gabbana, the restrained, but oh-so polished elegance of Bottega Veneta and Jil Sander, the sparkle and exotic skins of Roberto Cavalli and the dark and moody glamour of Gucci. These are just some of the treats to emerge on the catwalk at Milan Fashion Week, which wrapped up on Monday.
The reason Italy needs you right now is because the economy is hurting. The fashion industry is worried by the tough new austerity measures being imposed by their government and there are fears of a decline in sales, which some analysts suggest might be as much as 5.2 per cent this year. So the Italian designers had to put on a good show to lure us into their stores. Ironically, not all saw it that way and it was notable over the course of the week that many collections were subdued and conservative in tone.
Not so at Dolce & Gabbana and Roberto Cavalli. Dolce & Gabbana was brimming with baroque excess and a joyous show it was for that. Domenico Dolce's Sicilian heritage inspired the severe but sumptuous capes and coats encrusted with gilded embroideries, the sensuous guipure lace dresses and the sweet, frilly white Confirmation dresses. This was familiar territory for the pair. Naturally, there was some of their signature nip 'n' tuck corsetry and some gorgeous bouquets of flower prints on dresses.
Dolce & Gabbana and Roberto Cavalli were the only ones to display pure Italian indulgence. Cavalli was totally de trop, presenting flashy little bubble dresses in shiny bright sequins and feathery fur that, along with the abundance of big cat prints and exotic skins, seem destined to be worn by party animals. It tested the boundaries of taste but after a week of sober presentations, it was a relief to see a designer having fun.
Miuccia Prada's presentation, on the other hand, was very restrained, aside from the extraordinary black and neon eye make-up. There was just one key silhouette, but it was a winning look. An elegant high-belted flaring coat or jacket slipped over cropped, flick-out trousers and quirky rubber-platform Mary Janes. It was very controlled, but Prada lavished her fabrics, whether plain black or retro geometric jacquards, with 3D plasticised embroideries that often echoed the patterns.
The spirit of dark romance seeped into several collections, most notably Gucci, Bottega Veneta and Pucci. Frida Giannini, Gucci's creative director, described the mood of her collection as having "a dark glamour", and the sensuous colours in opulent brocades and jacquards, the dark red lips and Pre-Raphaelite hair captured that point. Giannini is an accomplished horsewoman and her billowing highwayman's capes, loose jodhpurs tucked into knee-high crocodile riding boots and cravats tied over brocade jackets had the whiff of Victoriana about them, while the flame-haired singer Florence Welch must surely have inspired the bohemian, devoré velvet evening gowns that appeared in dark jewel colours.
Tomas Maier's vision is for restraint and elegance at Bottega Veneta, where his colours were rich and his coats were hand-painted with rubber while black dresses dripped with stripes of matching sequins and shreds of chiffon. The chic restraint was occasionally lifted with some stunning statement jewels.
Pucci's DNA is in print, but it is the tailoring that is performing for the house right now - somewhat astonishing when you consider how the London designers have made such a virtue of print. Nevertheless, designer Peter Dundas worked up some sober but sexy tailored dresses, slashed with chiffon inserts that contoured the body. The results could have walked straight out of a Helmut Newton shoot. In fact, several designers this season referenced the late photographer's love of severe but sexy clothes for his images. Pucci, nevertheless, has retired its flashy boho vibe and replaced it with a more rigorously grown-up look, in the form of tuxedo ensembles and sleek dresses.
Dundas is not the only designer to do this. Alberta Ferretti is not someone whose style you would associate with sobriety, but there it was. She replaced any reference to her vintage-y red-carpet look with a finely tailored businesslike collection in pinstripes, leather and wool, which in times of austerity she obviously believes will sell faster than those party dresses.
Giorgio Armani's style is inherently subtle and he focused on an androgynous look in a palette of greys for fall, but jazzed it up with pops of pink and orange on accessories, dresses and big faux furs. This was a collection about easy chic, for once there was nothing remotely red carpet about it (but it was the morning after the Oscars) save for an alluring black beaded jumpsuit that closed the show. There is a lot of emphasis placed on his accessories this season with two-tone patent brogues (black with pink or orange) and a vast range of clutch handbags to accessorise each outfit.
Austere chic is frequently the default setting of Milan's autumn/winter collections: perhaps it is the Italians' love (and craftsmanship) of leather and a rigorously fitted silhouette. However, Versace and Fendi's medieval warrior women certainly encapsulated the general defensive mood.
Karl Lagerfeld's complex layering of fur, leather, stingray and wool at Fendi had a primal feel about it. Lagerfeld spoke of the "shapes clean as cut-outs" and "razor sharp lines", but this was more a show about the interplay of texture and fabric and an image of warrior women. It was a theme that tied in with Donatella Versace, who had already explored the concept with her red-carpet couture collection in January.
It has now evolved into shiny chain mail and studded leather coats and armour-like cutting on skintight dresses. The models with their gothic haircuts and make-up looked pretty fierce as well - not the kind of ladies you would mess with. Nevertheless, there was poignancy to this collection, for the Byzantine crosses printed on velvet coats and dresses was a motif used by Donatella's brother Gianni in his final collection before his death in 1997.
As fashion week in Milan closed, there was the shocking news that Stefano Pilati is leaving Yves Saint Laurent in Paris and the former Dior menswear designer Hedi Slimane is the front-runner to replace him. Milan Fashion Week had opened with the equally startling revelation that Raf Simons is departing Jil Sander to make way for Sander herself - who will be returning to her namesake brand for the third time.
Sander will have big shoes to fill. Innovative and provocative, Raf Simons' collections have been critically acclaimed since his arrival seven years ago, and his collections will be sorely missed. His gorgeous pale coloured double-faced cashmere blanket coats oozed with quiet luxury. They were clasped shut by models wearing sculpted skirts and graceful lingerie-style dresses in powdery make-up shades. It had the air of 1950s couture: the ampleness of the coats contrasting the fragility of the finely knitted dresses.
The melancholic soundtrack to his calm and beautiful finale for the label left one hoping that this "Arrivederci Milano" is only temporary and that in the fashion world's frequent spurt of designer musical chairs his fashion vision will pop up somewhere else - maybe Paris.
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