Italian fashion's raison d'etre has always been wearable luxury, ever since plucky young things like Emilio Pucci first made their way across the Atlantic in the mid-20th century to provide an international market with chic, simple couture that could be produced and bought at a fraction of Parisian prices.
Last week in Milan, the country's top fashion houses stayed true to this heritage. Okay, okay, not everyone is going to be able to pull off – or afford – one of Gucci's bright purple furs, Prada's roomy python jackets or Dolce & Gabbana's bedazzling golden evening gowns (luxury comes with a capital "L" for autumn/winter 2011/12, by the way), but it seems likely that a lot of people will want to. And why? Because it all just seemed fun, plain and simple – high-end without being too high concept, upmarket but not too uptight. In fact, a lot of the collections seemed to have a sense of optimism, colour and freshness that is more characteristic of the spring/summer season – take the D&G show, for example, possibly the most youthful, fluorescent and irreverent collection that Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce have produced in years. Or Angela Missoni's offering – a bright pastel paean to leisurely outdoorsiness, replete with what looked like suede and snake wellies. Of course this is Milan so, like it or lump it, there was a huge amount of fur. But, moral problems aside, even the most extravagant of these were far from heavy or dowdy. Karl Lagerfeld stuffed his full of glitter at Fendi. Gucci seemed to go twice round the rainbow in mink. Add a sense of cinematic mystery – Emporio Armani did spies, Gucci did femme fatale, the Jil Sander girls could have been female Bond villains – a pretty thrilling first foot into the new season.
All over Milan runways, designers played with eye-grabbing clashes of texture, colour and mood, both in looks and individual pieces. The first evidence of this was at Fendi, where what looked like a wall-sized collage of papery swatches formed the backdrop for a collection that was all about unexpected mixtures and chic assemblage. Voluminous coats, gathered daintily at the elbow, looked as if they'd been assembled from a series of disparate elements, garnished as they were with coloured patches, false lapels, piping, shawl necks and unexpected cutaways. At Bottega Veneta, Tomas Maier was also playing a sartorial Frankenstein. Commenting that designing his 1960s-tinged but undoubtedly forward-looking winter collection "was like being in a laboratory" he did his best to create some sublime mismatches of textile, pattern and style. Fur and nylon met on an oversized, amber-coloured parka; spidery prints in deep yellow, green and orange vied against each other in clashing twinsets; delicate, neutral silk blouses were paired with mottled orange suits in a blotchy, thick wool weave. At Salvatore Ferragamo, Massimiliano Giornetti also got his clash on, playing with classic menswear textiles – houndstooth, pinstripe, woven wool – by setting them against each other (and black and white leopard print) in composite dresses and mix-and-match suiting. Meanwhile at Dolce & Gabbana – a superbly entertaining, surprisingly youthful show in which masculine tailoring and star prints were the defining elements – the designers proudly proclaimed that "clothes and accessories are mixed almost randomly, with no rules".
Nothing draws attention like a sparkly dress and it seemed like Milan was keen to push this 1980s favourite for winter 2011/12. Dolce & Gabbana produced the most bombastic expression of this: a knee-length, long-sleeved gold number in sequins and stars; answered in separates by similar skirts, trousers and oversized dinner jackets. But there was a range of intriguing takes on the trend, from the futuristic, metallic gleam of the heavily layered looks at Roberto Cavalli to the rhinestone-bedecked dresses at Emilio Pucci and the intricately woven, geometric glitter shifts at Marni. At Versus, Versace protégé Christopher Kane used sequins and iridescent glitter as a counterbalance to his winter collection's somewhat surprising sobriety. In Kane's predominantly black looks, which mixed simple, tailored shapes with corsetry and boning at the midriff, glitter became a jarring accent, splashed over the front of dresses in a triangle check pattern and encrusted upon the thick heels of clunky platform shoes. Miuccia Prada, of course, didn't present anything so obvious as a sequin in her fascinating, 1920s-meets-1960s Prada collection, but towards the end of the show she fielded a series of dresses (worn with fur and intricately textured plastic bathing caps) in which pearlescent fish scales (not unlike something that Paco Rabanne might have come up with in his heyday) swished and tinkled against each other for a delightfully shimmery effect. It was half cocktail party, half synchronised swimming gala – and all the better for the confusion between the two.
The Autumn/winter palette in Milan was full of loud, arresting shades, continuing a trend for colour-blocking that has been on and off the runways for the past five years. But if there was one colour that predominated for winter (last season we had orange) it had to be green. Frida Giannini got the ball rolling with her astoundingly luxurious, darkly mysterious collection for Gucci, which was a riot of colour, fur and glamour; spot-on, not just for the brand, which celebrates its 90th anniversary this year, but for the season. The opening looks said it all: a teal goat shawl, a deep green chiffon dress, an emerald python blazer and a bulky, turquoise fur coat trailing equally bright foxtails. Though Giannini went through some gorgeous shades of amber, mauve, pink and red, it was those deep greens that she returned to for the finale piece – a sheer, halternecked evening gown topped by an elaborate set of handmade green flowers that seemed to burst into bloom across the shoulders. And where Giannini began, others seemed to follow: at Prada, green was a dominant colour in the maxi-tartan print, low-belted dresses (wryly cut with a swooping back), as well as the snakeskin jackets, furs and boots (which came served up with a tromp l'oeuil dance shoe on the foot). Marni, too, had its fair share of green in its geometric-print, cropped-sleeve jackets, deep-green fur coats and contrasting jewelled neckpieces. And Peter Dundas's Emilio Pucci collection, inspired in part by the rustic colours of Tyrolean dress, was almost green all over, beginning with the kaleidoscopic, lace-embellished print dress that he opened with.
Alongside all the rather upfront glitter and glamour of the Milan collections, several of the more forward-thinking designers were getting a bit tricksy with the shape of the human body, playing with proportions and creating an interesting, slightly hulking silhouette. At one more wearable end of the spectrum, there was D&G, where a renewed vigour for all things 1980s called for masculine, oversized blazers. The feminine/masculine mix-up also made for broad shoulders at Salvatore Ferragamo, where models donned suit jackets with veryWall Street shoulder pads. But the most exciting developments came from Milan's intellectuals, namely Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons. The former tailored her jackets with a wide armhole and an odd, curving seam that wound around the back of the arm to a cropped sleeve. The result was lobsterish in the best sense possible – one of those unique frumpy/chic touches that have become Prada's unmistakable trademark. Raf Simons, meanwhile, was all about extending the body in the most extreme ways possible in his Jil Sander collection, which featured simple, massive jackets with a sleeve that was turned and dropped to the front – resulting in a sandwich-board-like flat back. It's probable there might not be many takers for his satin, padded duvet dress (the challenge of the season will be to see if anyone can wear it and not look like a walking bolster) but the rest of his silhouettes had a graphic impact that made this one of the strongest Jil Sander collections since he started.
A bit of a surprise for winter, this, but what can you do? Gucci did flowers, Just Cavalli did flowers, Jil Sander did flowers: it's undeniable. But the concept of extravagant blooms suddenly opening in winter chimed nicely with the rest of the colour and glitter that marked the season and has a nice, irreverent sense of humour to it. This, of course, was the whole point at Moschino, where the brand's logo above the catwalk was rendered in red roses; the flowers dictating the colour palette of white, navy and bright scarlet. In a collection that took many cues from naval dress – visored caps, gold rope and aviators were all in play – the roses provided a shock of romanticism and towards the end were rolled out in a maxi print for dresses and dinner jacket lapels, as well as a humorous headpiece (there was also a chicken hat kicking about – though it's anyone's guess as to what trend that's part of).
Raf Simon's flowers – printed on the neat surfaces of his spacious dresses – were similarly large and bold, though of a darker variety.
Adam Welch is editor of 'Wonderland' magazine