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The Italian Job: full-throttle collections from Milan Fashion shows

At the Milan shows, designers brought a new sense of emotion to the tough business of fashion, says Alexander Fury

The last thing you expect to get in Milan is emotional. That statement functions on two levels. On the one, the days aren't quite as rammed as in London or Paris. You don't feel as drained. Hence you're less likely to burst into tears with the combination of a powerful show, tearjerker soundtrack and/or absolute exhaustion.

Plus, fashion in Milan is about business. It's what the city is built on. The emotion you associate with the French haute couture, for instance, is centred in Rome's Alta Moda. The history that also flows through the French fashion capital is focused in Florence. Milan is cooler, colder, more corporate. That's not derogatory, it's just a fact.

However, for spring/summer 2014, Milan bubbled with emotion, from Stephen Jones's heartfelt tribute to his friend and client, the late Anna Piaggi (he curated an exhibition, Hat-Ology, in Milan's Palazzo Morando), to Moschino's exuberant 30th anniversary collection. Desperate times call for desperate measures: a word often used to describe Milanese fashion over the past decade is “stagnant”. Harsh but fair, since it's been two decades since something really exciting and new – Prada's Minimalism, Dolce & Gabbana's Fifties' pin-ups and Catholic decoration, Tom Ford's sex-saturated reinvention of Gucci – came about. We've had a few fits and starts of Italian innovation, a few names slipping on and off the radar, but generally it's been static. That's something fashion should never be.

You could never call Miuccia Prada static: her mind darts from idea to idea. She's somehow always ahead of the curve. Indeed, for many, hers is the only show to see in Milan. She stands head and shoulders above the rest. She sets the bar. This time, however, with a collection fusing sportswear detailing (ribbed knits, patchworked and rubber-detailed shoes, athletic-style socks) with couture beading and fur coats, she synched with a general mood of sports-luxe.

That sporty spice was also picked up by labels such as Gucci and Pucci, a rhyming couplet who both showed a take on sports vs sex. Frida Giannini's Gucci consisted of silky tracksuits and chiffon tunics whirled with Erte-inspired Art Nouveau-meets-Nagasaki patterns. Peter Dundas took a tougher approach, cinching jersey dresses with thick wrestling belts and beading marco-scale vertex into fishnet evening dresses that revealed more than they concealed. Both seemed to think it entirely plausible that women would take to the gym in 6in heels. That's go-faster, for fashion.

Mrs Prada rinsed “sport luxe” of the cliché though: rather than a simple-minded juxtaposition of exercise shapes with excessive embellishment, her take was the multiplicity of women, reflected in hyper-sized, hyper-real murals decorating the show space. Her women were as multifaceted as the many gemstones chicken-pocking everything from cut-out viscose-knit dresses to banded knee-high socks. These 21st-century power women didn't burn their bras – they just wore them on the outside of everything.

Those socks, incidentally, were first shown in Prada's winter 2007 collection. Miuccia Prada is an innovator, but as Coco Chanel said, only those with no memory insist on their originality. It was another general mood of the Milan shows, designers reverting to type, showing to their strengths. Donatella Versace, for one, said “Basta” to fashion. She doesn't care if Versace fits into trend reports, if she's ticking the season's must-have checklist. She just wants to have fun. The bouncing raffia skirts and intricately worked leathers and denims – a fusion with shades of Axl Rose and Stephanie Seymour – were in the Versace mould of old. She was preaching to the converted.

As were Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, whose spring collection felt like a distillation of their past few seasons' (OK, lets be honest: years') explorations into Sicilian culture. As if to prove the depth of their allegiance to all things southern Italian, they came over all anthropological, delving into Sicilian mythology. It's actually Greek, but no matter: Ionic column heels, medallion-studded mini-dresses and winged sandals suggested the Dolce duo weren't troubled with overt historical accuracy. Federico Fellini's Satyricon was an obvious reference, his baroque campery finding a fashion counterpart in D&G. That sounds critical: it's not meant to be. The tongue-in-cheek nose-thumbing of the classical tradition is what gave Dolce & Gabbana's latest offerings their punch. Despite the gold and gems, it wasn't precious.

Karl Lagerfeld is never precious. He also never looks back, or so he says. His Fendi show was a tongue-in-cheek ode to the digital age, Lagerfeld thumbing his nose at other labels' obsession with digital strategy. He's probably the most plugged-in designer in the world – watch Lagerfeld Confidential and witness his veritable Vesuvius of iPods, pads and phones (he even designed a Fendi suitcase specifically to house no less than a dozen of the devices). The digital inveigled its way into the Fendi collection throughout, with “Informatics” circuit-board seaming and juxtaposed neons. The multilayered degrade organza almost glowed, as if being viewed on a light-box or LED screen. It had an impact. It felt modern.

There was nothing modern about Moschino. That's because, hitting its 30th anniversary, the house decided to look back at everything it's achieved – and more importantly, at everything it does well. Its show opened and closed with Pat Cleveland, Violetta Sanchez and a supporting cast of old-school supermodels in archive Moschino looks. Cleveland sported the first dress she ever wore on a Moschino catwalk. It still fitted – and still looked good. The archive looks book-ended a collection in the Moschino tradition of irreverence, humour and wit. It will do a roaring trade, but wasn't the focus of the anniversary celebrations.

Granted, we were all here to see a fashion show, many magazine editors offering support to a key advertising brand. Still, it managed to transcend the seasonal and actually tug at the heartstrings. A film screened before the show, created shortly after the founder Franco Moschino's death, was the team's way of saying ciao to its creative director and friend, and was shown publicly for the first time at the show. It raised a smile, and a few tears, as did Gloria Gaynor belting out Franco's favourite song, “I am What I am”.

That could be the motto for this season's Italian collections: full-throttle collections, created by labels that finally seem convinced of what they are doing. Sometimes the adage is true: Italians do it better.