The lady vanishes

Designers in Milan concentrated on the modern woman, proving that florals can be fierce and sweetness can be tough, says Harriet Walker

The grande dames of Milan are a bundle of contradictions: feminine and fragrant in their summer dresses and heels, but happy to push you down a spiral staircase if it means getting to the front row more quickly. It was this sort of woman that the Italian designers seemed to have in mind at the shows last week: one that was delicate but tough, sweet but fiery, and unwilling to compromise.

"It was about the impossibilities of women," said Miuccia Prada, of a characteristically inscrutable collection that featured minimal and sporty separates in cotton and duchesse satin, emblazoned with naive chalk-drawn and appliquéd daisies and dandelions. "The flower is a symbol of the poetic life of women, and the huge struggle that we have. It was about making sweetness hard."

This was especially apparent in Prada's final phase of pieces, wrapped-satin stole tops and tunics, in a palette of oyster, pale pink and pistachio green, finished with Japanese-style obi belts and samurai sleeves, as well as enormously stacked floral platforms that were worn with zipped metallic tabi socks. Space-age clean lines mixed with girlish hues and youthful quirks: it was womanliness, but not as we knew it.

What the Milan shows had in common was a feeling that clothing can be feminine without detracting from how seriously the wearer is taken. Nowhere was this message clearer than at Gucci, where Frida Giannini offered sleek and plain tunics and trousers, and column and shift dresses in a variety of blocked, bright hues – cobalt, fuchsia, grass and chartreuse. They were embellished not with simpering frills but with giant, snaking peplums and collars that wound around sleeves, waists and necklines like architecture rather than froth. The designer called it "aristocratic purism". "Evoking a strong allure with a clean, precise, defined aesthetic," she explained in her show notes.

Tomas Maier, too, at Bottega Veneta, developed the theme, pondering the ways in which womenswear can be at once floral and fierce. The answer here came in nostalgically printed silk tea dresses, with strong, padded shoulders and angular necklines, covered in panels of contrast prints, appliqué florals and subtle seams of studs – even the sophisticated butterflies which adorned belts were cut from metallic leather.

Bottega is a brand which never underestimates its customer, a woman of high earning power and even higher expectations, and the soft-but-steely message was underlined by the attention to detail and superb craftsmanship that the label, and Maier, have become known for.

Other designers blended this feeling for femininity into their label's established modes. Jil Sander's first collection under her own name for eight years clarified the point. Precisely cut and minimal tailoring was given fluidity with ingenious darts, planes and oversized patch pockets, while circle skirts were proof enough that the couture aesthetic of the house under previous designer Raf Simons had not been entirely overhauled. A palette of rust, midnight blue and bright, coral orange was hardly traditional in its prettiness, but set against stark white shirts and casual jersey, the shades were once again proof of designers working to give the feminine a new sense of strength.

"I wanted everything to feel light and fresh," Consuelo Castiglioni, of Marni, said after her show. "This collection is all about a new and very clear elegance." So much was apparent in the label's trademark "difficult" dimensions, which included higher than usual waists – at almost Directoire-era height – offset with trapeze lines, dropped waist jackets and even-further-dropped waist peplums. Skirts and dresses were pinned at the back to give a bustle effect, falling to mid-lengths with dipped and fluid hems. Print was used sparingly and was graffiti-esque when it appeared on coats, but otherwise colours were plain and jarring – bottle green with baby pink, oxblood and peach – and mono- chrome window-pane checks gave depth with tape jacquard.

Where Castiglioni found inspiration in Bauhaus, Karl Lagerfeld, at Fendi, also looked to modernism – in particular cubism – with graphic shapes that were printed on to silk and crepe separates and eventually morphed into the brand's famous "F" on knitwear. They trimmed skirt-shorts like panniers and yokes of dresses, while the shoes continued the theme, with scales along the top looking like mini Sydney Opera Houses. Lagerfeld called the peach, mustard and dove-grey hues "violent pastels", which summed up the clash of modern and meek.

