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In Milan the party invitations have been flying fast and furious. Come to the opening of the Giorgio Armani show at the Triennale; Mr Armani’s wonderful Guggenheim show has finally come home to roost! Come to the MCM party at 10 Corso Como (just a few days after the Margiela dinner at 10 Corso Como, in honour of the Belgian designer’s Artisanal series, old clothes remade into new histories), there will be a DJ! Come to the opening of the new Malo store, come celebrate Bally’s book, Bally since 1851; come to Sergio Rossi designer Edmundo Castillo’s housewarming. Come toast Priya Tanna, the new editor of the new magazine, Vogue India.

Now, guess which of these was the hot ticket.

If you answered G – ie, the last event – you would have been right. In the confines of Savini, a restaurant in the vaulted splendor of the Galeria near the Duomo, Giorgio Armani, Alberta Ferretti, Matthew Williamson and Santo Versace raised a glass – champagne of course – to the woman who would be their gateway to the Next Big Buying Public. Nothing excites the fashion crowd these days like emerging markets and globalisation (all those new consumers!) and nowhere is this more true than in Milan, a city that has always been very interested in opportunities to expand by brand building. Increasingly, however, it’s starting to seem this may be at the cost of creativity.

Consider, for example, the case of Gucci. As far as big brands go, Gucci is one of the biggest, with hundreds of stores all over the world (and new ones planned this year for India). The theory goes that this sort of brand expansion should not cause an aesthetic dilution, because the Gucci customer is a certain kind of woman – young, jet set, seductively happy – and she exists in more or less the same form globally. And yet . . . and yet . . . it was hard to see the parade of tweed culottes, gold-zip-bedecked leather bomber jackets, skinny trousers and fluttery silk mini dresses and shirts designer Frida Giannini sent out during her autumn/winter show and not think: anodyne.

Giannini said she was inspired by Lee Miller, “the trailblazing model and photographer of the 1940s” – ie, the first Gucci woman – and you could see it in hers – slightly squared-off pagoda puffed sleeves, dipping necklines and short flippy skirts, and certainly in the finale of black silk crepe evening gowns with diamante epaulets, belts, and thistle designs. Pretty, but not the sort of thing that stayed in your head (unlike the elaborate new Hobo bags, which did).

Still, this is not the same thing as saying the clothes will not sell. One of the truths of fashion is that most people just want a pretty dress to wear, or a nice suit for work, not something that challenges or advertises their value system. The confidence to do this – make nice stuff without a lot of ideas attached – has been a hallmark of the newer generation of designers such as Giannini, who knows what she wants to wear, and doesn’t much care what her non-target market says. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine the skinny trousers, cute blouses, and one very cool short tux dress moving briskly out of shops the world over. It’s just that they are not moving fashion along at the same time.

Still, as Giannini was, so were so many others. At Emporio Armani, out came a parade of sherbert-tinted party dresses and little bubble miniskirts, some adorned by decorative bows, some sporting beaded fringes. What can you say? Many were cute (although not the strapless ones with the bows bobbing over the breasts) but none were grown-up. However, given that Armani is one of the biggest private luxury companies in the fashion world, presumably he knows what his customer wants – whoever she might be, in whatever country.

Meanwhile, at MaxMara, things took a more questionable turn, with military-inspired maxi-coats (everyone can use one), diamante-sprinkled yeti-fringe dresses (stay away), and eye-piercing blue and orange plaid stirrup pants (enough said). At Salvatore Ferragamo, a shoe house fast trying to grow into a global brand (according to Michele Norsa, chief executive, it plans an initial public offering in 2008), it was all wide-cut trousers, heavy beaded evening dresses, and luxe, luxe, luxe. The thinking, apparently: if you get the glamour shoes, why not get the glamour suits?

Then there was Pucci, where designer Matthew Williamson began well, with pop 1960s tangerine and raspberry shifts and swingy jackets, but soon descended into a morass of print-plus-crystal-plus-metal-accents-under fur, all too blingy for business – if the bling crowd is, indeed, the target. Finally, at DAKS, just re-launching its luxury line with designer Giles Deacon, clothing got significantly more adult, with grey flannel pencil skirt suits (suits!), a graphic moss green, silver satin and black wool coat, and nicely covered up wool and velvet dresses. It was a step toward a certain customer for the brand, which had not had much of an identity at all before, although the chunky knits and lumpy men’s-cut coats confused the issue a bit. (And please guys, lose the stupid headgear. Tilted plates? Really.)

It was not until Roberto Cavalli, however, that it became absolutely clear which international audience a designer was aiming for – and that was thanks to two people sitting smack dab in the centre of his front row: actress Sharon Stone and rocker Steven Tyler.

How else to explain, after all, the retro Veronica Lake styling and exit after exit of silver screen gowns: billowing chiffon dresses open to the navel; white satin one-shoulder goddess numbers; a gold sequinned leopard sheath – all interspersed by Katherine Hepburn type safari/jodphur suits? It may have seemed like old-fashioned glamour redux to most of the audience, whose lives do not include red carpets or African Queens, but judging by the reaction of Miss Stone, it was pitch perfect. She is his customer. Presumably, somewhere in the world – maybe even in India – there are others like her.

And perhaps, in the end, this is all fashion should be about: pleasing women by giving them something to wear to a party. But I can not help thinking that it should also be about discovery; about seeing in a garment your own possibilities, so that it becomes more than Show Me The Money – it becomes Show Me Myself.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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