To survive in the luxury market these days, a brand must have a clear identity to exploit. Mass trends be damned: what these labels want to livestream from the shows is their absolute, indefatigable essence. Or so it seemed on Saturday in Milan, on day one of the city’s menswear shows.
See, for example, Dolce & Gabbana, who returned for the second season to Domenico Dolce’s birthplace of Sicily, not just for inspiration but also their cavalcade of street-cast models. It is a clever move, the real men softening Dolce & Gabbana’s classic black tailoring so they looked like a band of the faithful dutifully trekking down dusty Sicilian roads on the way to church.
It wasn’t all so sober. Velvet tops with jewelled religious imagery looked as if the choirboy had been caught wearing the altar piece. More intricate were patchworked tailored jackets, or those covered in a layer of lace that were an echo of the craftsmanship in their new women’s couture business. The Sicily theme is a winner, though it might work even better it if contrasted this romantic idea of the past with what men actually wear in Sicily today (probably sportswear from the defunct D&G line).
Jumping countries, we next found ourselves in the UK, spiritually if not literally, as Big Ben bonged at the beginning of Burberry’s show. Message: chief creative officer Christopher Bailey knew the heart of his brand was in London with the outerwear prerequisite for the local climate. For a show essentially presenting yet another round of coats (all available to pre-order online as they appeared), Bailey made it a hell of a lot of fun, particularly with his “love” heart shirts and sweater, and animal print shoes. Of those available-now coats there were many desirable winners, particularly the topcoat made informal by a duffel’s patch pockets, and the donkey jacket rendered in red and black Dennis the Menace stripes. Similarly comic book was an olive jumper of various cable knits sat in wide zigzag stripes, like someone had filled in Charlie Brown’s sweater – though the question of whether Bailey might move the Burberry men’s show back to London, like he has with his women’s, is no laughing matter.
Ermenegildo Zegna brought hearts and minds back to Italy, not to mention Stefano Pilati, the brand’s new creative director, who hails from the brand formerly known as Yves Saint Laurent. Mr Pilati’s debut at Zegna isn’t till next season, so he could relax at the men’s collection and show off his grey wool suit of a wide pinstripe, the jacket cardigan-snug, the trousers pleated and nicely roomy. As he sat, the trousers pulled up to reveal a fuchsia dress sock beneath, worn with a slip-on shoe. Afterwards, Mr Pilati said the look had been handmade for him at Zegna. It was the best outfit on show, and demonstrated that when Zegna is straightforward, as in a raglan sleeve grey city coat, it really works. More often, however, on the catwalk it showed pieces like a shawl-collar double-breasted coat that fastened fussily by zip rather than buttons. No need. More luxurious simplicity, please.
On to the land of minimalism and Jil Sander, where the show is traditionally a reverie of eloquence. In Ms Sander’s second men’s collection since she returned to her own label, much on the runway created that elevated state, from the opening double-breasted red suit to the sweaters of a blown-up check set on the diagonal. Yet the attempt to use massively oversized French collars felt like an experiment that had not reached its design resolution, particularly on an otherwise beautiful fading plaid coat, and it became a repeated – and unfortunately jarring – motif.
As for Versace, few brands have grasped the identity nettle so gleefully. After years of Donatella’s menswear trying to be anything but itself, she now delivers unashamed hyper-brand. To wit: denim jackets hand-painted in baroque swirls; super-shouldered zoot-suits; evening jackets worn over only (eeek) lace boxer briefs. The overall effect was purposefully over the top, but closer inspection revealed some fine design work at play, like Prince of Wales checks specially woven to look warped.
Will it have wider resonance? Who knows? What’s clear is Donatella is finally having fun with her family identity. On the catwalk, or online, as a statement, you can’t miss it.