On The Runway

09.22.11

Milan Fashion Week's Malaise

The Italian fashion capital showed little of New York’s childlike joy for spring 2012, but Prada offered conservative sex appeal, and D&G jolted away the malaise with rambunctious clothes in its swansong show—the line is being folded into the main Dolce & Gabbana collection. By Robin Givhan.

With the opening boom-boom of bass, the Spring 2012 runway shows began in Milan with a stream of black, camel, and wimpy, sea-foam blue clothes worn by models with hair that looked days overdue for a shampoo. It seemed as though little joy would be coming from the Italian fashion capital.

Milan was wholly disconnected from New York, where a week earlier, designers had defined the coming season with childlike joy: bright colors, kooky prints, and a raucous spirit. New York designers served themselves up as a giddy antidote to war, economic decline, and the mournful remembrances of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Milan, while not sober, has been more knowing and more ambivalent. It has not been in a mood to celebrate—at least not in such obvious and chirpy ways. Gucci’s Frida Giannini kicked off the week here with a sexy and glamorous collection that she herself described as “hard core” art deco. It didn’t so much exude joyfulness, as give off an attitude of vaguely reckless debauchery.

Giannini’s  loose-fitting flapper dresses, with their architectural patterns outlined in gold and black paillettes, recalled late nights of dancing, coolly bopping jazz, and the kind of bracing cocktails that would leave midnight carousers tight—as a Hemingway character would say—after only one round. (The dresses and tuxedo-style trousers were so glamorous that one is even willing to forgive Giannini for those trousers with a pair of horse heads printed on the tush.)

Her collection hit all the notes that define the Gucci brand. It looked luxurious with its simple patterns lushly detailed with sequins and rhinestones. It was sexy and sophisticated. But it also had sleek and easy silhouettes—nothing as fussy as the French might come up with, but nothing as relaxed and sporty as the Americans might generate.

There also was a hint of darkness about the collection. Like Hemingway’s revelers—whose hard partying was a front for fear, anger, and despair—these clothes were tinged with melancholy.

The collection, so representative of the Gucci essence, also was a tease of a sort. On Sept. 26, the company will celebrate the opening of its first museum—dedicated to its archives and its artisans—in Florence.

To some degree, Max Mara also celebrated its essence—in this case, its love of camel. The design team sent out a dirge of mostly camel-colored leggings, leather shorts, tunics, and jackets. The show plodded along with the models balanced atop platform-wedge heels. The collection was dutifully filled with good taste and familiar shapes, but the effect was a bit like watching a runway show organized by the local PTA.

Alberta Ferretti ‘s show wasn’t much more energizing. She offered a familiar mix of chiffon dresses with textural patterns that recalled the art deco period—or perhaps that was just because Gucci had only a few hours earlier put that thought in the air. Regardless, the dresses looked like the same ones Ferretti has always done, which is to say they were lovely. But they were not the sort of items that make a person sit up and take notice and shop.

Mixed in with the dresses were several patterned knits in bright colors that seemed to be Ferretti’s way of acknowledging that there was some sort of movement afloat in fashion—this fascination with color and pattern—and perhaps it was worth a dabble.

But then, as if she’d stuck her toe in the water and found it too cold for her liking, Ferretti retreated to those reassuring chiffon dresses.

In the search for bliss, surely one can find it at D&G, by Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana? After all, they are the ringmasters of fun, sex, and naughty, naughty references. And sure enough, right there on the D&G runway was an avalanche of color and patterns and good times.

The designers were inspired by scarf prints and so the fabric looked like 1960s Pucci and 1980s Versace mixed, refined, seasoned, and molded into something that felt both fresh, and fun, fun, fun.

It was good to see the models strutting along to a soundtrack devoted to the dueling screams and grunts of Prince and James Brown. One was flinging kisses and the other was feeling good. And models were dressed in soft blouses in a swirl of pink and yellow floral shorts. Tunics in dizzying rococo prints were bedazzled with sequins for a double-your-fun lushness. There were floral pants, printed bikinis, and even wedge heels covered in patterned silk twill.

Alas, it was a rambunctious swansong for this secondary line, more beloved in Italy—where its attitude of preternatural sophisticated adolescence is welcomed—than in the United States, where certain folks like to work themselves into a lather over such underage salaciousness. The designers, in a bit of company reorganizing, have decided to fold D&G’s youthful sizzle into the main collection.

That probably makes life simpler for the designers, who have described themselves as “going through a very happy moment of our lives.” But one hopes that the kind of giddy, sexpot frivolity that has always given D&G its sparkle doesn’t fade away.

D&G literally jolted away the Milan malaise. It was like an electric shock to a group of editors operating in the bleary haze of jet lag, pasta, and fashion overabundance. This wasn’t the kind of sweet, naïve joy that New York was selling, though. It was a bit more knowing, worldlier—perhaps it was because the designers chose scarf prints that were rooted in florals, baroque swirls, and nothing that suggested childishness.

Miuccia Prada also managed to avoid cheap thrills and campy references, even though her collection was inspired by hot rods and drag races—and even though she created varsity jackets with flames emblazoned across the back.

Milan has not been in a mood to celebrate in obvious and chirpy ways.

Set in her stark, concrete gallery, with a set of nothing but giant stylized cars seemingly carved out of foam, the models—a diverse lot—walked the wide runway in strappy sandals with faux flames shooting off the backs of the heels. They wore knife-pleated skirts and filmy blouses. A pine-green leather cigarette skirt shared the runway with a swing coat printed across the back with a flame and gilded at the collar with rhinestones. Other coats were quiet and subdued from the back and aglow with Spirograph patterns on the front.

It was a collection that called to mind prim young ladies in their circle skirts, along with their bad-girl counterparts in tight skirts and a cloud of cigarette smoke. It was American Graffiti and Rebel Without a Cause and Prada’s deep love affair for a conservative, even dowdy, sex appeal.

It was a collection premised on something as understandable as muscle cars—the thrill of them, as well as the danger—and filled with garments that would forever be identified as spring 2012. It was utterly of the moment. And yet, it was unmistakably Prada. It was her quirky sense of color—deep burgundy paired with corn-flower blue, pine green, and faded cantaloupe. Her affection for a pleated skirt was in evidence, the jeweled collars, the oddball prints. They’re all motifs that we’ve seen before, but once again put to fresh use. And done so as to create a collection that looked feminine, smart, and sexy.

If it was not filled with giddy joy, that’s OK. Instead, this was a deeply satisfying collection, full of light-hearted surprises, but rooted in the depth of Prada’s vision. And that is far better than anything bloated on cotton candy.