At the Louis Vuitton store opening on Milan's Via Montenapoleone last week, crowds gathered as if at a public monument.
Inside, editors – including the inimitable Anna dello Russo, clad head-to-toe in the label's autumn/winter collection – marvelled at £10,000 watches and a bespoke handbag service, where customers choose from every shade of leather, crocodile and ostrich skin. The reason why Vuitton decided to launch this service exclusively in Milan is because this is a city where luxury is, paradoxically, a necessity, a way of life.
And despite universally grim economic tidings, it is alive and well: that was the message from the Italian shows. That same evening, Gucci launched a new installation in its flagship store just down the street; later in the week, the label opened a museum in Florence devoted to the history of the brand, to honour the 90th anniversary of its founding.
Paris-based Louis Vuitton cites 19th- century roots as proof of its high-end credentials. But the shows in Milan were testament to the sort of prominent luxury empire that can be built in a rather shorter timeframe, according to a culture of aspiration and conspicuous consumption.
Other milestones celebrated during the week included 100 years of leather goods-turned-womenswear label Trussardi (which staged a flawless show in the medieval Castello Sforzesco), and the 30th birthday of the Emporio Armani line, whose collection emphasised the label's bright and glitzy take on classics, with a monochrome palette showing off sequinned dresses and jackets, and hoop-hem tunics playing with proportion.
In short, colourful and confident bombast shone through at Milan Fashion Week and labels showed their strengths by digging deep into their sartorial DNA. So much was clear at MaxMara, for example, where the label's "hero piece", the camel coat, inspired clingy, sporty separates, panelled with sheer swatches and turquoise colour-blocking.
At Gucci, Frida Giannini took its 1921 inception as her inspiration, reworking drop-waist flapper dresses according to the label's slick, urban aesthetic in shining black silk, plexiglass fringing and Metropolis-meets-Bladerunner beading. There were flashes, too, from the archives, in enamel detailing, gold and the house's signature shade of green. "Fusing elements from our DNA and making them current with a strong sense of personality," Giannini explained.
And the Twenties became something of a trend – there were bright shift dresses at Alberta Ferretti, decorated with panels and chevrons of sheer tulle, while family-run label Etro spoke of a modern Jazz Age, although fringed- skirt dresses, kimono coats and Clarice Cliff-esque swirl prints were slightly too literal to be fully up-to-date.
For Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, spring/summer 2012 was also all about personality – after applause had died down at the show for their D&G label, it was announced online that they would be closing the second line. The final hurrah for D&G was a fittingly exuberant show of silk foulard scarves – of all colours and prints, from acid pink psychedelia to pastel paisley – twisted, ruched and knotted into minidresses, trousers, handkerchief tops and even platform wedges, in a collection that celebrated the youthful essence and bold bravura of the label.
But if D&G was a character sketch, then Dolce & Gabbana was a cultural dispatch. Inspired by the 1955 film Pane, Amore e... starring Sophie Loren, the collection told the story of life in Southern Italy – onions, aubergines and pomodorini were naïvely rendered in painterly strokes on Fifties-inspired separates, including knickerbockers and sweetheart-neckline sundresses, while courgettes flowered on tailored shorts and swing jackets. "For us, this is the essence of Italian beauty," explained the designers, of clothes that drew on the label's trademarks: Forties-line corseted dresses, unadulterated sensuality and exaggerated glamour by way of rhinestone-encrusted swimsuits and bra tops.
"I didn't want to make references," said Miuccia Prada, of an automobile-inspired hyper-feminine show, that seemed to hark to mid-20th century pastels and values. "I wanted to do what I really like – it's the typically bourgeois Prada style." So much was evident in a vast collection of separates, from crop tops to swing coats of appliqué crocheted lace and leather pencil skirts emblazoned with graphic Corvettes and exhaust fumes. And the designer's quirks were clear in the juxtapositions of bold and soft. "Probably sweetness is the biggest taboo in fashion," she added, "but it's possibly the greatest quality of women."
