Last updated: February 28, 2010 6:55 pm

Precisely stated concept of chic

Milan, like the rest of the world, woke up at the weekend to the news of the Chilean earthquake. For a moment fashion paused in acknowledgement of the world outside the shows, the tragedies beyond our control, and the reality that people have many things to think about other than clothes. Natural disaster, national bankruptcy, elections, healthcare – you name it, it takes priority.

This is not to say that clothes do not matter (everyone has to get dressed in the morning), but that the mental space devoted to clothes is increasingly limited. And, although the latest natural disaster occurred on day three of the Italian shows, what happened afterwards made it clear that Milanese designers had, apparently, been thinking this way for a while – or at least for the few months that it takes to put a collection together.

Because what was on the runways, although it was not particularly directional in a macro, where-fashion-is-going kind of way, was notably direct. As Giorgio Armani said before his show: “Times change and change brings with it a new concept of chic . . . all is precisely stated in shape and colour.”

Put another way, there is no time to waste faffing about with showpieces and costume (if you want to do that, you can do it as Mr Armani does, via the real-life avatar that is Lady Gaga). Just get to the product.

Which is what Armani did, with a classic show focusing on softly draped knee-length skirts or shorts (you can wear them with tights); neat jackets with side closures; luxurious velvet capes; and all of the above beaded or sequined for a practical way to negotiate the night.

It was not wave-making, but it was confident and straightforward in its appeal, as were MaxMara’s terrific cashmere and flannel greatcoats, nipped in at the waist with a man’s leather belt, and their elegant long-sleeved high-necked maxi dresses in grey or gold, either way skimming the body to the thigh and then seamed for movement and stride.

The collection was, said the house, “a return to tradition”, and it was a good idea.

Case in point: Versace, where Donatella Versace sent out an army of Amazonian females in biker jackets and leather trousers, sharp-as-steel greatcoats with seams zipped, or unzipped, from ankle to waist, the better to fly out forcefully behind, and body-conscious mini-dresses built from a metallic geometry.

Her Wonder Women were not exactly subtle, but they were immensely energising, and they stood in stark contrast to the women on view at Jil Sander, where Raf Simons had found inspiration in – wait for it – “executive tailoring”.

There is no question that is a harder thought process to explain. Most executives, after all, do not find their tailoring full of creative spark – flattering and functional, maybe. And indeed, the results were complicated to parse: terrific plaid jackets and skinny trousers that created a sort of mod C-suite style were followed by inexplicable, close-to-the-body playsuits and jumpsuits, which were, presumably, a play on the idea of the suit, albeit one that did not entirely come off. There were also yawn-inducing skirt suits, and a terrific wool sheath dress, the sides pieced together like an octagon to delineate the waist and hips.

Ultimately, the subtext to the show was the same issue that has been running throughout, the very basic: “What constitutes sartorial power?”. However, where Simons digressed with his peers was in how nuanced he felt his answers needed to be.

At the moment, complications in fashion, as with complications in medicine, are just not what you want, as was also clear at Marni, where the decision to return to the house’s art gallerist roots was both good (when trousers and skirts came cropped and slightly unfinished, paired with a matching T-shirt tunic appliquéd with representations of works by painter Gary Hume, and shaved furs were printed with flowers) and bad (when tops were given a peplum; extra padding on the hips is never a good idea).

Still, between Versace’s whack-you-over-the-head obvious and Sander’s and Marni’s more convoluted semiology there is a middle ground, and at Bottega Veneta Tomas Maier found it. Wisely retiring his ultra-discrete lady of the lunch, he took the house’s leather history and embraced it with both arms, sending out a plethora of black leather shirts, coat dresses, suits and easy trousers that managed to be both tough and elegant, making them together tough to ignore.

Cocktail dresses and parkas in jade green and amethyst taffeta were scrunched up like cotton and worn over black-mesh bodysuits; scarabs crawled over extravagantly embroidered breatsplates that topped simple little black sillk shifts; and tuxedos were as smooth as a 20-year-old scotch.

Only the finale of long dresses fell flat, with too much material flopping around the body, like a going-through-the-motions nod to the niche of red carpet possibilities and the upcoming Oscars.

Of course, maybe that was a bit of misdirection. Just in case someone had been distracted by a Google news update, and needed to be reminded that just for that second, and here of all places, they were supposed to be focusing on skirts.

 

Too much va-va-voom and not enough living in the real world

 

Not every collection was so direct, of course; some were directionless and others went off in notably different, and occasionally inexplicable, directions.

At Etro, for example, safari shirting got mixed up with tribal jewellery and asymmetric Chinese silk drapery, which in turn bumped up against tweed skirts and silver-beaded vests in a confusing amalgamation of influences.

At Brioni, luxe tailoring took an odd detour into Little Lord Fauntleroy territory via knickbockers. And at Moschino, urban cowgirls went riding willy-nilly over the fashion landscape in faux Chanel suits hung in gold chains, lace bustiers, Pierrot ruffs-turned-skirts and flamenco ruffles.

Then there was Pucci, where designer Peter Dundas put his own schizophrenic creative psyche on display, alternating between quite cool long-sleeved, high-necked, bare-backed, ankle-grazing dresses in jersey and silk covered by Pucci swirls, slick 1970s-style flared trousers with cropped jackets and heavily fringed scarves, and ultra-mini-dresses in black or gold lace or sequins, often laced up the back or front for wholly unnecessary extra va-va-voom. There is no question Pucci has a heritage of sex and seduction, but many of the latter dresses tipped into vulgarity and jarred in the context of past and present.

At Gucci, by contrast, designer Frida Giannini was all about heritage – Gucci’s, as seen in the 1970s, as redone in the 1990s, and as redone today – and though the results were slick and often chic, the collection had a disquietingly retro feeling, as though the clothes, good as they were, represented another time and a way for women to exist in the world that just did not seem relevant anymore.

So razor-cut trousers appeared under unbuttoned silk shirts that looked like the velvet hipsters with silk shirt Madonna made famous in 1995, only these were topped by cropped fox jackets and the trousers had a bit of a fold at the dropped waist, and body-conscious white jersey dresses were slashed here and there along diagonal seams to show a bit of skin, kind of like Tom Ford’s 1996 collection, but less languid and more demanding. By evening things had turned darker, with short confections of python chantilly lace over-beaded in vinyl sequins and often finished with an ostrich feather shrug, so the net effect was of a dangerous mythical creature prowling the road to Olympus.

But here is the point: reality is more immediately absorbing than any fantasy today.

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