February 26, 2010 8:45 pm

Cut back to austerity chic

The question of cutbacks, and how to make less into more, is not the preoccupation of politicians or budget chieftains alone. It is, increasingly, a way of thinking about the world; less a temporary means of solving a problem than a point of view.

How else to explain the fact that George Osborne, UK shadow chancellor, and Italian luxury house Fendi are on the same page with the austerity thing, or that Miuccia Prada believes “complicated is over – we have to make forms that are forever”? It sounds awfully like some of the prescriptions being bandied about for investment banks at the moment. When fashion gets its Swarovski-studded fangs into an issue, that issue becomes part of the zeitgeist.

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As designers are well aware. After all, the Prada show was held on a set inspired by a quote from a renaissance architect called Leon Battista Alberti: “A house is a small city and a city is a small house.” Translation: we are all microcosms of the world around us. And, at least when it comes to clothes, that’s no bad thing. Because when it comes to clothes, cutbacks generally mean, as Fendi’s Silvia Fendi said, “no gimmicks”. And no gimmicks tends to mean more substance.

Certainly, this was true at Fendi, as the house went back to its building blocks of leather goods and skins – the theme echoed, in case you didn’t get it, in a brick backdrop – keeping the ready-to-wear, which in the past has often looked overly tricksy and strained, as an easy base. So, for example, a terrific fur vest topped a mustard jersey dress, or a patchwork coat of three different kinds of fur backed by simple cashmere or “leather tweed” looked smart, in every sense of the word, over skinny suede trousers.

Colours were rooted in the natural world – taupe and moss green and earth tones – and fabrics were for the first time in many seasons not engineered; neither did they require a page-long explanation of their molecular components. Sometimes, limiting your options can spark creativity (the Conservative party, which has yet to detail how its vaunted “austerity” will evolve into policy, should perhaps take note).

Meanwhile, the benefits derived from being strict with your own desires were also on display at Alberta Ferretti, where the designer said she wanted women to realise they “need to be comfortable in their own skin”, and thus was inspired by ... well, skin. Or, specifically, skin-toned tulle, chiffon and silk, which came knife-pleated, ribbon-embroidered and draped in her signature shapes. However, though the rigour of the tone-on-tone effect created an interesting need for a double-take, it was ultimately diminished by the addition of heavy jewelled embroidery at neck, waist and hem. Meant to mimic haute tattoos, the extraneous decoration just weighed down the clothes’ otherwise incredible lightness of being on the body.

As did the bristling fur sleeves and wide belts at Gianfranco Ferré, where an aggressive, almost dominatrix-like attitude pervaded leather, cashmere and silk. It was only when designers Tommaso Aquilano and Roberto Rimondi relaxed a little – into plays on texture via woven, quilted and beaded combinations – that the toughness felt less like punishment and more like a contemporary virtue, and thus relevant.

This is why, when reporters crowd around the oracular Mrs Prada at the end of her shows to ask “what’s it all about, Miuccia?” (as they do pretty much every season without pause), she most often looks puzzled and says, as she did in Milan on Thursday: “It’s about what’s happening now.” Fashion is, as much as anything, a reflection of the moment.

And though many observers seemed puzzled in their turn by how Prada’s 1950s silhouettes – small shoulders, high waists, full skirts, distinct bosoms, all complete with ruffles both peeking out of the hemline and filling in the bust – could be about what was happening now, except maybe on television (someone asked: “Has she seen Man Men?”), in fact the clarity of shape and functionality of garment were, if clearly not no-frills, certainly stripped down conceptually.

Unlike the vintage dresses they referenced, the runway garments were made in movement-friendly fabrics such as knits and double-face cashmere, or jersey coated in plastic to suggest PVC without its icky reality, and in many ways were the continuation of an interior monologue begun in Prada’s own early days in the 1990s, when Mrs Prada first began exploring the idea of vintage and what the past represents to the present.

Essentially, she was plumbing her own history for an answer to the question of what real women want (answer: to have their femininity, clichéd or not, and functionality too), an approach that is both efficient and, in the case of perfectly proportioned peacoats with double-layer spread collars of fur under ribbed knit, or over-embroidered in jet, enticing. Think of it as creative economy. Or economic creativity. Hmmmm.

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