June 28, 2013 7:42 pm

The luxury of choice

The Milan menswear shows felt like an advert for an action-man vacation: no one’s going to relax next summer
Designs from Ermenegildo Zegna, Bottega Veneta, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana©Catwalking

Ermenegildo Zegna, Bottega Veneta, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana

At this week’s Milan menswear shows, the topic seemed not so much fashion as luxury. Or the lack of it. With Italy’s current economic and political woes, the old Milanese boastfulness about luxury has evaporated. It’s not just an indicator regarding the health of the high-end brands, but also partly a result of the fact that over the past decade, luxury became fashion. The problem is: if luxury has lost its meaning, what happens to fashion now?

The issue came into stark relief because, despite all this, a new pure luxury label was born during the collection – seemingly out of nowhere. Of course Ermenegildo Zegna has existed for more than a century, and is now owned by the fourth generation of the Zegna family. But this season, ex-YSL designer Stefano Pilati made his debut at the house, and gave Zegna for the first time design relevance and a questioning, contemporary air.

Pilati’s clothes had both suppleness and stature, a feat achieved through cut and cloth. The tailoring was fitted but with room for the body to move, and at its best when trousers complimented, rather than matched, the jacket. Fluid summer coats, something of a theme throughout the season, looked a pleasure to wear. Pilati orchestrated a vast leap forward for Zegna, without scaring the legions of men worldwide who rely on the brand for their sober suits.

The luxury of it all was clear, a great contrast to the over-rising theme elsewhere in Milan, which was: sportswear. At Gucci this meant bonded windcheaters and over-the-head hooded anoraks, as well as macs with flush concealed pockets; at Emporio Armani zip-up hooded nylons; at Salvatore Ferragamo a mish-mash of sports, resulting in zip-up hoodies with alarming elastication pulling in the small of the back. These pieces were often bonded with or formed from leathers as if to justify their existence. But the ubiquitous replacement of luxury with sport began to seem strident and unconvincing at a certain point, like when you see paparazzi photos of oligarchs spending months on their superyachts and think, “shouldn’t you be at work?”

Of course many of the brands do have sportswear as part of their heritage. Guccio Gucci created much of the myth around his name by borrowing from equestrianism. Many of the clothes sent out by current creative director Frida Giannini looked fun, but felt more functional than immediately desirable. That only came from a lone silk floral top, the billow of which spoke of the decadence that luxury fashion once had; the lure of a life you might dream of living.

Otherwise, the shows felt like an advert for an action-man vacation: no one’s going to relax next summer. It’s as if men will need to keep themselves busy and their minds off tax evasion charges back home.

Speaking of which – these were probably the words uttered most in Milan and, in the complex and still-ongoing case of Dolce & Gabbana, understood least. Their show was a strange affair, not just thanks to the male streaker who ran on to the catwalk at the end but the fact that the brand’s signature focus on a romantic ideal of Sicily, Domenico Dolce’s birthplace, took the form this season of prints of Sicilian ruins. Make the jokes yourself.

Design from Prada©Catwalking

Prada spring/summer 2014

Seen in isolation, much of the work was beautiful but fashion can’t exist in isolation, and Dolce & Gabbana are becoming increasingly insular in their design. More diversity of ideas might bring in more customers. More customers would mean more business. You get the idea.

Which doesn’t mean there wasn’t much that appealed at the shows. Jil Sander put her full rigour into a collection of colour and print, with zip-ups and shorts so wide they looked like skirts. Bottega Veneta was at its best when it was easiest, as with a printed check polo worn with trousers of a different check. Italo Zucchelli at Calvin Klein Collection, a long-term sportswear fan, showed that sporty zip-ups are not just for a season but for life. Versace went iconic, bringing back staples such as studded leather jackets, alongside excellent new prints on T-shirts and sweats that mimic sports tape. Giorgio Armani highlighted the strength of his own soft tailoring heritage, and should be given respect for allowing young designer Andrea Pompilio to show in his venue.

Pompilio’s collection was notably marked by commercially-minded product. Hopefully the schedule can begin to fill with similar young designers. During the shows, a press conference was held by Milan fashion’s ruling body, Camera Nazionale della Moda, to present its new board and vision. Industry titans such as Prada’s Patrizio Bertelli, Tod’s Diego Della Valle and Ermenegildo Zegna talked much about the importance of the fashion business, though as yet offered little concrete detail about how to shift Milan out of its current stagnancy. Maybe some altruism like Armani’s would be a good start.

In other words, while Milan delivered some nice clothes, and an obvious editorial message, there was a half-heartedness over the concept of luxury itself without anything like enough fashion oomph coming in to replace it. As a result, the week felt rather lacking in conviction. And if the designers are not convinced, why should consumers be?

At least Miuccia Prada made a strong case, with Hawaiian print shirts and blousons, patterned luggage complete with childlike tags, and an array of sneakers – all products the brand has excelled at before but that have recently been overlooked. It was good to have them back, with new patterns, new designs, and a whole new context. The Prada show, like the one at Zegna, provided a moment of clarity in a city and industry beset with confusion. And clarity, of course, is a luxury in itself.

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For slideshows and daily reviews of all the men’s S/S 2014 collections, see www.ft.com/fashionweeks

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