• February 28, 2022

In Milan, Looking Back to Find the Future

MILAN — Another fashion week, and yet another terrible crisis. But fashion week did not stop in Milano, nor will it stop in Paris. And yet Milan closed today with Giorgio Armani, the only designer to cancel his show as Covid-19 loomed in the spring of 2020, showing his collection in total silence as a sign of respect for the people whose lives have been upended by the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine.

Elsewhere, Milan fashion week was an energetic affair that put the Italian fashion capital front and centre on the international fashion stage. This was a season of eagerly awaited debuts, generational turnover and generally good clothes. Italian fashion has always been known for its emphasis on product over concept, and this season was all about fantastic clothes women will really want to wear — in real life, not in the metaverse. From Prada’s shapely blazers and womanly dresses, Versace’s suits and bustier dresses and Bottega Veneta’s outerwear made for motion and jeans made of leather to Max Mara’s great camel coats, Jil Sander’s subtle balance of strictness and sensuality, Fendi’s flannels and chiffons and Roberto Cavalli’s wild take on madame dressing, there was no shortage of catchy, highly desirable items.

What was lacking was the slightest challenge to the status quo, which speaks volumes about the current state of fashion affairs in Italy and abroad. The global grip of Balenciaga’s enormous shoulders and harsh sense of elegance, complete with Demna’s obsession with the power suit — he was there before many others — has made a massive wave. Those shoulders, made even bigger by shapely waists, were all over the place. Now sex and the body are back, there were also plenty of nods to Alaïa, both Azzedine’s and Pieter Mulier’s — so much so that newcomer Andrea Adamo went dangerously close to the knock-off in a debut show that otherwise felt energetic and fresh, oozing Italian sensuality. It seems that now, more than ever before, advancement in fashion comes from adopting and adapting, rather than inventing.

Take Prada, for instance: more and more a global label with global reach, the revered house has entered a new stage in which going against the grain is no more the name of the game. This was a powerful collection in which one could see Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons’ minds finally come together to affirm womanly elegance but it did not push in a new direction. Telling was the presence of Kim Kardashian in the audience: a move that has obvious media value but made Prada a follower not a leader. Simons brought a new sense of elegance to his own namesake label, too, delivering mystery and elongation with the perverted, subcultural twist he does so well.

Time seemed to be on the minds of many designers this season. Time as in pillaging the past, but mostly personal time as in pillaging one’s own past, likely forgetting Picasso’s observation that regurgitating one’s past work was the beginning of the end. But in fashion it works differently, and it’s normal to move forward by looking back. Prada and Simons constantly look at iconic Prada moments of the past, replicating them. Back on the schedule six years after Costume National folded in 2016, Ennio Capasa brought his abrasive past to his newly launched Capasa Milano label. The resurgence of all things ‘90s made for the perfect moment to re-enact those tropes, and the collection didn’t feel nostalgic. It could have used a bit of streamlining, however.

At Fendi, Kim Jones mines the past, too, sometimes quite intensely. This season, in what was definitely his most convincing outing for the Roman fur and leather house so far, he clashed 1986 and 2000, seasons that expressed, respectively, the hard and soft sides of Karl Lagerfeld’s design personality, for a blend that oozed the boiling sensuality and perverse strictness of Delfina Delettrez, Silvia Venturini’s daughter and a muse to Jones. It was a catchy intuition: Fendi, after all, is a matriarchy, and by focusing on the next generation, the creative director made the womanly Roman trait relevant for the now, no nostalgia needed.

At Diesel, in his first IRL show since he took over the creative direction, Glenn Martens was looking at the label’s past — its ‘90s trashy and brazen heyday — through his own distorted, sardonic fashion filter. He upped both the denim and the sexy-trashy ante, producing a smashing vision of dressing as pure unabashed fun.

Nicola Brogano, too, keeps pillaging the past at Blumarine — this time it was the sex-charged, decadence of the brand’s Helmut Newton campaigns back in the mid-nineties — in what is essentially a styling operation that has nonetheless put the label back on the fashion map. It is telling that the show notes mentioned Brognano’s uber-stylist Lotta Volkova right after him, as if she was in the driving seat.

At Etro looking at the brand’s highly codified history is a given, but this season Veronica Etro did a good job in jumbling the usual suspects — paisley, nomadism and nods of bohemia — in a way that somehow felt lighter, even raw, and hence fresh. She could have gone further, though. At Tod’s, Walter Chiapponi interpreted the house’ Italian classic with a vibrant sense of restraint and elegance, opting to go monochromatic.

