Struggling with degrees of sexual definition

Sex is a complicated subject in not quite post-Berlusconi Italy. Not as complicated, perhaps, as taxes, but then – what is? After all, once upon a time an unabashed celebration of the id was the height of fashion, not just on the catwalks but in the halls of Rome, and, at least when it comes to the second, that didn’t end so well. Which leaves the first where, exactly? Over the weekend the struggle to answer the question played out on the catwalks, to varying degrees of success.

At the big three brands that defined the glamazon era, for example – Versace, Emilio Pucci and Roberto Cavalli – the tension between house signature and current state of the union was on full display.

Versace: bandage tops

It began, literally, at the beginning of Versace, when designer Donatella Versace seemed to pause for a moment to explore alternatives – metallic denim jackets with full glistening raffia skirts, or riotous florals, all bristling hardware – before replacing the jackets with bandage tops wrapped to show slices of skin; ruched chiffon skirts with equally ruched bras all bound up in silver chains (there’s probably a metaphor here, but we’ll ignore that); and ending with a series of sheer gowns held down by chunky Medusa heads over visible undergarments.

Perhaps Ms Versace thought the latter styles were what consumers expect from the house, and hence she’d better provide some, but in the end they felt less provocative than passé, and it was the not-quite-casual pieces that intrigued. It was as if Ms Versace was beginning to consider a different kind of allure, but hadn’t been able to commit. Maybe next season.

Meanwhile, at Emilio Pucci, which designer Peter Dundas has transformed into a go-to house for bombshells everywhere, Mr Dundas described his spring/summer outing as clothes with “a sporty heat [that] smoulders and then combusts . . . laced with luxury”. Sounds steamy, but a more straightforward way to think of it is: a bit of b-ball, a bit of boobs, and a lot of beading – all at the same time.

In practice this meant sweat pants in leather or Pucci patterned silk, mesh T-shirts and sweatshirts decorated to within a centimetre of the hem paired with equally glitzy tank tops and neoprene dresses, plus wrestler belts and jogging shorts, in a kind of Masai-Laker-girl-on-the-red-carpet style. Take the elements apart, and all of them have a certain power worth exploring, but put together they added up to less than the sum of their parts – perhaps because there were too many of them, something not the case at Roberto Cavalli, where the designer’s usual rock ’n roll ’n groupies luxe (lust?) took a soft-core turn to the Hollywood of yore, and for the positive.

Roberto Cavalli: slick trousers and jackets in snakeskin

Slick trousers and jackets in python and other skins studded and beaded in intricate patterns were paired with snakeskin print silk shirts and alternated with elongated flapper frocks, all in shades of dove grey, cream and pink, recalling a romanticised time without revealing too much (other than the fact the designer is a sucker for the myth of the silver screen, but in that, he’s not alone).

Which is not to say the body was entirely under wraps. Crocheted lace dresses played peekaboo with skin, and plunged open in the back – which increasingly seems like the new erogenous zone. What else to make of the fact that even a house such as Jil Sander, generally positioned as the intellectual yin to Cavalli and co’s corporeal yang, flirted with its fleshy edges? Or the fact that Marni, best known for its art-gallery conceptualism, also plunged necklines downward in front and back? As Mr Berlusconi said to the nation last week, “I will always be with you, at your side,” and, he might have added, “in your head.”

Ironically, when sex becomes an issue of national identity, it also becomes a subject for thought.

Jil Sander: cut tabard tops to bare sides

So, though Jil Sander wrote of “declarations of purity . . . a painterly moment . . . riddles of space”, and sent out a series of great cropped boy trousers with oversize jackets, bright prints and ultra-thin metallic knits, she also cut tabard tops to bare the sides, transformed pinafore straps into almost functional tops (best in a black and white feathered pattern), and cut shirts off at the ribs.

And though at Marni a terrific collection crystallised many of the trends that have emerged this week, from athletic influences to elaborate encrustation and ruffles (the first wisely reduced to striped elastic belts over fluid colour-bloc dresses, and mesh tunics; the second best in bristling paillettes on bomber jackets skirt suits but less good as 3D gardens on the same; and the last tracking vertically down the front of narrow skirts) it was the deep Vee reveals at the back in otherwise sedate, slouchy tops paired with three-quarter length skirts that surprised: a suggestive wink for a souvenir at the end.

Bottega Veneta: elaborate ruffs

It wasn’t until Bottega Veneta, however, that a designer seemed wholly uninterested in the question of what to show or what not to show (in body terms, that is). Rather, creative director Tomas Maier said he was “interested in allowing the fabric to take the lead,” which sounds like a recipe for concept and craft at the expense of clothes, but proved how seductive simple self-confidence can be.

Combining the ideas of simple cotton and elaborate ruffles, and the way the first can be elevated through cut, and the second rendered accessible through fabric, Mr Maier produced crisp shirts atop asymmetrically tiered skirts; frilled tanks over tailored shorts; jackets finished in the same elaborate ruffs; easy summer dresses in muted shades with mini frills at the bottom; and two-and-three-tone-and-texture frocks that managed to look both fancy and unaffected at the same time.

It was hard not to want to reach out and touch them. Naughty, naughty.

For a slideshow of all designers, as well as all the reviews from Milan, London and New York, go to

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.