Milan Fashion Week: runway report 4

The day Italy went out to vote (which also happened to be the day the Academy Awards were revealed, but no one much seemed to care) the fashion world appeared as divided as the electorate – perhaps even more so, judging by the shows over the weekend.

You can understand it: the powers that be may start to look pretty different in a few days, but what exactly you will see is still anyone’s guess. So what should everyone else look like, especially a few months down the line? Do you go all in, or evolve your position incrementally? Opt for extremism or discretion? No one is compromising on their principles. As far as the catwalks, anyway.

Consider, for example, Versace, where Donatella Versace coined a new word for her vision: “Vunk,” a combination of “Versace” and “punk”.

This is not a joke, certainly not the Beppe Grillo kind, but a rallying cry for consumers interested in “fearlessly looking forward to a new glamour and a new rock ’n roll . . . There’s no reference to the past”. Out with the old! And for those with long Versace memories, Ms Versace wasn’t just referring to the absence of safety pins, as in that Liz Hurley dress, in the collection.

Rather, she meant in with the vinyl! The electric tartan! The not-in-nature fur! In with the nails, the spikes, the slices of skin!

Indeed, whatever you think of “Vunk” as a term (and truth is, it is too close to “gunk” and “skunk” and “funk” to be that effective as a slogan, though it did spark a lot of conversation by the catwalk) there was no question about the designer’s commitment to the concept; tossing out all pretence of moderation, she sent out vacuum-tight black vinyl trousers under plaid men's’ overcoats; paint-splashed T-shirts trapped by pin-paved harnesses; and evening gowns slashed here and there to let the skin out. It was way over-the-top, but it also had the courage of its own conviction.

As did Bottega Veneta, though at the opposite extreme: external adornment of any kind save raffia (raffia?) was eschewed and the materials themselves were correspondingly anti-luxe and anti-bling. “The collection is about precision, ease and the simple beauty of the material,” said Tomas Maier, creative director. Read that as an exploration of the possibilities of wool: bonded (to satin, chiffon), washed, boiled and otherwise elevated far from its expected zone.

Some of that was beautiful – sheath dresses with felted wool and satin appliquéd on the front like arts of abstract art; a simple V-neck sweater over a skirt given shape not through pleating, but rather external folds around the hips; and some were tricky, especially dresses and coats that involved body-bulking origami-like structure, but either way it was visually engaging; the drama hidden in, but not obscured by, the details.

Given that Bottega has just reported almost a billion euros in revenue for 2012, an increase of 38.5 per cent over 2011, this seems a case of people voting with their wallets – except that just before the Versace show, Gian Giacomo Ferraris, their chief executive, was also expounding happily on their numbers. And so it went, with each side claiming victory (relatively speaking) and the sartorial pendulum swinging wildly to and fro.

Robert Cavalli, for example, also trumpeted a sales increase of 23.4 per cent in 2012 in its wholly owned stores before debuting a runway presentation that reinterpreted “flora and fauna” as seen in work by Caravaggio and Rubens to create “cubist fantasies . . . for women who do not have an ordinary personality”. Subtle it was not.

Instead, it was full of print and fur and fringe and studs and chains, sometimes all at once, as in a mini-skirt-suit; sometimes two at a time, as in a long black chiffon dress studded with crystals or dual-print trousers under multicoloured fur; but at no time was it understated.

This was also the case at Aquilano.Rimondi, where designer Roberto Rimondi and Tommaso Aquilano fell down an overdecorated Alice-in-Wonderland-themed Roman rabbit hole, mixing the baroque with the rococo and a Queen of Hearts (and spades) print, as well as celeb-favoured house Emilio Pucci, where Peter Dundas said he was going for a “reset punch”.

This sounds like something everyone could use, but translated as jewelled tops plus Pucci print minis plus leopard skin belts plus thigh-high boots, or jersey dresses plus swiss dot plus lace plus lots of peekaboo skin – not to mention jewelled shorts instead of trousers and pastel fur chubbies. The theory being, it seemed, why use one ingredient when 10 (or 12, or 15) can make the point better?

Assuming they can. If they can?

It’s the question of the moment, at least in fashion, and one that was at the heart of Jil Sander, where the eponymous designer has made a signature out of stripping womenswear down to its purist form. So simple below-the-knee skirts were seamed to fall straight in the front and hug the curves of the body in the back before fanning out in a slightly asymmetric hem; T-shirts were cut just a bit larger and on the curve; tailored overcoats in cashmere or glossy ponyskin; and strapless dresses were made with a skirt structured via folds (different folds from Bottega) to bell out just a bit higher than the waist. The only decoration came in the form of a random gold stripe running down the back, or part of the side, of a garment and seams sewn on the outside to create a ruff.

The collection had the grace of refusal, no doubt, but it also lacked urgency; these clothes didn’t demand anything – attention or that jolt of recognition for an unidentified self – besides respect. Which isn’t always the most potent emotion.

Still, it makes for a dramatic choice for consumers. When it comes to pret-a-porter, this is often seen as good because it means there’s something for everyone, but in practical terms (what to wear?) it can be confusing. And in fashion, as in life, that risks leaving people feeling simply – well – disenfranchised.

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