Does sex still sell in Mario Monti’s Italy? That question forms the subtext of the Milanese spring/summer collections. After all, sex – the celebration of – was long a hallmark of many Italian houses, even in years before Silvio Berlusconi made it a part of the daily conversation.
Brands that didn’t overtly address the issue were defined by their opposition to it; the option for consumers who wanted to Just Say No.
Now that No is the word of the moment, however, has the alternative been given the upper hand? Are we in a post-sex state, not just politically, but sartorially too? Over the weekend, the answer was looking a lot like Yes.
When even Dolce & Gabbana, the house that built an empire on body-baring Siciliana, trades corsets and lingerie for “sea, sun and love,” aka a nostalgia-filled funfest of below-the-knee silk dresses in primary coloured puppetry prints; rough linen smocks painted like flour sacks or gorgeously embroidered in coral; awning stripes and pom-poms; and even basket weave bustiers, something is going on.
When Emilio Pucci, a champion of the plunge-neck jet set, touts the benefits of “strength on the inside and serenity on the outside”, it’s no coincidence. Granted, in Pucci’s case this seemed more theory than practice, as bodies were veiled in layers of white-on-white embroidered chinoiserie chiffon, itself veiled in another layer of transparency, and trouser suits were so sheer the seams provided the only cover. But the intent was there. (More protected, if dangerously courting cliché, were sportswear-inspired satin jumpsuits and army kimonos embroidered with gold dragons and tigers.)
The most relevant shows were the ones that eschewed flesh and flash for an altogether more strategic approach.
Beginning with the return of Jil Sander to the house that bears her name after eight years (she left because of creative differences with then-owner, the Prada Group). “Re-set to zero,” read her show notes, but she created a continuum both with her own past at the house and the work of her predecessor, Raf Simons, and his fascination with old couture. Using her signature purist idiom – white shirts, navy coats, neat trousers – she added an easy, curvilinear structure that looked happenstance but was built into a garment, so a coat might bell out at the back as though formed by a gust of air; a black shirt over matching trousers end in a half-moon swoop at the back; and a superb pair of marine blue shirtdresses tucked to drape just so.
If the finale of white cotton pieces polka-dotted with holographic plastic discs felt forced, overall these were the kind of minimally lush clothes that draw women, but men find puzzling; the shapes tease the contours of the body such that what you see gives no clue as to what you might get.
Just as they often do Marni, where designer Consuelo Castiglione used cotton and jacquard in oversize shapes, so squared-off tunics and dresses stood away from the body, embracing it occasionally via folds, but most often obscuring it. Bright wallpaper florals spackled with sequins and picnic blanket checks were the only prints in a sea of bloc colours that proved too enveloping to intrigue.
Still, the clothes shared a certain aerodynamic feel with Fendi, where Karl Lagerfeld relaxed into his best collection in seasons. Though his ready-to-wear for the house can seem as tricksy as the dazzling furs, this time around a focus on sportiness (designers seem helpless against the Olympic effect) in the form of drawstring waists and simple T-shirt and short shapes, and architecture, especially the Bauhaus and the coloured graphics of the Memphis movement, streamlined his tendency to complicate.
Dresses came with thick contrasting stripes at the seams and edges; leather was treated as casually as a fleece, and exploding super nova prints were left alone to form the bright point on a simple organza minidress and an extraordinary shaved fur coat. The result was crisp and clean and energetic. It couldn’t be bothered with stopping to flirt; it was too busy moving forward.
Which made for a contrast with Versace’s unconvincing threesome of silk and lace and boho rebel chic. Dresses, suit jackets and shorts in the first, most often in crinkled black, came sliced with swaths of the second, as did jeans, occasionally slumming with studded belt and straps, segueing into tie-dye versions of the same, and cutaway goddess dresses dripping metallic fringe. Lacking structure the clothes lacked their usual giddy physical power, and felt . . . flaccid. Even a technocrat wouldn’t want that.