La Fine

Milan Fashion Week’s Big Finale: Versace and Dolce & Gabbana Wow, While Armani Falls Short

Designers hew to their legacies for fall lines, while Armani argues against his reputation for elegance.

The Fall 2012 collections have ended in Milan, leaving a fashion conundrum hanging in the air. How can designer Giorgio Armani, who still wields such respect in this city, craft such an ethereal and elegant organza gown in a combination of blue and gray—which blends “like a stormy sky”—and was worn by Penélope Cruz to the Academy Awards Sunday night, and then send women down his runway on Monday morning wearing black walking shorts tucked beneath garishly bright orange sequined dresses? How can a designer who helped shape George Clooney’s image of dashing, old-school elegance with a perfectly tailored, classic tuxedo be the same person who believes in knickers for women?

Armani is Milan’s great mystery. He built his house on a belief in sophistication and ease: a philosophy that took the starch out of power dressing, injected a pleasant formality into sportswear, and introduced good taste to the Oscar red carpet. But for years now, an aesthetic battle has been raging on the Armani runway—a fight between the very beautiful essence of the house and effortful kitsch. And at the moment, orange sequins, multicolored fake fur, and thigh-cinching knickers are winning.

The reliably graceful and chic clothes that Armani regularly supplies to his celebrity clients rarely make an appearance on his runway anymore. Instead, his fashion shows have become a place where the designer fights against his own legacy, as if accepting and celebrating it would be a sign that he has ceased to press forward creatively—that retirement is imminent. Armani shuns his own successes, his own aesthetic vocabulary, like no other designer.

For most young men and women in fashion, honing a distinctive voice is, perhaps, the most difficult hurdle to building a business. American designers such as Peter Som, Thakoon Panichgul, and others are all immensely talented, but they struggle to define themselves in a crowded industry. Consumers reward designers who have a consistent vision by opening their wallets. And history remembers those who stand for something. All the rest are quickly forgotten.

Armani’s stubborn refusal of his own legacy is an anomaly in Milan. Other designers here, particularly this season, have rejoiced in their past and have used their stylistic touchstones to find their way forward. Even Anna Molinari, designer at Blumarine, has been staying true to her style—God bless—however tarty and impossibly garish it might be: pastel-colored metallic shorts, purple marabou chubbies, sequined jeans, and oversize rap-star neckplates.

Donatella Versace was notably attentive to history, returning to the rock-and-roll, tough-girl roots of the brand established by her brother Gianni.

Her collection, shown on models whose hair and makeup mimicked the severe style of actress Rooney Mara, was filled with leather minidresses and frocks printed with jeweled crosses or embellished with chain mail. It was a fine balance between vulgar and sexy—a hallmark of the house.

And at the company’s secondary Versus collection, designed by Christopher Kane, the hard-edged theme continued. Against the backdrop of a faux garage setting, the collection had all the markings of the brand writ large with more leather miniskirts, lace-up dresses, raspberry-colored marabou coats, and low-slung jeans seemingly smeared with “grease.”

At Marni, designer Consuelo Castiglioni indulged her affection for heavy and cumbersome fabrics, awkward silhouettes, and chunky decorations. It takes a great deal of skill to make essentially ugly materials and unflattering shapes look intellectual and artistic. But this is what Castiglioni does.

For fall, the collection was somewhat one-note, lacking in the kind of whimsical prints and adornment that have become catnip to so many women—and a confounding turn-off to so many men.

Angela Missoni celebrated her family’s history of complex knitwear with a collection of simple shapes that were smartly layered and enlivened with fur and sexy latex insets. Her models—and there were so many of them that surely she must have recruited every skinny young woman buzzing around Milan on the back of some young man’s motorcycle—strutted down a long stone corridor tucked into the shadows of one of the oldest universities here. Instead of denying the language created by her parents, Ottavio and Rosita, she used it to say something more contemporary and streamlined—to speak coherently about the past without lapsing into nostalgia.

The same can be said of Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana with the work they presented in their signature collection. So much of the fall season has been dominated by design houses that champion restraint—labels such as Bottega Veneta and Jil Sander. But just when it seemed that fall would be a season of control and refinement, the Dolce & Gabbana collection burst onto the runway in full operatic, bacchanalian ostentation. It was baroque, rococo, new-money fabulous. With the voice of Luciano Pavarotti on the soundtrack, models sauntered down the catwalk wearing dresses in needlepoint patterns and black lace tops and skirts through which bras, panties, and merry widows peeked through. Dresses bore the faces of sweet cherubs and angels. Black skirts and capes were lavishly embroidered in gold swirls and curlicues.

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This is what defines Dolce & Gabbana, and here in Milan there was no shying away from it even in this new day of tough-love politics and economic rigor. The label was joined in its emotional homage to decoration and excess by Aquilano.Rimondi. The design duo of Tomasso Aquilano and Roberto Rimondi focused on elongated silhouettes with prints inspired by the art of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and Andrea Mantegna. Dresses that resembled tapestries from the front often laced up the back in a manner that hinted at rock-and-roll youthfulness. For a brand in the process of defining itself, there already are decisive strokes—rich prints, strong colors, lavish fabrics—that set it apart.

Designer Roberto Cavalli mounted the final, grand show of Milan’s Fashion Week under a cavernous top near the center of the city. Guests sat along the edges of a large square planted with roses. Perhaps 10 minutes before the show began, the designer himself strolled onto the runway, making his way half around the square with a dog—a large and playful shepherd. He greeted several of his guests as photographers clicked away, and then he retraced his steps and disappeared backstage.

If there was any nervousness, any tension, it was well hidden. Cavalli, it seems, is not a man who frets over the details or has last-minute anguish. Why wait until after the show to enjoy his guests? Why delay pleasure?

Cavalli’s collection was a circus of wild indiscretion, animal instincts, and big appetites. If there had been a runway deep in the caves during prehistoric times, these would have been the clothes on display. Floor-length fur skirts, fur T-shirts, fur-printed blazers, leopard-spotted jeans, sequins that mimicked crocodile skin, feathered bobby hats, feather-printed evening gowns. Every sort of pelt, skin, or plumage was part of this collection. No wild animal was off limits for decorative use or inspiration.

The collection was unmistakably Cavalli, and whether one finds his decadence enthralling or offputting, he stands by it. Others this season stood by their affection for homely beauty and baroque extravagance. Even coarseness had its defenders. With all of Armani’s success and clout, one wishes he would once again stand for good taste.