Dressing up hard times

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Restraint, regulation, rules of perception – these are not, oddly enough, excerpts from Alistair Darling’s speech at the Labour party conference, in which he promised an end to crazy City bonuses, but rather the key words for three of the collections shown on the second day of Milan fashion week. What is interesting is how closely they captured a mood many hundreds of miles away.

It is always dangerous to read too much into fashion (collections are made weeks before they are shown, and presumably designers do not have crystal balls among all their crystal beads), and yet, sitting in the Burberry show (left) and watching Christopher Bailey’s parade of hauntingly beautiful, luxe-urchin clothes swing by, while on the soundtrack Bryan Ferry sang, “when the rain is blowing in your face/and the whole world is on your case”, it was hard not to think: there is an elegy to the economy in sartorial form.

From crinkled flared crepe trousers that clung to the thighs like a life-raft worn under degrade sepia trenchcoats to crumpled, silk-soft snakeskin and T-shirt dresses in metallic lace, the pieces took the old symbols of wealth – snakeskin, clanking silver paillettes, gold satin – and re-imagined them for a world where the party had ended, the finery had been slept in, and life had gone on. There is no question the workmanship, especially in the trenches sprinkled with three-dimensional roses, was exquisite (and will be costly) but the product did not advertise the effort. Their elegance, to paraphrase Diana Vreeland, was in their refusal.

“It was so sad,” said one editor after the show, and it was a bit droopy to be sure, but mostly, instead of making you want to cry, the clothes made people clap – and not just the fashion clap, where editors politely knock their forefingers together, but real, cup-your-hands clapping. Finally, someone made something to wear to the recession.

Is this a ridiculous thing to write? Well, as Angela Missoni noted in her show description, when faced with difficult times, you might as well choose “a conscious path of elegance that beautifies that which cannot be changed, giving power to the imagination and evoking grace”. (It is a little wordy, but it did have to be translated from the Italian.) Put another way: make the best of it, kiddos.

Which she did, creating her most sophisticated and coherent collection in seasons (right). Thus the signature Missoni zig-zag was damped-down in earthen shades, contrasting with a larger – but still neutral – “futuristic aero-painting” print that looked a lot like watered-down Italian Futurism, and extraneous adornment was limited to clear paillettes covering a strapless jumpsuit to create shine without showiness. As in Burberry, body-conscious structure had been abandoned in favour of ease, and shapes that could accommodate a life beyond a Town car. Even Alberta Ferretti, she of the penchant for complicated chiffon pin-tucking and girly ribbon-bedecked prettiness, pared down and cleaned up this season, trading her trailing satin streamers for Grecian-meets-1920s sheets of fringe that poured down halter tops and pencil skirts, and were sectioned up and down evening dresses like a spreadsheet. The net effect was of a less decorative, smarter kind of texture.

Interestingly, some of these ingredients – the knits, the simple shapes, the arty prints – were also present at Pringle, but just didn’t add up in the same evocative way. Instead, the crisp cotton bubble skirts, the impressionistic paint splashes (which looked unfortunately close to Chloe’s paint splashes of two seasons ago), the ruffled think-knits, and the blue- and white-striped men’s wear fabrics used in everything from jackets to cropped and pleated trousers just seemed self-consciously carefree, as though designer Claire Waight Keller had wanted to take a jaunt to the seaside, and realised too late that perhaps that might not be an option anymore for those who have to sell their second or third homes. Oops.

Escapism is not necessarily bad – indeed, some might argue that that is partially the role of fashion: to provide an aesthetic outlet for dreams that cannot be experienced any other more palpable way – but it needs to be fully realised to work. Thus, at Moschino, the bouquet of rose-coloured cocktail shifts and ruffle-bedecked suiting was a nod to lunching meringues gone by. And thus at D&G designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana took their younger line to the French seaside via Grace Jones singing “La Vie en Rose” and a bevy of models sporting a Croisette’s worth of red, white and blue sailor pants, striped sequinned tops, anchor-bedecked knit playsuits and gold and silver lame-pleated halter tops and capes. It was kitschy and clichéd but even though it was one-note, it was a very loud note, blown brightly enough to resound through their stores, where sales are reportedly on a steep upward trajectory.

Indeed, perhaps in a slightly obscure way the blast of the show was a winking reference to the brand’s star guest, young Los Angeles-based rocker Katy Perry, whose album, One of the Boys, is at the top of the iTunes chart. Or maybe it was just a reminder that, though the Dow may be plunging again, in some industries the party is still in full swing. And all those guests need something peppy to wear.

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