At Jil Sander, too, there was a delicate and womanly mood, with full-skirted and clean silhouettes referencing the objectivity of beauty in an almost Kantian vein. This was born of attention to the label's intrinsic values as well as its progression. "I was thinking about the heritage of Jil Sander," designer Raf Simons said backstage, "but I don't want to use her methods anymore. I want it to be sexier, more romantic." There was certainly more of the softness of his recent couture-inspired collections, in a show that took the label's famously minimalist personality and recast it in fluid dirndl skirts and knits embellished with cubist, Picasso-esque faces.
There were artistic flourishes, too, at Bottega Veneta, where artisanal handicrafts mixed with streetwear under Tomas Maier's careful instruction. The label has been a by-word for understated elegance since the Seventies; how then to create a sense of brand identity when anonymity is at its heart? With ultra-matte silk bustier dresses, shirts coated with PVC and what must surely be the most exclusive denim pieces ever made, certainly a first for the Bottega catwalk. "There's no need to travel," said Maier of this casual opulence, "you can find inspiration all around you – inside your own neighbourhood."
But for every version of subdued luxury – such as the elegant sculpturalism and subdued brocades at Giorgio Armani – there was something rather more vampish elsewhere. Roberto Cavalli showed gold-encrusted pleats that fluttered to reveal animal-printed interior folds, while at Moschino models wore cropped Toreador jackets that came, literally, with jingling bells on. Meanwhile, exoticism ruled supreme at Emilio Pucci, designed by the acclaimed Peter Dundas, where inspiration came from gypsy travellers and dark-eyed girls, at once nodding to the house's heritage as well as the glamour for which it is known. Beading and lacing on swirling printed maxi-skirts and handkerchief hems gave the bohemian look a vital and polished edge.
Versace's collection spun the house's innate brashness with soft leather dresses in armour-like cuts that blended neoprene separates decorated with seascape prints of conch shells and mermaids. The effect was a disco version of sweetness, camped up but affectionately so, and soft enough to remain wearable in the extreme. And there was further fashionable riffing on a theme at the diffusion line Versus, where Christopher Kane presented models in sports couture – silk shifts with zip details and striped knit dresses – on a catwalk decorated as a basketball court.
Stripes are, of course, a signature at Missoni too, but key to the spring/summer collection was an exploration of shape within the tensile zig-zags so beloved by fans of this label. Flamenco ruffles were added to asymmetrical tops and dresses, layered over slim-fitting trousers, while shoes were decorated with over-sized flowers, and earrings dripping with enamel fish are sure to be hits with more light-hearted customers.
This lightness of touch is something inherent to Consuelo Castiglioni's expression at Marni, where strong femininity was again underplayed with sweetness. Tiered apron-cut dresses and Bauhaus-inspired leather lozenge prints came on dresses and skirts, layered over sheer organza. "My starting point was the innocence of a child," she commented after the show, and the eclectic sensibility of the collection showed in plastic and sequin embroidery, as well as photoprinted crochet on tailored separates.
There has been a tendency among designers to batten down the hatches in the face of the coming storm, but not in Milan. For the Italians, next season is about personality and, diverse though the visions may have been, shy and retiring types need not apply.
Pleats and ruffles: tight plissé panniers and panels at Bottega Veneta and Versace, and boxy car wash pleats at Versus.
Sheer: fine cotton layered with poplin at Jil Sander; panelled dresses and knits at MaxMara and Fendi, and at Pucci, boho skirts were daringly see-through.
Midriffs: the crop top was back at Prada, Dolce and Pucci – so get stomach-crunching.
Modern florals: digital impressionism at Sportmax, fuzzy boucle at Marni and bright tropical prints at Missoni.
Graphics: vegetables at Dolce & Gabbana, fruit at Moschino Cheap and Chic, cars at Prada and faces at Jil Sander.