On the first evening of Milan Fashion Week, a funny thing happened on the way past the Duomo.
There, in the piazza, 1,000 students, 30 models, various fashion houses and numerous startled passers-by gathered under the aegis of the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana to participate in a piece of performance art modelled after Michelangelo Pistoletto’s “Third Paradise” and dedicated to celebrating a new paper the CNMI had drawn up: “Manifesto for Sustainability of Italian Fashion”.
It’s about promoting the idea of – yes – sustainability in Italian fashion. Sustainability in the environmental/ production sense, but also in the business sense, suggesting that fashion is an industry that can sustain the Italian economy, and thus should itself be sustained.
Anyway, the models did their thing in different outfits from big Italian brands (Gucci, Zegna), and the students formed themselves into a brightly coloured representation of Mr Pistoletto’s new three-curve infinity symbol (the first curve is the first paradise – man in nature; the second, man in man-made artifice; and the third brings the two together), and its oddness made for a surprisingly apt metaphor for the start to the week.
Performance art, after all, is generally the sort of thing you expect to see in Paris or London, which tend to emphasise the creative over the commercial, as opposed to Milan, which mostly gets down to trend-setting-and-selling business. But lately business hasn’t quite been enough, so they’ve had to dress it up with extra dimensions; they’ve had to act out. But as the opening shows demonstrated, it isn’t always an easy alliance.
MaxMara, for example, is one of the most classic of all Italian names, famous for its way with a camel coat, and this time round it said the collection was “based on a number of very precise keywords, taken straight from the ‘golden age’ of the Made in Italy concept” – though what those words were was not entirely clear.
From the show notes they seemed to be “sport deluxe, colonial … and safari styles”, which appeared more Out of Africa than Made in Italy (the Olympics were represented too somehow), and from the show itself, the message was muddy.
To wit: safari silhouettes, reimagined in beige slouchy, short-sleeved, oversize suit jackets with epaulettes and pockets; body-conscious jumpsuits; trompe l’oeil combinations of blouson silk anoraks with stiff peplum bottoms; and eye-popping combinations of animal print ponyskin, madras gazar and neon florals. For evening, the same shapes came in black, with sheer backs and shoulders.
It was ultimately too tricksy for its own good. The brand would have been wiser to do what that other pillar of the Italian fashion establishment, Giorgio Armani, did in his Emporio Armani show: opt for “a way of … expressing yourself that is simple and natural”. Or, as the collection itself was called, “Neat”. In practice this meant a focus on shorts with tailored jackets, relaxed silk trousers, and tunics over miniskirts, all in earthen tones.
Aside from some weird side-wrapped tops that gaped unflatteringly under the arms, and a few droopy metallic knits (not to mention some large leather chokers best left backstage), the designer refrained from the more conceptual, and usually less successful, aesthetic experiments in which he occasionally indulges, and the clothes were better for it.
Meanwhile, Alberta Ferretti (along with Moschino, the high-fashion side of AEFFE, a publicly traded manufacturing powerhouse), where the eponymous designer built her name on lovely, red-carpet-ready pintucked gowns and oh-so-pretty daywear, went off in a fantastical direction, as symbolised by a video backdrop of rising bubbles and exploding sea anemone-like fronds.
This undersea foliage was represented, literally, on bodices bristling with beading and sequins, jewelled seaweed dangling from spaghetti straps, fringe trapped under an iridescent organza cover like a translucent jellyfish body, and lace in blues of many colours appliquéd on the sheerest tulle to create the illusion of a mermaid-like torso, sometimes descending into cigarette trousers, but oftentimes finished by an oily-slick of a lamé skirt, reminiscent of a fishy tail. A few dresses even came with their own bejewelled nets, the better to catch consumers, presumably.
Amid all the nymphiads there was an occasional restrained and elegant silk car coat with hidden closure, a white slip dress piped in black – but such practical garments were the exception rather than the rule.
As a result, delicate and filigree and rife with natural references as the rest of the collection was, it was difficult to see how, given the demands of contemporary life on women's’ wardrobes, it could be – well, sustained.