"Women can change," Donatella Versace pronounced backstage at her show. "The collection was fluid – I wanted to show the tough and the fragile side." She did this by quite literally mixing masculine and feminine wardrobes, with lingerie lace and delicate black broderie detailing on mannish blazers. Similarly, the more youthful collection of dresses at her Versus label, overseen by Christopher Kane, married delicate pink silk with interlocking plastic chains. The masculine elements were still skimpy, but the Versace customer is no shrinking violet: cutaway silk minidresses, goddess gowns embellished with tinsel-like fronds and tie-dye pieces were suitably rock'*'roll for their usual base, while safer nods to the house's irrepressible obsession with skin and sex (a silk shirt inlaid with sheer lace, for example) should lure in the more pedestrian shopper, too.

This is what the new season take on womanliness boils down to. In trying times, designers need to find out what will sell. There are fewer women now buying fabulous one-offs – instead, they look for pieces that will continue to work for several years. And that means making informed choices about versatile clothing. At MaxMara, the label's trademark camel coat was reinvented as everyday blouses and utilitarian jumpsuit, complete with epaulettes and stormflaps. At the label's second line Sportmax, rich, bottle-green knits and leather jackets will fit into extant wardrobes. Missoni offered its signature wiggly weaves on blazers and tailored shorts; Moschino adapted pop culture and the Sixties into fun separates that could be worn as a whole look or slotted in with existing pieces. Shoppers want purchases that will retain sartorial value.

Giorgio Armani reprised the idea at both his mainline and his second line, Emporio, which was entitled "Neat". Easy separates for day and for night were minimal and in neutral colours, yet again blending the pretty and the practical. Roberto Cavalli, too, practised this, inlaying lace on luxe shirts for his main line, and teaming plain shirts and blazers at Just Cavalli with statement, Sèvres-print trousers to create an up-to-date look that made use of bestselling staples.

Then of course, there was Dolce & Gabbana, for whom femininity is all sun-roasted fecundity and Sicilian sensuality. The label's "Fatto a mano" or "handmade" collection was an ode to the glamour of their homeland – whether it fits into everyone else's workday schedule is irrelevant. While other designers are trying to ally their aesthetics to the worlds of their customers, Dolce & Gabbana conversely invite you to step wholly into theirs. For showmanship and opulent craft, there are few to rival them. The fact is, there is an audience for this sort of luxury – dresses printed with theatrical characters, corsets and bustier dresses made from hessian-style linen sacking and deckchair-stripe, retro beachwear – and she is all woman. But she might not be anybody you know.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
Sheeran arrives at the 56th annual Grammy Awards earlier this year
musicYes, that would be Ed Sheeran, according to the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
AKB48 perform during one of their daily concerts at Tokyo’s Akihabara theatre
musicJapan's AKB48 are one of the world’s most-successful pop acts
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
News
The headstone of jazz great Miles Davis at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York
news
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Eminem's daughter Hailie has graduated from high school
music
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment
TVHoax announcement had caused outrage
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
One Direction star Harry Styles who says he has no plans to follow his pal Cara Delevingne down the catwalk.
peopleManagement confirms rumours singer is going it alone are false
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    SEN Teacher

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: PSHE Teacher required in Devon - Star...

    SEN Teacher (Primary)

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: SEN Primary Teacher required Devon

    SEN PPA Cover Teacher

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Teacher Jobs in Devon Devon

    BSL Level 2 or above - Behaviour Support Assistant

    £50 - £60 per day: Randstad Education Nottingham: We are looking for Teaching ...

    Day In a Page

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

    Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
    Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

    The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

    Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
    Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

    Meet Japan's AKB48

    Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
    In pictures: Breathtaking results of this weekend's 'supermoon'

    Weekend's 'supermoon' in pictures

    The moon appeared bigger and brighter at the weekend
    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor