Baroque and roll: Fashion houses go back to their roots

In demanding economic times, the major fashion houses are going back to their roots for inspiration – so it’s no wonder that Donatella Versace is focusing on high glamour, rainbow colour and ultra-sexy silhouettes, writes Susannah Frankel

I suppose that on a very simple level I felt that it was time to do something that has some energy and bite to it,” says Donatella Versace of her spring/summer collection, widely received as a return to what, in fashion parlance, is described as that label’s DNA. “We have had a tough year – all of us have – and maybe fashion is an area where we can inject a spark of life and fun again.”

And so, after having spent the past few years stamping her own, somewhat more restrained signature on a label formerly known for dazzling glamour and the unashamed flaunting of sexuality, this season’s Versace poster girl finds herself resplendent in just the rainbow hues, ultra-structured silhouette, Baroque print and, yes, even the signature metal mesh, beloved of Gianni Versace in his heyday once more. Hair, equally, is just as big and tousled as it was when the likes of Christy Turlington, Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford et al ruled the runways, limbs as immaculately bronzed and gym-honed, lips as perfectly glossed.

“Versace is always Versace – it’s always essentially about sex and glamour and a rock n‘ roll attitude,” says Donatella Versace. “But in each collection these qualities are expressed differently. For spring/summer 2010 I have certainly consciously referenced the DNA of the house. The collection is inspired by Alice in Wonderland straying into a Baroque world and the resulting look is pure Versace. And this is a sexy look – a really sexy look.”

Ms Versace is by no means the only designer to have looked to her own heritage for inspiration, however. Signors Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana have produced a collection that is corseted from start to finish, in a manner that would make the starlets of their beloved Italian neo-realist cinema proud. Here too is signature animal print, overblown crimson roses and black and white lace aplenty. “This collection for sure marks a return to our roots,” argues Stefano Gabbana. “It mirrors the essence of the Dolce & Gabbana style, the re-elaboration of our heritage and traditions with the eyes of today.” If pure, unadulterated sex is a large part of the story as far as Italian fashion is concerned, over at Ralph Lauren there’s a similar interest in a nostalgic look back at the signatures that made this elder statesman of American fashion famous, this time planted firmly, just as might be expected, in Americana and American work-and sportswear in particular.

Lauren cited “the character of the worker, the farmer, the cowboy, the pioneer women of the prairies” as inspiration, and it’s safe to say that this particular heroine has never looked quite so well-heeled. Battered denims – everything from jeans, denim jackets, distressed overalls – cute striped or sprig printed shirtwaisters, and considerably more luxe interpretations of the same pieces in gauzy white organza and faded indigo silks for the uptown girl in a less utilitarian frame of mind, all nod to this mindset.

In fact, since Balenciaga introduced its Edition collection – pieces re-edited by designer Nicolas Ghesquière from the couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga’s archive – in 2007, other big names have been quick to follow suit where offering up a style that embodies the original handwriting of a label is concerned. These include Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘24’, a collection of classic pieces designed on an annual basis, Lanvin’s 22 Faubourg St Honoré, which draws on similar staples and, more recently, Archivio Moschino, which reworks some of that label’s most memorable moments, including jackets heavy with cascading gold chain or finished with pearls the size of gobstoppers.

The thinking behind such a move is largely pragmatic. If an idea is a good one the first time around, then why let it languish in obscurity, after all. The Balenciaga balloon skirt and Yves Saint Laurent Le Smoking tuxedo, to name just two obvious examples, are fashion greats that will always appeal. Such a viewpoint is particularly relevant given the current socio-political climate, however. There is, in the end, great comfort in familiarity – in a gentle reminiscence over and above the shock of the new – and that is never more so than during hard times.

Add to this the fact that clothing steeped in tradition speaks not only to the woman who wore and loved it the first time around and who may well enjoy investing in a new, improved version, but also to her daughter and even grand daughter – a younger customer who sees it for the first time and with a fresh and excited eye.

With all of this in mind, it should come as no great surprise that, for the forthcoming autumn/winter season, just as many, if not more, designers are mining their own history. There’s Miuccia Prada, of course, whose latest catwalk offering more than nods to the early-Nineties minimal mindset that made her famous in the first place and sees the return, in particular, of the Formica print.

Yohji Yamamoto too has looked back at the Japanese workwear aesthetic with which he made his name. At Burberry, meanwhile, Christopher Bailey has made a spectacular success of ensuring that the staples that originally made the brand he presides over famous are never far from mind, season after season. Add to the list the discreetly ethnic beauty of Dries Van Noten’s jewel-coloured, hand-embroidered pieces, the mischievous nod to cross-dressing at Vivienne Westwood, and it’s safe to say that this is more than just a passing fancy.

In the end, while fashion is not famed for prioritising practicality, the brains behind the world’s most famous labels are far from cavalier in the face of adversity. It’s no secret that purse strings have tightened and that, with new products flooding the market at an unprecedented pace, competition for the consumer’s favour has never been so fierce. It makes sound business sense, then, to uphold the very values that made a name a name in the first place, not to mention lending a certain authenticity to the proceedings.

And as far as Versace is concerned, authenticity – an increasingly precious commodity given what seems, at times, an ephemeral world – lies in just the sort of overtly flamboyant statement that is making itself felt in more than a few other designers’ collections this season. It seems only right, then, that with the skills of the time-honoured Versace ateliers at her fingertips, not to mention access to what are among the world’s most brilliant archives, Donatella Versace should show them all how it’s done. “I thought if anyone is going to do a full-on Versace collection it should be me!” the good lady confirms.

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