Milan Fashion Week: Made in Italy

All eyes were on the designers’ clothes, rather than elaborate shows, at Milan Fashion Week. And nowhere more so than at Prada’s stripped-back and simple collection, and the fairytale finale from Dolce & Gabbana.

Italy has never had an identity problem, especially when it comes to fashion.

It’s much like Italian food: despite its ubiquity and near-universal influence, you can never mistake even great pretenders for the real thing. That’s why “Made In Italy” still means so much, as a stamp of authenticity, of quality and, ultimately, of a certain type of taste.

That taste is often characterised as glitzy, glossy and sexed up. It’s Versace’s phalanx of supermodels in 1991, Gucci’s slinky cut-out jersey dresses and see-through kaftans, Roberto Cavalli’s plunging cleavage, and heavage: men aren’t excluded from the lusty Latino imprimatur either.

However, that’s only one side, albeit the side that attracts all the attention. For autumn/winter 2014, Italian fashion confounded expectations. Versace did sensual rather than sexy. Fendi did fur but without the fun. Pucci did loose rather than louche. Even Dolce and Gabbana, masters of kinky corsetry, showed fairytale frocks that floated around, rather than frotted against, their models’ bodies.

It was all loosely indicative of a shift of focus in Milan: a shift away from the histrionics of catwalk theatrics, digital doodads and celebrity endorsement, and back on to the clothes themselves. That’s why shows such as Roberto Cavalli’s winter offering struck a dud note. Cavalli’s catwalk was ringed with fire and models dressed in flapper dresses slashed, shredded and sequinned to oblivion. That distracting flash and dazzle suddenly feels old hat, and cheap – even though the clothes are anything but.

It also feels a bit lazy. There was an undercurrent of lazy luxury around Milan – the idea of smothering everything with fur, for example, a quick and far too easy shorthand for winter, and for wealth.

 

The ever-perverse Miuccia Prada rinsed her collection of all those connotations. She used purposefully “poor” shearling and goat as trims on her heavy wool coats, streamers of the stuff tufted along the seams of organza flapper dresses like a Surrealist negligee, like a nightgown fused with a merkin. After a spring season studded with sequins and crystal, this collection used only the seams of the fabric as decorative motif, outlining them in sheepskin or gold leather strips, alongside a few muted prints that recalled Deco upholstery. It was a pared-back, stripped down performance – and indeed, Miuccia Prada equated the “theatre” that is evident throughout contemporary fashion with that of the stage. If all the world’s a stage, both men and women are merely players – so after last season’s celebration of fractured femininity, Mrs Prada included men in her womenswear show.

The Prada clothes, however, were stripped-back, simple, pure even. They were fashion, but they weren’t fashion-y. There was a string quartet and brass band playing Kurt Weill tunes, and rather than evoking the 1930s (although the clothes did), that soundtrack seemed to underscore the notion that Miuccia Prada was attempting to debunk the fashion myth in the same way that Bertolt Brecht deconstructed theatre in the 1920s. Brightly spot-lit on a towering stage, Prada forced us to examine her clothes with a ferociously critical eye.

She’s the only Milanese designer who can do that, both in terms of her own intellect, and also because her fashion alone can stand up to such scrutiny. Her Prada show this season was head and shoulders above the rest. And not just because of that raised catwalk.

Maybe the Milanese shows this season felt different – more memorable, on the whole stronger – because designers were shirking off the showiness in favour of focusing on the clothes. At Tod’s, Alessandra Facchinetti seems to be hitting her stride. She shows in an intimate space, more akin to a home than the traditional catwalk amphitheatres of Milan. Her models even struck attitudes in armchairs, resembling frozen, well-heeled Milanese equivalents of Stepford Wives. Maybe that’s because there’s a lush idealism to what Facchinetti’s clothes propose: she twinned her windowpane-check cashmeres with visors and deep-cuffed gauntlets, an ensemble reminiscent (ideologically, at least) of the Balenciaga couture gardening clothes ordered, and worn, by Mona von Bismarck. It’s beautiful, but it’s unrealistic.

Still, like a glossy magazine page airbrushed into infinity, there’s something seductive and aspirational about Facchinetti’s Tod’s. You can never be this woman, but you can dream. It may even motivate you to shell out for a bag. Which is what counts.

Fantasy brings us swiftly to Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana. Fashion is a fairytale for most observers – millions may watch online, but how many are actually going to shell out for a five-figure brocade dress appliquéd with a couple of fuzzy-felt owls? Dolce and Gabbana made fairytales their main theme – they may have dubbed it “enchanted Sicily”, but the reason the collection worked was precisely because it took a step away from their familiar inspirational hunting ground and tried to do something fresh and different.

Donatella Versace took the same approach. Would you ever imagine Donatella talking about the subtle caress of a bias-cut across a woman’s body? Subtle seduction at Versace usually means a skirt halting lower than the perineum. However, for winter the house was in a softer mode, with everything from military-buttoned daywear to slender evening gowns wrapping and draping softly around the body. Of course, there was embellishment – Versace does it better, and thicker, than anyone else.

Here, it was restricted to a trio of hyper-bedazzled, hyper-embellished short cocktail dresses, and smatterings of beaded uniform stuff across tailoring, and swishy sheaths in emphatic shades of teal and cyclamen. The evening stuff was spectacular, but it was the reality of the daywear that stuck.

Frida Giannini’s Gucci told a similar story, where kinky-booted sixties babydoll stuff looked a little dry, but where Mod-ish, boyish daywear gave a fresh pep to that played-out mid-century thing. That’s pretty surprising, a word that nails the mood of Milan for autumn/winter 2014. That’s a surprise in itself.

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