But the undisputed master of the historical mashup was Gucci’s Alessandro Michele, who was back in town with a very Gucci collection that jumbled rigorous tailoring, Adidas stripes and flamboyant club culture in a throbbing show held in a mirrored room to ‘80s synth pop. It was all very catchy and perfectly executed, particularly in the use of the three stripes. By now, it’s clear that disruptive change is not in the cards at Gucci. What changes is the seasonal mix of the same ingredients, and this season was a good one.

The resurgence of sexy dressing as a form of feminine empowerment post-#MeToo has been going on for a while, but this season it reached the boiling point, in every possible modulation, from the sharp and stark to the plain kinky. Sportmax has made strides in upping the ante and it went gaga this season, in a feat of high slits, broad shoulders and icy, irresistible seduction. Hems were short-short and waists nipped at Ambush. This was the label’s first show and it was a highly produced affair. The collection hit a variety of notes, not all of them original. The fetish element was particularly captivating.

Fetish was a blast at Versace. It was the nth iteration of the recipe, but it came out particularly well in a mash-up of brazen (bustiers and latex stockings) and bourgeois (Chanel tweeds and well-to-do elegance), power dressing and soubrette glitz.

Oh, glitz: the season was all about sparkle at every moment of the day, not just at night time. After two years of no socialising, the will to party hard or just shine and be fabulous, but also be seen, is understandable. At No.21, sequin mixed with masculine fabrics in ways that felt relevant rather than costumey, confirming Alessandro Dell’Acqua’s metier and timely sense of trend.

At MSGM, Massimo Giorgetti followed an idea of astrophilia. By stripping shapes to a crude minimum while maximising sparkle, he hit a bold fashion nerve: there was a svelteness to this outing that was fresh and relevant, no colourful pop needed.

Cabaret nods and shades of androgyny made for an intoxicating and charming mix at Philosophy by Lorenzo Serafini, while at GCDS horror took on a candy store gloss and a cartoon zing of sexyness. Missoni, too, was all about sparkle and sass, while at Palm Angels crystals were part of a celebration of individuality that had the requisite Californian vibe as well as a closeness to Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent grunge.

This was a season of eagerly awaited new starts, injecting fresh energy within the system. At Bottega Veneta, Matthieu Blazy took a quiet turn, toning down the boldness of Daniel Lee, who abruptly left the house in the fall, in favour of something decidedly more bourgeois. No maxi-intrecciato, then, and no stompy boots; rather, extreme refinement, pure lines, lots of leather and a version of the intrecciato recalling the dusty ‘70s of the house. Painstakingly executed, and very inspiring in the Mariano Fortuny nods (a little less in the Celine redux bits of tailoring and fur pumps, even though Blazy, of course, worked with Phoebe Philo), the collection was unconvincing in the many directions it took and, ultimately, a bit underwhelming, not least because the communication strategy still follows Lee’s bold language, and the two things do not fit. Still, the elegance and refinement were tangible and promising, and this is just the start.

A new identity is a work in progress, and this was clear at Trussardi, where the newly installed creative directors — Benjamin Huseby and Serhat Isik, of GmbH — presented their debut collection within the construction site of the revamped Trussardi palazzo on Piazza della Scala. The contrast between the posh frame of Trussardi and the designers’ multicultural underground sensibility could not be bigger, but this was the thrill. With its sea of black and fetish/clerical silhouette, the collection had a high cool factor but not much sense of purpose at such a house. Again, this is just a debut, so it will be interesting to see where the action heads next.

Not much sense of purpose beyond the idea of translating the bold shapes and the speed of cars into urban-attuned clothing was the issue at Ferrari, which debuted in the Milan calendar after last June’s Maranello “experience.” Creative director Rocco Iannone has a vision, but the car references make things a little gimmicky.

But Milano was not just about clothes that sell. There were designers working on high concept. At one level, things went wrong at Marni — the venue was too dark, the wait too long, the show too slow — but the clothes, shredded and mended were fantastic.

Best of the season, however, was Sunnei’s extravaganza. Shown on models rushing to the next show — a very simple but oh so clever idea — the colourful playfulness of the collection came to life in a way that was immediate, energetic, fun and inclusive; and a comic commentary on being back to normal. It was a smash. A demonstration that clear thinking translates into effective actions, no overcomplication needed.