The fashion catwalk presents the new autumn/winter 2012/2013 romance
The clothes that made it down the catwalk for the autumn/winter 2012/2013 season can be summed up in one word: romance.
From the big, gold buttons at Balmain to the swirling brocade on a blood-red peplum jacket at Lanvin, to the Shogun-inspired jackets at Proenza Schouler, which took two months each to make, to the floor-length velvet gowns at Bottega Veneta that could have wafted in from a 19th-century Pre-Raphaelite oil painting, romance is in the air.
It makes sense, too, in a rocky world that's still feeling the reverberations of catastrophic bank collapses and climatic disasters, to be able to reach out for clothes that once worn, transport the world-weary to another place and time.
More recently, intelligent women have fallen out of love with the treadmill of trends, more often youth-obsessed, faddish and easily copied by the likes of H&M or Zara.
Romance, on the other hand - if you consider sales of Stieg Larsson books reworked to satisfy the demands of the computer-savvy, information-overloaded 21st-century female customer - works at any age.
This nugget of wisdom (that romance, not sex, is what sells) seems to be slowly infiltrating the wider fashion conscience with the result that designers are reconnecting with the slightly older customer who demands something other than ultra-sexy, "clone" clothes, which are only ever going to work on a young body.
Interestingly, few spectators even noticed that Karlie Kloss (the 2012 Pirelli calendar pin-up known as "The Body") had taken "a breather" for most of Milan.
Whoever lurked beneath the various dramatic high-collared layers, sweeping capes, hats and gauntlet gloves, which dominated collection after collection, added to the overall suspense. Clothes themselves, lavishly embroidered, bejewelled and often breathtaking, always took centre stage.
Where there is romance you expect drama and we got plenty in presentations where a sense of increased volume ensued.
"In a recession, it's instinctive to use lots of fabric. Think of Dior's New Look," said Cent magazine's editor, Jo Phillips. "This is high-end fashion, after all. This is not aimed at your everyman or woman."
Although there was no consensus among designers on the exact pieces - besides gauntlets and hats - that might feature in a woman's wardrobe (hairy fur shrug? Sloping shoulder jacket? Pencil skirt?), they did agree there was toughness about fashion's new muse. Think Angelina Jolie pre-Brad Pitt (and children), especially when it comes to black-leather red-carpet gowns.
Chinoiserie hinted at where she might live, too. With the luxury-goods market still showing no signs of a drop in growth in Asia, or for that matter the Middle East, designers offered a wider brief than the usual autumn/winter cold-weather-only clothes.
Indeed, the recurrent theme of cocooning and armour-like protection sometimes worked best blurred into tailoring that was anything but heavy; worn as Joan of Arc-style second-skin chain mail at Versace, or elongated column dresses with peek-a-boo slashes by the Omani designer Amr Ali, of Bodyamr.
Where inspirations came from, in terms of what decade, region, or even century, didn't seem to matter - so long as the end result looked modern.
The most romantic story behind a collection was Balmain, where Olivier Rousteing took inspiration from a Fabergé egg that Richard Burton had given Elizabeth Taylor.
Jewels popped up all over the place and all over the body: they were worked into fabrics (at Balmain, Versace and Vivienne Westwood) and wrapped around one of two emerging erogenous zones: waist and throat (and to magnificent effect at Lanvin). Waists looked tiny accentuated by jackets with peplums, bustiers or panniers and cinched by buckled belts. Necklines were throat-tight with sloping high collars or trimmed with fancy lace or fur.
Theatrical high points included Mary Katrantzou's prints, Dries Van Noten's 17th-century-inspired gilt-embroidered cranes on jackets, Giambattia Valli's velvets and YSL and Givenchy's darkly gothic, black leather.
But romance worked just as well when light and dream-like at Christian Dior. Here, incumbent designer Bill Gaytten told journalists, "Suddenly, classics are what looks new."
And they did because nothing will ever be as romantic as the waspie waist, swishy skirt combo that is classic Dior. This was the starting point for Roland Mouret of Galaxy dress fame, whose signature sheath dresses proved that simple can be dramatic.
Perhaps it's no surprise the fashion compass has swung in the direction of "dressing-up", given the forthcoming Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada: On Fashion exhibition, which opens at the Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on May 10 until August 19.
This will feature 80 designs by Schiaparelli, a designer who believed dress designing was an art form.
Throughout the 1930s, Schiaparelli reacted against the gloomy realities of impending world war and global depression by putting fantasy and wit into her designs and collaborating with surrealist artists such as Salvador Dalí and Jean Cocteau.
Cocteau once said: "Art produces ugly things, which frequently become more beautiful with time. Fashion, on the other hand, produces beautiful things, which always become ugly."
Perhaps bear this in mind before you denounce autumn/winter 2012/2013 fashions, which set the scene for the next big fashion happening: the relaunch of the Schiaparelli label in 2013 (by Diego Della Valle, of luxury goods firm Tod's). In the meantime, enjoy the romance of fashion. It won't last.
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Updated: March 12, 2012 04:00 AM