February 24, 2013 4:37 pm

Milan Fashion Week: runway report 4

Versace, Bottega, Pucci and Sanders appears as divided as Italian voters

The day Italy went out to vote (which also happened to be the day the Academy Awards were revealed, but no one much seemed to care) the fashion world appeared as divided as the electorate – perhaps even more so, judging by the shows over the weekend.

You can understand it: the powers that be may start to look pretty different in a few days, but what exactly you will see is still anyone’s guess. So what should everyone else look like, especially a few months down the line? Do you go all in, or evolve your position incrementally? Opt for extremism or discretion? No one is compromising on their principles. As far as the catwalks, anyway.

Consider, for example, Versace, where Donatella Versace coined a new word for her vision: “Vunk,” a combination of “Versace” and “punk”.

This is not a joke, certainly not the Beppe Grillo kind, but a rallying cry for consumers interested in “fearlessly looking forward to a new glamour and a new rock ’n roll . . . There’s no reference to the past”. Out with the old! And for those with long Versace memories, Ms Versace wasn’t just referring to the absence of safety pins, as in that Liz Hurley dress, in the collection.

Rather, she meant in with the vinyl! The electric tartan! The not-in-nature fur! In with the nails, the spikes, the slices of skin!

Indeed, whatever you think of “Vunk” as a term (and truth is, it is too close to “gunk” and “skunk” and “funk” to be that effective as a slogan, though it did spark a lot of conversation by the catwalk) there was no question about the designer’s commitment to the concept; tossing out all pretence of moderation, she sent out vacuum-tight black vinyl trousers under plaid men's’ overcoats; paint-splashed T-shirts trapped by pin-paved harnesses; and evening gowns slashed here and there to let the skin out. It was way over-the-top, but it also had the courage of its own conviction.

As did Bottega Veneta, though at the opposite extreme: external adornment of any kind save raffia (raffia?) was eschewed and the materials themselves were correspondingly anti-luxe and anti-bling. “The collection is about precision, ease and the simple beauty of the material,” said Tomas Maier, creative director. Read that as an exploration of the possibilities of wool: bonded (to satin, chiffon), washed, boiled and otherwise elevated far from its expected zone.

Some of that was beautiful – sheath dresses with felted wool and satin appliquéd on the front like arts of abstract art; a simple V-neck sweater over a skirt given shape not through pleating, but rather external folds around the hips; and some were tricky, especially dresses and coats that involved body-bulking origami-like structure, but either way it was visually engaging; the drama hidden in, but not obscured by, the details.

Marni-Armani forge old ideas in new light

Between the maximalist and the minimalist poles in Italian womenswear there is, of course, a third approach: the centrists, who take a bit from both, forging sometimes surprising alliances. Into this category fall Marni, where designer Consuelo Castiglione has made a name for herself by combining an architectural simplicity with the judicious use of bling and Emporio Armani, where Giorgio Armani has married his trademark easy suiting with a lively, though not too challenging, sense of sartorial adventurism.

Judging by fashion mogul Renzo Rosso’s decision to become a majority investor in Marni last December, adding it to his stable of brands such as Diesel and Maison Martin Margiela, there’s an industrialist faith in this position. However, it can also lead to a brand trying to be too many things for too many people, risking the loss of its own specific point of view. What was the case this season?

Both, it turned out.

At Emporio, Mr Armani continued what has been a recent fascination with Asia, calling his collection “Kajal” after the kohl-like mineral used in make-up, and showing easy, Jaipur-print silk pyjama pants with matching tunics – mixed with 1920s cloche hats and bowlers; timeless muted pastel flannel trousers and jackets; wide mohair trousers (mohair trousers?!) paired with organza shirts; and jewel-toned ankle-length velvet dropped-waist dresses.

In other words, the clothes were pulled in many directions at once: not just east, but west, south and north, too, as well as back to the past and while some of it was wonderfully wearable, some of it was a little weird. Just when you had situated your mind in time and place – bam! – off you went through a designer wormhole somewhere else.

At least at Marni, Ms Castiglione focused on only two latitudes: the contrasts between “severity and grace, opacity and shine,” which she navigated, it turned out, terrifically well.

In a collection based on pared-down menswear wools and shapes – tailored cropped trousers, below-the-knee straight skirts, strapless peplumed tops, simple sheaths – luxed-up via shiny beaver trim on skirts and shoulders, she showed that the right ideas, carefully chosen, can add up to more than the sum of their parts. Indeed, without the tension inherent in such oppositions, the same silhouettes (in silks printed with wood scenes, or cracked pottery; oversize coats in shaggy fur or fuzzy mohair) were notably less interesting; not bad, but not particularly inspiring either.

Judicious unexpected juxtapositions, in fashion at least, force the consideration of old ideas in a new light. Who knew how good they could look?

Given that Bottega has just reported almost a billion euros in revenue for 2012, an increase of 38.5 per cent over 2011, this seems a case of people voting with their wallets – except that just before the Versace show, Gian Giacomo Ferraris, their chief executive, was also expounding happily on their numbers. And so it went, with each side claiming victory (relatively speaking) and the sartorial pendulum swinging wildly to and fro.

Robert Cavalli, for example, also trumpeted a sales increase of 23.4 per cent in 2012 in its wholly owned stores before debuting a runway presentation that reinterpreted “flora and fauna” as seen in work by Caravaggio and Rubens to create “cubist fantasies . . . for women who do not have an ordinary personality”. Subtle it was not.

Instead, it was full of print and fur and fringe and studs and chains, sometimes all at once, as in a mini-skirt-suit; sometimes two at a time, as in a long black chiffon dress studded with crystals or dual-print trousers under multicoloured fur; but at no time was it understated.

This was also the case at Aquilano.Rimondi, where designer Roberto Rimondi and Tommaso Aquilano fell down an overdecorated Alice-in-Wonderland-themed Roman rabbit hole, mixing the baroque with the rococo and a Queen of Hearts (and spades) print, as well as celeb-favoured house Emilio Pucci, where Peter Dundas said he was going for a “reset punch”.

This sounds like something everyone could use, but translated as jewelled tops plus Pucci print minis plus leopard skin belts plus thigh-high boots, or jersey dresses plus swiss dot plus lace plus lots of peekaboo skin – not to mention jewelled shorts instead of trousers and pastel fur chubbies. The theory being, it seemed, why use one ingredient when 10 (or 12, or 15) can make the point better?

Assuming they can. If they can?

It’s the question of the moment, at least in fashion, and one that was at the heart of Jil Sander, where the eponymous designer has made a signature out of stripping womenswear down to its purist form. So simple below-the-knee skirts were seamed to fall straight in the front and hug the curves of the body in the back before fanning out in a slightly asymmetric hem; T-shirts were cut just a bit larger and on the curve; tailored overcoats in cashmere or glossy ponyskin; and strapless dresses were made with a skirt structured via folds (different folds from Bottega) to bell out just a bit higher than the waist. The only decoration came in the form of a random gold stripe running down the back, or part of the side, of a garment and seams sewn on the outside to create a ruff.

The collection had the grace of refusal, no doubt, but it also lacked urgency; these clothes didn’t demand anything – attention or that jolt of recognition for an unidentified self – besides respect. Which isn’t always the most potent emotion.

Still, it makes for a dramatic choice for consumers. When it comes to pret-a-porter, this is often seen as good because it means there’s something for everyone, but in practical terms (what to wear?) it can be confusing. And in fashion, as in life, that risks leaving people feeling simply – well – disenfranchised.

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