Practical magic: Sophistication – not showing off in Milan

At the Milan shows designers focused on sophistication – not showing off. So make space in your wardrobe, says Carola Long
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The latest round of shows in Milan bid a final farewell – or should that be good riddance – to what is rapidly looking like a desperately dated phase in fashion: the age of the 'statement' piece.

Once upon a time on the catwalk, shoulders that resembled doorknobs and porn shoes the height of small dogs were eye catching. However, when these looks were interpreted rather more crudely by certain high-street brands, and the persuadable amongst us felt obliged to don a Dynasty shoulder to prove we were au courant, the 'statement' felt faintly ridiculous.

Many of the spring/summer collections took a softer or more utilitarian approach and at the autumn/winter Milan shows, it felt as if form and function have been fully reconciled to produce grown up, sophisticated clothes without gratuitous novelty. They signalled an end – for the time being, anyway – to fashion as mere spectator sport, with clothes to get excited about actually buying and wearing. The attendant press and buyers seemed to be scribbling shopping lists in their Smythson notebooks, as well as thoughts on the show. The eternally elegant Paula Reed, style director of Grazia magazine, was impressed by the amount of , "clothes that work well for the runway and real life," adding, "my impression so far is that it's about the Italian classics, pillars of your wardrobe and no gimmicks." One such gimmick virtually absent from the experience was the celebrities. Apart from wild child Lindsay Lohan and wild child at heart Courtney Love at Cavalli, and Avatar star Zoe Saldana at MaxMara, famous faces were thin on the ground.

"If I had to pick one piece, then I would love that grey Dolce & Gabbana tailored coat with external seams," said Reed, "and if I had another, then it would be the spotty pencil dress." A universal highlight of practically everyone's week, the Dolce show had the audience swooning, welling up and excitedly forward planning their autumn wardrobes. The backdrop came from a film of the designers at work in their studio, lovingly pinning and draping clothes on models and mannequins, and surrounded by the quiet heroes of the show – their staff. The film emphasised the craftsmanship and heritage underpinning the Italian fashion industry and felt like a proud, defiant message, given the fact that the Milan schedule was condensed against the organiser's wishes. The collection wove references to classic Sicilian style in with the label's own archive, as leopard print, lace and polka dot dresses with flared or pencil-shaped skirts reflected the label's signature aesthetic. Alongside ultra-feminine siren dresses there was also sharp tailoring in the form of black suit and tuxedo jackets in different lengths, and knitted or macramé skirts and coats with a sweet, homespun feel.

The Dolce collection was sensual rather than brashly sexy – most customers won't actually go out in the catwalk look of a tux jacket with lace knickers – and the Gucci glamazon had also grown up into a sleeker, more sophisticated creature. "It's more mature clothes for more mature women, because that's what I am," designer Frida Giannini told after the show, and accordingly the emphasis on tailoring meant that the clothes could be worn by women as well as girls. Thigh-length, oversized cashmere coats, short leather jackets and neat suede and camel hair coats with trench detailing came in a deliciously expensive palette of browns, coffees and creams. These were teamed with skinny trousers which deliberately evoked Gucci's heydays in the Seventies and the Nineties, while fitted minidresses featured cutaway panels and slashed arms rather than acres of flesh.

Covered up, highly bourgeois knee-length dresses and fur trimmed coats suggested womanly sensuality rather than girlish flirtatiousness at Prada, while cat's-eye glasses evoked brains as well as beauty. For this designer, nothing is quite as simple as it seems, however, so there were subversive flashes such as an emphasis on the bust through rows of ruffles and strategic darts, frilled knee socks – too austerely executed to suggest a schoolgirl – and the use of fetishistic PVC-like ciré fabric on short Sixties jackets and skirts. Backstage after the show, Miuccia Prada said that the collection was based on Nineties Prada and, "what is classic in my mind. Shapes that are forever." She also played with "the clichés of women, frills, bows, the things that women aren't meant to be able to do without. I have fun with the clichés because I never know if I like them or I don't." On a practical level, shift dresses and princess-line coats in black beaded wool, cable knit and sludgy formica prints will suit women of any age, and are likely to be a commercial hit.

Giorgio Armani is also a designer whose clothes aren't just designed with a young, trend-driven customer in mind. Instead, his softly structured designs appeal to women who want to look smart and pulled together. This season the collection was billed as "a new concept of chic that is not limited to the eternally reliable black skirt and white shirt,"and variations on classic Armani separates came via short jackets with asymmetric fastenings and defined shoulders, A-line skirts and high-waisted velvet trousers. The palette focused on black and white, with accents of coral red and Tibetan orange. Eveningwear pieces included beaded and fringed jackets, velvet fishtail dresses and asymmetric red-beaded minidresses and shorts.

Shorts and cropped trousers were a key feature of the Marni collection, coming in dusty pink, oxblood, mustard and tomato, while embellished and sheer chiffon trousers were a high point of Roberto Cavalli's 'haute bohemian' show. More wearable than the designer's floaty, backless tulle maxidresses, harem-style trousers were worn with tapestry and brocade coats that showed the designer – who was celebrating 40 years of his label – at his baroque best.

The decorativeness and drapery that characterised last season's Versace show had been sadly dampened down, perhaps in a nod to the new mood of wearability, but the label still delivered the slinky dresses for which it is known. Clingy minis decorated with metallic inserts in silver and purple had a glam-rock superheroine feel, while asymmetric and lightly deconstructed mini and maxi dresses came with peekaboo cut-outs or slashes. Less synonymous with the Versace aesthetic was the tailoring, which appeared in the form of a long-line black jacket, brown coat with large lapels and a yellow peacoat, as well as leather and suede motorcross-style skinny trousers.

Tailoring of a rather more pure, rigorous variety is what Jil Sander is known for, and the label's latest collection focused on just that. Set to the soundtrack from Tomb Raider, tiny black shorts worn with ankle boots and moulded tops or chunky jumpers, evoked Lara Croft – if she was into minimalist tailoring. Checked tweeds came in the form of skirt and shorts suits, and rather more challenging all-in-ones, while spare shift dresses and pinstripe suits suggested a kick-ass female executive.

At Bottega Veneta too, designer Tomas Maier showed power-dressing pieces, although these took a more modern approach than the Eighties pastiches that recently hijacked fashion. Instead, here were sleek double-breasted suits with straight trousers, and short black dresses with firm shoulders. Knee-length draped dresses in silk jersey had a fluid outline, and maxis in pink, red and black triacetate were perfect red-carpet material for actresses wanting to make a discreetly sophisticated impression. If the Milan shows are anything to go by, come autumn/winter 2010 that's the attitude we'll all be taking.