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You know that something’s going on when Donatella Versace dedicates her AW19 Versace catwalk show to Grunge. On a set filled with gold medallion stools and furnished with giant safety pins, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” screeched over the soundtrack while dozens of models waltzed past in petticoat satins with neon lace trims, treated leather jackets and bovver boots. Except in this instance, it smelt like clean spirit, because we’re talking about the sanitised world of corporate luxury and its associated marketing here.
The Michael Kors group (renamed Capri Holdings) purchased Versace in December in a surprisingly generous $2.1bn deal. Perhaps this was a display of brand bravura, and a chance to stick it to the man. Or to emphasise that future collections will continue to remain faithful to Versace’s independent spirit. As Versace said: “It’s about celebrating the perfection of imperfection in a social media age.”
It’s perhaps worth noting that in 1991, the year in which Nirvana made its breakthrough with the album Nevermind, the Versace collection designed by the brand’s founder Gianni featured electric-coloured cocktail frocks, skater skirts, tartan suits and thigh-high boots in sorbet colours. Grunge it was not.
Nevertheless, there were other archive elements in this AW19 show: a picture of Donatella, shot by Richard Avedon for the house’s Nineties fragrance Blonde was printed on a T-shirt. “I used to model for Versace,” explained the brand’s creative steward of the image in which she flicks a mane of platinum-coloured hair.
The late American photographer produced more than 30 campaigns for the house over two decades, from 1980, and this season Donatella had persuaded his estate to collaborate on a few pieces that might be branded with his name. One of the most notoriously exacting estates to work with, Versace’s success in making it happen is proof of her determined spirit. It also lent itself to speculation as to what other gems might turn up in future.
Avedon’s work was synonymous with Versace at a crucial point in the brand’s development. He was vital in shaping the Versace global aesthetic, and seeing his work here helps unlock their DNA. Another flashback: Avedon’s beloved muse, and one-time Versace stalwart, the model Stephanie Seymour took to the catwalk for the first time in 12 years to close the show.
Bar the heavy footwear, Versace’s Grunge was not especially grunge-y. The lingerie was cheerful and brightly coloured and there was a lot of black bondage strapping, and I don’t recall chainmail as being key to the original look. Nevertheless, the theme of anger and general disenchantment has been common in Milan, where the boots have been heavy and the mood dark. The atmosphere was established at Prada during menswear shows in January, and the outlook has percolated and intensified in the interim weeks. There were huge big boots and biker leathers at Bottega Veneta, blindfolds and combat boots at Marco De Vincenzo, and leather harnesses and riding boots at Sportmax.
At Marni, the models wore marching boots, chain belts and chokers, sweeping leather jackets and blood red silks. The kilt skirts in grey wool and supersized ginghams gave the show a sense of tribalism, or a feeling of an advancing army on the march. Many of the models were men: they wore leather trenchcoats and heeled leather boots. Apparently the brand’s creative director Francesco Risso was exploring the limits of our freedom — as well as investigating new erogenous zone. I’m not sure his take on sensualism was entirely successful — the only message I got was “back off”.
More long, black leathers and leather boots at Roberto Cavalli. What is this aggression all about? Paul Surridge, the brand’s creative director says it’s to do with brands needing to reconsider what luxury really means. “For a long time we’ve been preoccupied by logo mania,” he explained in a preview, “where a branded T-shirt might cost £300 in one place and £2,000 in another, but the garment is essentially the same. We became too dependent on athleisure,” he added of the sportswear that has become the urban uniform.
“And we saturated the market.”
This new mood on the catwalk amounts to an expression of self-defence. “I think it’s about the self-protection of the industry,” said Surridge, who had combined his tougher tailoring with hand-beaded bodysuits, a “reptile skin” of sequin dresses and colourful velours in a Cavalli-esque print.
Surridge, who has been at Cavalli since 2017, having worked at Zegna, has been on quite the journey with the brand so far. His show, which combined the men’s and women’s collections, placed a new emphasis on handmade and artisanal touches. His previous experience in tailoring was much in evidence. A high-waisted trouser was precise and desirable, and there was much to commend the bold men’s suits. Later a selection of jersey knits, some sequinned, had spice and looked fluid. But he’s clearly less comfortable around print and animalia (which looked a little tacky) and I wasn’t fond of a snakeskin print in ice blue.
Cavalli is a powerful label, at which one must embrace a customer with an expensive taste for ostentatious clothes. Grunge isn’t really on its radar. But this was one of the few collections in Milan that could have used more grit.
There were sweeping black capes and long dramatic leathers at Salvatore Ferragamo, where the Brit-born shoe designer Paul Andrew has just been named creative director across the house’s men’s and women’s lines. But they were only gentle in design — and often quilted. Since arriving at the house in 2016, and alongside Guillaume Meilland (who retains his role as men’s ready-to-wear design director as well as becoming studio director in this latest reshuffle), Andrew has been overseeing a major brand rebuild. This third catwalk collection for AW19 was a natural continuation of a brand “narrative”, designed to focus on the footwear, but also to re-establish the brand’s valued character and unlock an archive that goes back nearly 90 years. With its clashing colour palette, cashmere shearling coats and silken puffas, it was a competent and tasteful show. I was glad it wasn’t angry, but it lacked a real emotional blow.
No anger at Dolce & Gabbana, which is probably just as well considering the brand is still reeling from the market backlash following the collapse of its Shanghai show. You know the story by now — an ill considered Asian campaign, a consumer outcry, a string of abusive social media comments, all culminating in a designer apology for offences caused.
Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce are now on best behaviour. And for AW19, in lieu of anger, there was love. “We are the opposite of anger this season,” said Dolce shortly before their elegant-themed show.
They have also disposed of many of the themes they have embraced in recent years. No influencers, a shift away from social media. Gabbana has given up his personal Instagram account and, following a wild and slightly unfocused period of bombast, there was a move on Sunday to quieten and put new focus the brand.
As at Cavalli, Dolce spoke about the value of artisanal, and the need for modern luxury to emphasise the “hand”. The clothes drew on the postwar glamour of the Forties — sculpted tailored jackets with padded shoulders and peplums, wide-legged trousers, and lots of grey and tweeds. The designers had used lots of Deco references, including embroideries inspired by the French-Russian illustrator Erté.
Dolce & Gabbana still have a dedicated client. Many will not have heard of its recent woes. In the event its Asian clients abandon it, which I doubt would be for long, the designers need to focus on grown up clothes that might appeal to markets where the clients are older and require a formal look. There were some stunningly elegant pieces here. No sneakers and hoodies. The pâtisserie prints and vegetable dresses were gone too. This was a return to old-school glamour, there were even bridal gowns in the collection. Can the duo turn things around? This was certainly an earnest plea to win us back.
Jo Ellison will be hosting the FT’s Business of Luxury Summit in Madrid on May 19-21. For more information visit ftbusinessofluxury.com
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