Harriet Walker finds Milan awash with exotic hues and classic cuts

Italian fashion is known for its opulence and business bravura, but the shows in Milan yesterday catered to a more sophisticated uptown crowd: those with cash to splash but who prefer their wealth not to be conspicuous.

The luxury label Bottega Veneta first unveiled the slogan "when your own initials are enough" in the 1970s, but it seems just as apposite today, when recession threatens to overwhelm all but the most exclusive of markets and when customers who are still paying upwards of £1,000 for a dress may not wish to shout about it.

For high-end consumers who prefer not to divulge the cost of their clothing, Bottega Veneta offeredsuperb quality and craftsmanship, as well as nonchalant anonymity.

But this was not a show of ultra-luxe beige separates. Tomas Maier, the fashion house's creative director, based his colourful designs on a range of multicultural influences.

"It's about being open," he said after the show. "It's about opening your eyes in your city and realising that there is no need to travel far for inspiration."

This message was driven home in exotic hues of indigo, burnt orange and tourmaline, seen in classic creations that played with surface and finish. Marbled silk prints gave an added dimension to a bustier dress with a tiered pleated skirt and suspender straps, while cotton dresses were gilded with over-layers of PVC and panels of polyester in a collection that celebrated the unexpected and invited much closer inspection.

Floor-length finale evening gowns made from chiffon came in fiery red, murky violet and streaked jacquard, shimmering and shape-shifting with the model's every movement.

If this was one interpretation of modern elegance, then at Jil Sander, creative director Raf Simons chose its opposite, with a collection of streamlined pieces described as "romantic". Given the label's purist credentials, romance does not come by way of wafty organza but from Jil Sander's signature piece, the white shirt. Button-front dresses with external coat panels built into them were followed by sheer poplin pencil skirts, then A-lines and cocktail dresses, culminating in a white tailored shirt that fell to a fluid, full skirt trailing along the catwalk.

"I was thinking about how women treat other women," Simons explained, "about what women give to other women, what they take from other women. Like at the beauty parlour."

There was certainly a small-town Fifties element to the collection, even in pieces that looked at first to be more futurist than feminine, as with neon paisley printed dresses, a slim-fitting gingham trouser suit and a shimmering, minimally constructed tartan jacket. Citing Picasso as a reference point, Simons adorned fitted, crocheted knitwear with cubist geometries and misshapen faces.

Also on the schedule yesterday was Emporio Armani and Sportmax, the diffusion line from the MaxMara design house. Both collections used sparkle to holographic effect: the former on hoop-hem mini-dresses with tailoring that came in a purely monochromatic palette, and the latter to create an underwater effect, with multicoloured diamantes and sequins that gave skirts and loose-fitting jackets the look of mermaids' tails.

The penultimate day of shows in Milan today sees Dolce & Gabbana and Missoni, among others, present their spring/summer 2012 collections.