The menswear collections in Milan last week celebrated a brawny (and brainy) new silhouette. Glenn Waldron reports

The rain clouds said it all this season: Milan menswear had a bad case of winter blues. Or possibly greys and blacks, going on the staid colour palette of most collections. Indeed, with sales in the luxury fashion market plummeting, the autumn-winter '08 shows were a decidedly sombre affair as designers cut back on production budgets and, in quite a few instances, on creative daring. Slick, commercial and competent, many of the resulting collections were easy to admire - yet rather harder to love.

Power dressing was a key theme to the week's proceedings, with the likes of Dolce & Gabbana, Versace and Jil Sander all proposing a brawny new silhouette for the season: heavy on top, skinnier down below. At Dolce, oversized shearling coats were teamed with hefty winter knits and cashmere trackie bottoms to create a look that some wags were dubbing "sexy market trader". Also treading that fine line between parody and playfulness, Donatella Versace took inspiration from the exaggerated proportions and rich hues seen in the paintings of the Art Deco artist Tamara de Lempicka. Double-breasted jackets, impossibly heavy furs and subtle military flourishes all combined to reassuringly expensive effect.

If the black leather gloves in the Versace collection had a certain quiet menace about them, then the leather trenches at Salvatore Ferragamo felt downright scary. Ticking off many of Milan's biggest themes - knitwear as outerwear, iridescent textiles and suiting blended with technical outerwear - the designer Massimiliano Giornetti was certainly on-trend this season. Yet with Ferragamo bags costing up to €25,000 (£18,700), it was perhaps inevitable that the high-shine accessories would steal the show.

Over at Jil Sander, the Belgian designer Raf Simons continued to experiment with volume and, like most designers, paid particular attention to the coat this season. As one might expect, the clothes themselves were technically brilliant - particularly the curiously pleated suiting - but the leitmotif of stone and marble gave the show a static, heavy quality rather than the sense of timelessness that Simons had perhaps intended.

Christopher Bailey was on familiar territory, capturing "the simplicity and complexity" of the Northern painter L S Lowry. One wonders if Bailey might soon run out of British artists to riff on - Beryl Cook can only be a few seasons away - but his latest efforts look destined to please the Burberry customer nevertheless. Accompanied by the plaintive vocals of "Flag Day" by the Beautiful South, his models morphed from Seventies street urchins to gilded princes with impressive ease.

Giorgio Armani, another of Milan's crowd pleasers, was also in fine fettle. At Emporio, he established skiwear as the big sports trend of the season (also seen at the likes of DSquared and Neil Barrett). And while designer salopettes may not be what every man hankers for next winter, his bold use of pattern and geometric prints for the mainline proved eminently effective.

"I wanted a mix of luxury and industry," explained Italo Zucchelli of his collection for Calvin Klein. Adopting a typically muted CK palette of greys and taupes, the Italian-born designer sent out formal-looking biker trousers, sweaters with extended roll-necks and suits with a sly, delicate shimmer. Cool yet impressively understated.

There was no such restraint at Gucci, however, where, under the direction of Frida Giannini, more is always more. This time around, the more included drop-coin belts, brass buckles and all manner of shiny things you might reasonably find in a magpie's nest but never in a man's wardrobe. As one magazine editor observed after the show, it was all "a bit Steve Strange". Enough said.

Also engaging in flights of fancy - but with rather more success - were two of the mainstays of British fashion, Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood. Inspired by the designer's recent trip to India, the McQueen show took pilgrimage as its theme, plundering a variety of cultures - from Bombay to Moscow - along its heavily embellished yet impeccably tailored journey.

As usual, there were so many different vibrant ideas going on at Westwood - Cary Grant leisurewear, kilts, Cossacks - that it was hard to pin down exactly what was happening. And as usual, one of the most enjoyable moments was watching the Grande Dame of fashion being coaxed off the catwalk at the end of the show.

Ever the Italian show pony, Roberto Cavalli managed to lighten up the week's proceedings by shipping in a few ageing popstars to gawk at. Even then, however, the collection that followed the Spice Girls' much-hyped front-row appearance seemed to lack Cavalli's usual high-voltage frivolity and was - whisper it - actually rather wearable.

Power dressing of a decidedly different sort was on display at another revered Italian house as rake-thin models rolled out wearing a curious mix of flesh-coloured tops, thong-like straps, patent leather superhero boots and what looked like teensy miniskirts. Combined with some beautifully tailored formalwear, it's testimony to Miuccia Prada's innate awareness of fashion's boundaries that the overall look proved weirdly kinky instead of utterly emasculating.

Day one of Paris Fashion Week and the mood has already lifted. Alongside a monogrammed grand piano, the Louis Vuitton show is full of elegantly playful touches, blurring the lines between casual and formalwear with luxurious aplomb. Taking inspiration from Alain Delon's 1963 caper movie Melodie en Sous-Sol, the relaxed tailoring is complemented by a vivid sapphire-and-emerald palette.

Over at Yohji Yamamoto, the revered Japanese designer attempts to bring the atmosphere down a notch or two with a typically sober meditation on military and clerical styles. The quietness of the sound system and the raucous giggling from the photographers' pit soon defeats his purpose, however, and the show brushes very close to farce.

Meanwhile, with umbrellas and bowler hats a-plenty, the Clockwork Orange references at Jean-Paul Gaultier's show come through loud and clear. But revisiting one of his classic show motifs does not make it a classic show. While the ensuing collection has some lovely pieces, overall it proves awkward, unfocused and - the biggest crime of all for this ebullient Frenchman - just a tad dull.

The last show of the evening, and it looks like it is up to Dries Van Noten to end things with a bang, which fortunately he does - albeit a rather muffled one. Demonstrating once again his firm grasp of colour, texture and pattern, the talented Belgian sends out comfortably slouchy suiting, beautiful overcoats in pinky-purple tweed and wide-trousered, deconstructed eveningwear.

As has been the case for many designers this season, the collection is far more commercially driven than usual, but it is a hit nonetheless. And until John Galliano, Lanvin, Paul Smith and Raf Simons have their say, Van Noten's warm, wonderful take on menswear will certainly do.