When asked what kind of man she envisaged wearing her clothes, Consuelo Castiglioni, the woman behind Milan's cult Marni label, cryptically offered, "Gorgeous ones."
It was an entirely logical answer from a female designer making clothes for men, but it was also a little off, given that Marni's menswear is precisely the sort of fashion proposition that the average gorgeous guy would find hard to digest, unless he had a particular passion for quirky, superfluous details like a shirt-tail on an otherwise sensible leather parka, or an over-dyeing process that made new shirts look old. But I introduce Castiglioni because she offered one item for next winter that seemed particularly apposite in the light of Deep Freeze 2010.
It was a tailored jacket (according to designerspeak, "a somewhat imperfect tweed") lined with a puffa jacket. It was also one of the more subtle incarnations of next winter's biggest trend. It may be giving too much credit to fashion's crystal ball to accept that designers foresaw the Deep Freeze, but they're certainly ready for when it happens again. There'll be no business like snow business for Giorgio Armani and Dolce & Gabbana, who both offered sub-zero chic in their second collections: straight-faced at Emporio Armani, anything but at D&G. And ski wear, the raison d'être of the old French label Moncler, got a thorough goosing at the hands of American menswear iconoclast Thom Browne. He has managed to insinuate his idiosyncratic – bordering on obsessive, bordering on fascistic – vision of the way he wants men to dress into a company whose name is a byword for functional sportswear. It's a win-win situation. Moncler got hip, Browne got wise. And his puffas were the new uniform of choice as the mercury plummeted in Milan.
If it wasn't puffas we were seeing, it was duffels and mufflers, huge, enveloping scarves that combined luxurious extravagance (form) with a bigger, better way to stay warm (function). And that adds up to desire (fashion). It made sense that Missoni's versions were the best because the label has half a century of family expertise backing up its iconic knitwear. There were as many as nine different fibres woven into Missoni's scarves, and that's the kind of artisanal authenticity which makes for a selling point in these overloaded times (or so I was assured by the man on the Converse stand at the Pitti trade fair in Florence, which precedes the men's fashion schedule in Milan).
A Brobdingnagian wrap might be one response, but no one in Milan made the leap from climactic extremes to sartorial extremes as effortlessly as Vivienne Westwood. Watching her show, I caught myself playing the Alien Visitor Game: travelling across space and time, what would our alien make of human sex? Moving right along, what would he/she/it make of men's clothing as viewed through the prism of Westwood's anarchic eyes? Her bricolage fully acknowledges that fashion for men is often just crazy drag, and her cast of bag gentlemen (the consorts of bag ladies, no?) with their rolled-up mats, their shopping carts full of junk and their outfits marrying Savile Row and Salvation Army fully embodied that idea.
To fully appreciate how convincingly such a point of view comes to Westwood, you only had to look at the latest collection from Roberto Cavalli, where the extraordinary workmanship of tooled leather trousers or a tunic in leather latticework ultimately seemed so far out of time that the soon-to-be-septuagenarian Cavalli's plaint in his press notes – "I wish I were younger and more handsome..." – seemed poignant rather than ludicrous.
At Jil Sander, the sheer functionality of the puffa struck a familiar and appealing chord in the midst of a collection which otherwise felt like it was trying a little too hard to parse the pieces of a man's wardrobe. Raf Simons is an instinctive futurist, but that sometimes means his work errs on the side of abstraction. One key element in this collection was something called "a mobile pocket", a lozenge shape that was incongruously applied to jackets and shirts. It reminded me of the organic forms that hang off sculptor Alexander Calder's mobiles – which could easily be the kind of association that contemporary art buff Simons was courting. Or maybe he'd merely come up with a new place for you to put your phone.
Mind you, Simons's forward-thinking with his fabrics did produce a particularly "important" navy sweater ("importance" is the ne plus ultra in the lexicon of the shadowy folk who pen the explanatory/obfuscatory guff you often find on your seat in Milan). Its thermographic shimmer hinted at outré experiments in laboratories where new textiles are developed.
The influence of technology is scarcely a new story in fashion. At the last womenswear collections in Milan, Alexander McQueen and Nick Knight collaborated on a presentation that was received as the fashion industry's Avatar. And last week, Donatella Versace launched her men down the runway in a rapid-fire salute to Tron, (one of the first movies to use computer graphics, in 1982). But I hadn't actually heard the word nanotechnology in a fashion context until Ennio Capasa, the motivator behind Costume National, talked about joining, say, leather and wool together at a cellular level. In practice, it was essentially an exercise in seamlessly combining textures, but Capasa at least appreciates that the hybrid is a concept which fascinates us all at some primal level. Isn't that part of Avatar's atavistic allure? Neil Barrett, born to a long line of master military tailors, called his latest collection 'Iconic Hybrid', because it dislocated and recombined emblematic items of menswear, such as the biker jacket and the blouson, or the white shirt and the banker's stripe; even the punk badges, wrapped in fabric and stuck on suit lapels, a grown-up acknowledgment of youthful allegiances. They were a charming touch, and yet an indication of the fashion curse: everything new is old already.
No one in the business understands this with greater acuity than Miuccia Prada, which is partly why she has no problem taking shapes, fabrics, and notions that other designers might reject on the grounds of something as banal as good taste and finding novelty in them. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but the impetus is always intriguing. Her latest men's collection fell into the not-quite-right category – from the retro geek side of her personality, rather than the dystopian provocateuse – but it was a pleasurable challenge matching the techno environment she'd created for the show with the clothes themselves.
If we're talking atmosphere, there are few to match McQueen, who conceived a charnel house with digital mosaics of skulls and bones to introduce his winter collection of beautifully tailored suits. Well, it's suits, innit, and you need an aide-mémoire to make them stand out. Except McQueen didn't, because his tailoring was also covered with digital prints, some explicit (more skulls, more bones) but others hauntingly abstract and soulful. Maybe that's because he was probing literal roots – bones mouldering in the ground.
A more figurative approach to origins accounted for the week's two strongest shows. This year, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana mark the 20th anniversary of their menswear, and, for winter 2010 their collection pitched the funk of the farmer against the elegance of the aristocrat – archetypes they'd lifted from the films of Luchino Visconti, their original inspiration. And, just in case anyone missed the cinematic connection, the designers back-projected scenes from Baaria, Giuseppe Tornatore's new Sicilian epic.
Christopher Bailey, now Burberry's chief creative officer, also looked back to go forward by manipulating every permutation of the military wear that built Thomas Burberry's business a century ago. The blanket wool of an officer's coat felt utterly authentic, but so, surprisingly, was its fantail back. Still, Bailey was never so literal that he wouldn't turn a shearling-lined aviator jacket inside out to create a gentler version of the same. His up- lifting words for the season – protect, explore and inspire – felt like an exhortation you could carry away with you from Milan. Maybe even apply them to Paris, the next stop on the tour.