Does a designer wear his (or her) politics on their sleeve? Or more pertinently, do they create clothes that do? Can you tell by looking at what’s on their runway how someone is going to vote? Such are the questions occupying Milan as the women’s 2013 autumn/winter shows get under way and Italy prepares to go to the polls. After all, what better way to while away the time between shows than by trying to parse fashion partisanship according to product?
And by that measure, designers seem to be coming down firmly, at least in the opening shows, on the chaste side, suggesting their allegiance may not be with Mr Bunga-bunga, aka Silvio Berlusconi. They haven’t gone wholly technocrat by any means, nor are they cracking any jokes or rebelling against sartorial norms – Mario Monti and Beppe Grillo shouldn’t count their sequins before they sparkle – but the catwalks felt notably subdued.
Alberta Ferretti, for example, sent out an ode to the old-fashioned, first in black and white (though if this election proves anything, it is that choices are never that binary) and then jewel tones, complete with high-necks, ruffled shirts, lace, velvet and tiers. Aside from one provocatively sheer lace dress at the end, even the almost-transparent (but not, thanks to carefully placed embroidery and layers) chiffon shirts had a chaste, old-fashioned air about them, paired as they were with sweet pleated skirts or floor-length numbers, like they belonged nowhere so much as the lid of a Valentine’s chocolate box.
Wool dresses in simple shapes – round necklines, bracelet sleeves, A-line skirts – were good girl discreet, enlivened only by sparing applications of jewelled floral embroidery. When a long-sleeved, long-skirted sapphire velvet gown, and a floor-length plaid coat with a priest’s collar appeared, it simply crystallised the mood.
At Fay, by contrast, designers Roberto Rimondi and Tommaso Aquilano sent out an ode to the brand’s 1960s heyday, all pop-bright plaids and super-mini skirts under neat little toggle coats and blazers. But though there were plenty of legs on show, there was again a naivety about the clothes: they referenced a time before rebellion and corruption, when freedom was a celebratory thing, not a licence to go off-course. It was cheerful, if limited, and unchallenging. What’s not to like about a neat little colour-blocked duffel?
Pointedly, both Ferretti and Fay showed most of their looks with flat shoes, the better to reference an age of innocence, as did Max Mara, though the footwear was trainer-like and solid – albeit rendered in suede and python (the preponderance of which on the Italian runways suggest that designers here are taking the “year of the snake” very literally) – reflective of a more technocrat-leaning collection focused on “practical elegance and functional simplicity”.
They claimed inspiration from the Bauhaus, and there were, indeed, explorations of volume on the runway, but generally the connection was obscured by the layers upon layers of oversize coats, menswear jackets, bombers, tunics, elongated cardigans and loose trousers, often shown all at once (hard to find the body under the bulk), most in 50 shades of camel, later segueing into those other basic colours: navy and black. The fabrics were heftier versions of old favourites – spun alpaca, moulton wool – and the message was one of solidity and protection, save for some weird elastic-waisted shiny “athletic” evening trousers paired with wrap tops, which just looked slippery.
Functionality and fur were also on the agenda at Fendi, which made the first overt semipolitical statement of the week with an in-your-face embrace of mink and fox, all dyed, striped and dotted in everything from coats and skirts to belts, bags and bootees. (In case you didn’t get it, however, designer Karl Lagerfeld also included a sketch of a look festooned with the slogans “Fur is Fendi, Fendi is fur” and “Fur is in the air” in a folder on every seat.)
Whether or not you agree with the position, the pelts were inarguably inventive and extraordinary, and by comparison the rest of the clothes looked simple: easy banana-shaped trousers, pencil skirts, wool coats cut on the curve, and a trio of long black dresses with fur straps and trim. The only exception were two tactile knee-length frocks with leather fringe bristling on the sleeves and shaved to a bobble-like shortness on the torso for an astonishing display of technical virtuosity.
Ultimately, it was all about the skins, as opposed to showing any skin.
Another way to think of it is as the triumph of skill over sex. Or so it seems on the catwalks, at least.