January 12, 2014 8:52 pm

Milan Fashion Week: Menswear runway report 1

Heritage is a popular word in menswear, usually applied to those brands currently dressing young men as if they spent their lives hunting and fishing, rather than staring at the screen of their MacBook Air. Little wonder, then, that on day one of the Milan autumn/winter 2014 menswear shows, heritage was on display in myriad ways, some positive, others less so.

At Dolce & Gabbana, for example, it was all about heritage – not their own labels’, though the snug fit of their suits is still their trademark, but rather Sicily’s. This season they went to an extreme, with a collection heavily influenced by the Norman invasion of 1061. That’s 953 years ago.

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So featured archive images were printed on to a fast stream of garments, such as royal crests on loose shearling tops, suits of armour on tailored suits and Norman architecture hand-painted on a coat. Throughout, I was desperate to find anything contemporary. There was one simple grey sweater. When pushed off the head of one model, the knit hood looked like a hoodie. Some models wore sneakers. Refuge couldn’t be taken in the tailoring either, since most had a sewn flat lapel of a separate fabric from the rest of the suit, an effect that can only look tricksy.

At least at the end notes were handed out so the audience could appear deeply knowledgeable about the time: the show, it turned out, was inspired the Norman kings including Ruggero I, Ruggero II, Tancredi and, my favourite, Manfredi. What next? Sicily in the Jurassic era? The point was, the 21st century was of little concern.

Afterwards, I asked a couple of buyers if anyone was snapping up these sorts of historical pieces, which the brand has been putting on the catwalk the past few seasons. The answer was no: their Dolce & Gabbana businesses were built on the contemporary pieces they find in the non-catwalk precollections. If there is no groundswell desire for these pieces, why do they dominate the show? A return to modern life at Dolce & Gabbana would be most welcome.

Meanwhile, speaking of the Jurassic era, for his second collection at Ermenegildo Zegna, designer Stefano Pilati sported a black sweater with triangles of dinosaur ridges fringing the sleeves. “It symbolises the palaeontological obsession with fashion,” he said backstage. The triangles had appeared fringing the sleeves and back of a slouchy cardigan on the catwalk and showed Mr Pilati trying to inject some fashion into the world of Zegna. He doesn’t need to. The looks worked well when they were simple, speaking to both Zegna’s heritage of sober clothing and to Mr Pilati’s own best work.

Mr Pilati said that 80 per cent of the fabrics came from Zegna’s own mills. From such cloth he cut coats of particular crispness, especially the city coat that went on top of a full navy suit look. This sleek idea of outerwear devoid of bulk and of a weave that has pleasing tautness is something Mr Pilati began exploring last season and that was visible on many of the London catwalks. The same crispness was there in double-faced coats of cashmere inside and Shetland wool outside. One of the non-Zegna fabrics was a Japanese nylon, used to great effect on a loose, hooded and quilted poncho.

But often too much attention was paid to trickery, rather than refinement. A section of coats and sweaters were cut with long scarves evolving out of the neckline. Nice, but what if one day you do not want a scarf? It felt like Mr Pilati testing the boundaries of what is possible at Zegna, which is understandable. But it felt conflicted and that is unnecessary. Mr Pilati excels when he relaxes, as he did last season.

There was no single designer named as responsible for the Jil Sander collection. Sander herself quit last year for personal reasons (for the third time) and for the moment, the design team has stepped in. These unnamed folk did the best job they could. The stores that stock the brand will find some pieces they can sell, especially the two-tone knits with the colours coming together in a checkerboard at the midriff. The pieces felt Jil Sander-ish, paying polite observance to the designer’s great modernist heritage, which will probably do for now. How this house can continue to have any relevance is a mystery, however, words I feel sad to type.

Mind you, fashion is full of reversals of fortune. For the early part of the 21st century, Versace’s menswear was in the doldrums. To see some of those shows, you would never think the label had a future. How things change. Right now, Versace is reporting a 46 per cent increase in its menswear business last year – alluring news for those interested in snapping up the minority stake they are offering.

Since the H&M collaboration in 2011, something has been unleashed, particularly among young men. Before the show, Donatella Versace said these customers want the Versace in the extreme. “The question is not, ‘Is it too much?’,” she said, “It’s ‘Is it enough?’.” Her answer: embroidered jeans; quilted leather; silk shirts with a new digital print; and a tuxedo made from a bouclé spun with real gold thread. The theme was western meets biker. Cue nods to fetishisation: portfolio bags attached to the wrist by a chained handcuff, fingerless gloves, chaps. Yes, leather chaps, worn to show off the bandanna print underwear beneath. The show was a riot and entirely rooted in the Versace tradition. Their roots were showing. Ka-ching.

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