At Milan Fashion Week, it's the taxi drivers who get the full story."It's much quieter here this season," one told me, as he pootled over to Prada.
"Maybe because of the recession, maybe because of the new congestion charge." If the city's streets were ever-so-slightly easier to navigate than usual then its catwalks were too. At a time when the country is mired in deficit and insiders are predicting a slump in profits for 2012, designers stuck to what they do best for those customers not yet feeling the pinch. For labels that deal in luxury, the direction was clear: more of it and a tighter focus. The Milan collections spoke of opulence targeted very carefully at those remaining clients who will still invest, offering them more of what they like, not less.
Dolce & Gabbana's show was a case in point – the label's first since the closure of their subsidiary D&G line last September. The incorporation into the mainline of its more commercial angle was interesting to see: their collection was nothing if not grandiose, inspired by the romanticism of the baroque era. Models wore sumptuous black wool capes and coats embroidered with thick golden threads redolent of the curlicues of classical picture frames. Full-skirted silk dresses burst with needlepoint tapestries, cherubs and still-life fruits, but Milan's most famous initials were present too.
"There is a T-shirt, look!" protested Stefano Gabbana backstage, thrusting a simple white cotton, D&G-emblazoned number at me. "We're opening the market, we have opening prices here too and we're developing the business by selling them together." It's a cunning move to welcome the second line customers into the more prestigious fold; if all goes to plan, these T-shirts will act as a gateway to more expensive purchases.
At Bottega Veneta, Tomas Maier's woman already has quite a spending habit, but the label's tagline – "when your own initials are enough" – suggests she doesn't want people to know. Luxury here was understated in aspect but obvious in quality, with dense, compact wool coats tactfully decorated with crepe "faultlines", and deliberately frayed edges, velour embroidery and scatterings of jewels to break up fitted separates in an intense palette of maroon, forest green and tourmaline blue. Digital prints represented "twilight, obscurity and danger", Maier explained. "The materials are virtually impenetrable, yet the effect is powerfully physical."
Frida Giannini's collection for Gucci took a similarly textural take on the body, but was softer in its approach, using velvet and double-layered wrinkled tulle. Taking the pre-Raphaelites as inspiration, she worked her version of luxury discreetly towards the Asian markets in which the label does so well, with the brand's equestrian motifs in riding boots, homely jumpers and high-necked blouses, some of which came with side-fastening necklines, and glamorous tradition reworked in tailored smoking jackets. "This is modern-day romanticism," said Giannini, "a dramatic sensuality, dark glamour."
Which was also apposite for Donatella Versace's autumn offering, although this designer prioritised sex appeal over romance. The house's bravado shone through in her "rock chick" look, which was made gothic with crushed velvet, armour-style bodices and pieces decorated with Byzantine crosses, and hammered home especially in citrus-bright bustier dresses printed with lettering that spelled out the label's name. It was a prime bit of opulent muscle-flexing from a name enjoying a timely resurgence in popularity after its return to the Paris couture schedule last month and two sell-out collections for high-street chain H&M, and its strength lay in unabashed references to the label's Nineties heyday.
Ahead of her own H&M partnership this week, Marni's Consuelo Castiglioni did a volte-face from last season's jangling and eclectic piled-on aesthetic. Her autumn collection was stripped back and stronger for that. Proportion-play, layering and a challenging new silhouette have an appeal beyond the label's regulars, while low-slung, anti-fit coats and structured, feminine tunics were characteristic without being caricatured. "It was more architectural," Castiglioni said after the show, "concentrated on shapes, colours and textures, with prints as punctuation."
This seemed a directive more generally, with many designers using prints sparingly, even where they might normally be the focus. Peter Dundas at Pucci incorporated the brand's signature scarf prints into pyjama-style separates and slashed dresses but most successful were his plain tailored pieces which came in an offbeat shade of sky blue. And Veronica Etro went back to the archives with paisley inlaid onto chiffon column dresses and sheer tops. but, after it became almost ubiquitous at other labels for spring, exercised well-judged restraint and excelled with simple tweed coats and blazers, expertly constructed.
At MaxMara too, outerwear was as subtle as it was well-executed: its iconic camel coat was transformed into a utilitarian jumpsuit, and greatcoats came in olive green cashmere, felted for a more functional finish and with none of the conspicuous gold buttons that the label normally uses. Likewise, the brand's diffusion line Sportmax presented a range of panelled and body-conscious shift dresses that felt pragmatic and decidedly un-showy. These Italian labels, which rely more on their heritage and staple pieces than they do on trends, appear to be taking their pointers from Italian President Mario Monti's austerity bills.
There were flashes of Milan's traditionally "molto" spirit at Roberto Cavalli, however, where animal print adorned casual separates and aggrandised floor-length dresses were proof enough of a certain stubborn glamour that endures in Italian fashion. Moschino too lost none of its sense of fun, although creative director Rossella Jardini reined in the surrealist tics this season and focussed on bright, bold pieces that her core customer base will go mad for. Likewise, Karl Lagerfeld at Fendi played to this label's clientele with a collection founded on furs and exotic skins, ranging from shagreen pony skin trousers to canary-yellow goat hair coats.
Even Giorgio Armani embraced whimsy, showing ruffle-edged velveteen coats and jackets layered over knickerbockers for his Emporio line and raspberry shades of suiting for his mainline, while Angela Missoni wrapped models in her label's trademark striped knits, giving them patterns and textures inspired by nature, and embellishing them with motifs of fallen leaves, tree bark and prints that resembled arid desert floors to add a tough edge to an otherwise homespun aesthetic.
If outerwear is a priori in autumn collections, then Raf Simons's take at Jil Sander spoke a thousand words. The double-faced cashmere clutch coats that opened his final show at the label immediately set the tone for a show as beautiful as it was ingenious, taking clear inspiration from Christian Dior's New Look and riffing on the widespread speculation that this could well be the designer's next posting. Dropped shoulders, sack-back jackets, bustiers and dirndls created a languid mid-century silhouette informed by the angular geometries that this label is known for, and made relevant through Simons' modernist sensibilities. It was a fitting end not only to his tenure but also to his recent exploration of latter-day couture, nodding to the golden age of that discipline as well as to its potential future.
But Milan's other great conceptualist was less hell-bent on giving customers what they wanted for autumn. "My stores tell me that women don't buy so many jackets now – they want dresses," Miuccia Prada said backstage after her collection of tailored separates.
There was not a dress in the entire collection; instead, a series of layered pieces, newly proportioned with high waists, cropped trousers and mid-length skirts, in one of the label's archive lozenge prints, bejewelled and rendered 3D with scatterings of plastic tiles and mirror beads. Kilt-like skirts were worn with frock coats and over cropped trousers, and blazers were cinched at empire-line height by belts with chunky plastic buckles, which the designer described as looking "poor". Her version of opulence was as quirky as it was challenging, in a colour palette of Seventies-referencing orange and brown, green and purple. "It's day wear more than evening wear," she admitted, professing not to be interested in dressing for dinner. "It's not about ideas, it's just about clothes," she shrugged, and with that she spoke for Milan as a whole.