Designer v. Designer

Milan Wraps Up Spring 2013 Fashion Week With Armani and Cavalli Showdown

The spring fashion weeks in New York and Milan have witnessed a spate of angry tiffs and bruised egos, from a French editor’s slap-fest to feuding between top cats Roberto Cavalli and Giorgio Armani. What is it about an industry of frocks that makes people go a bit bonkers?

09.24.12 4:11 PM ET

Milan’s spring 2013 fashion shows came to an unofficial close with the Roberto Cavalli presentation Monday afternoon. For a designer known to champion a sexually flamboyant aesthetic, his was a restrained collection of white leather-lace tunics, jungle-printed silk trousers and blouses, and black dresses with provocative cutouts and jet-bead embellishment.

What was most notable about the show, however, was its placement on the calendar. While the casual observer of fashion may not care which big-name brand wraps up the week of presentations, designers are particularly sensitive to their place in the lineup.

The big brands like to bunch together into the middle of the week. So by Monday, DSquared2 and Cavalli were the most prestigious names left on the schedule. It is one thing to be the finale to fashion week; it is another to be tacked on to the tail end. These last shows invariably lose some of their audience as high-ranking editors make an early escape to Paris for the final round in the seasonal fashion marathon or fly back to New York for a few days’ respite.

To be the final show on the schedule puts a brand to a test. Is it commercially powerful enough or creatively influential enough to coax editors into staying? Does any designer really want to find out the answer to that question?

All of this fretfulness recently came to a head when Cavalli complained about his position on the official fashion calendar and noted that Giorgio Armani—“the little king"—had gotten his way as usual and moved up in the schedule so he wouldn’t be last, and how this wasn’t fair; and then other designers had simply ignored the schedule as determined by the city’s fashion authority, the Camera Nazionale, and how that wasn’t right either; and so forth and so on. Armani responded with a rather droll suggestion that Cavalli shouldn’t upset “the little king.”

It all seemed a bit junior high, but it is a reminder of how much effort and expense go into these shows and how much ego—so very much ego—is at stake.

Italian designers certainly aren’t alone in their shoot-from-the-hip complaining. In New York, designer Oscar de la Renta was aggrieved over a review of his spring collection in The New York Times and took out an ad of complaint in Women’s Wear Daily against its author Cathy Horyn.

And lest you think such emotion-driven shenanigans are limited to designers, take note. A French editor was accused of slapping a publicist in New York in the middle of a fashion show—an altercation sparked by a seating snafu. The editor was then quoted, in WWD, admitting to the assault and describing it as her attempt to humiliate the publicist because of her perceived sins. Cue the lawsuit.

What is it about an industry of frocks that makes people go a bit bonkers? It’s not the clothes, of course; it’s what they represent: profits, status, passion, and, oh yes, ego. So very much ego.

To a large degree, one’s place in the fashion hierarchy is determined by others, contingent on others’ judgment of your work. Editors must be invited to a fashion show and a publicist determines their ranking by a seating chart. Designers’ work is critiqued by writers and bloggers and then merchandised by retailers. At every turn it seems that someone else is making the decisions. And someone else is being slighted for wholly illogical reasons.

And when it comes to shows, it’s always a juggling act of time and geography, of small fashion houses trying not to be overshadowed by large ones, and of big ones trying to maintain their place in the hierarchy. The complaints are petty, but the stakes are high. And it’s awfully hard to do your best work when your ego is smarting.

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In Armani’s much ballyhooed Sunday-evening time slot, he had the luxury of combining the opening of an exhibition on his work with his spring show. With no other presentations following his, it also allowed him to bask in the extended applause from an audience loaded with clients and fans—people who were not racing off to another designer, another dinner. They are all his.

Armani’s collection was filled with luscious trousers in liquidlike silks and topped with long, fluttering tunics. Evening looks, in particular, were dominated by black trousers and tunics embellished with jet or silver sequins and paillettes. It was a tailored approach to party clothes, and while some of the pieces were heavily ornamented the sportswear silhouettes gave them a youthful verve.

Despite the sniping over who’s on first and who’s showing last, there was a calm to these Milan shows, at least with respect to the clothes. Designers who usually engage in a cacophony of prints offered up more reserved palettes. Angela Missoni opened her show with a series of beautifully crafted, white, tent-shaped tops and cropped cigarette pants and then followed up with spider-web-fine knits in sunset shades. Delicate strands of glistening threads created subtle patterns on easy dresses, and a woven pattern of soft squiggles was just enough to announce a simple cardigan and skirt as signature Missoni.

The only noise on the runway came from brothers Dan and Dean Caten of DSquared2. Their collection of biker-inspired garb, with motorcycle jackets, leather caps, and thick gold chains serving as belts, harked back to the supermodel era of the 1980s. Indeed, one of the DSquared2 models had her hips swaying so violently from side to side that one feared she might knock herself right off her own heels.

The Catens are the only designers who continue to treat women like goddesses, set up on a pedestal to be observed. Underscoring that sentiment were two faux paparazzi positioned on stage, who were charged with antagonizing the models as they strutted down the runway.

With a collection long on mood but short on actual garments, the models wore mostly just their long legs, tight briefs, and motorcycle jackets. There were probably about a dozen actual garments on the runway that could conceivably turn up on a store rack: a few long black gowns, a red-and-white-checked jacket and skirt, a full-skirted black day dress. The bulk of the collection was just artifice, an excuse to put Amazon women in spike heels and watch them sashay. It was a voyeuristic approach that was less about admiration and more about objectification.

Fashion would lose much of its electricity without the head-snapping magnetism of models moving with gumption down a runway. Like everyone else in fashion, they don’t have as much control as they would like over their hair, makeup, or even their schedule. But at the very least, they deserve to work with real clothes.