On the Runway

Raf Simons, Tomas Maier Lead Milan Fashion Week’s Colorful Exuberance

Milan Fashion Week spring 2012 explodes with fluorescent colors, led by Raf Simons and Tomas Maier. By Robin Givhan.

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Each of the great fashion capitals has its influential designers, the ones who boldly prod our aesthetic sensibility in new directions, as well as those confident classicists who argue for the beautiful stillness of the moment.

In Milan, one of the most directional designers in recent seasons has been Raf Simons of Jil Sander. One of the most ardent aesthetes is Bottega Veneta’s Tomas Maier.

Each, in his own way—calmly and confidently—owned the spring 2012 Milan fashion season.

If you have wondered why J.Crew is zealously cheerleading for teal-blue and sunshine-yellow trousers, why your trendiest friend has been wearing fluorescent orange and retina-searing pink skirts, or why gumdrop colors seem to have abruptly appeared at every price point, you must look to Simons and his work at Jil Sander in the last year. He has been the most exuberant champion of bold colors, the likes of which have not been seen since the Day-Glo days of raves.

The industry happily followed his lead—and then some.

With that obvious influence and enhanced profile, Simon has become the obsession of the fashion Twitter-verse, following an unconfirmed report by the International Herald Tribune’s Suzy Menkes that he could be the next designer at Yves Saint Laurent: “OMG.” “Excited squeal.” “WOW!!!!” (Meanwhile Dubuque wonders, Raf who?)

No matter the tweeting or the shrugging. Simons’s spring 2012 collection for Jil Sander promises to be another jolt to the industry, thanks to its elegant and thoughtful interpretation of mid-century modern aesthetics and the ceramics of Pablo Picasso.

Simons continues his powerful use of saturated color, but the silhouettes and the prints are now the bigger point. While half the fashion flock has been teetering from show to Mercedes, Mercedes to show wearing super-short dress shorts—at least those with the legs for them—Simons makes a strong case for hemlines that are longer and with a well-considered reserve.

He opened his show with a simple white shirt-dress that fell comfortably below the knees, almost uniformlike in its austerity. That led to dresses with a trim waistline and a slightly fuller skirt. But soon that simplicity folded into a series of vivid, paisley-printed, lean sheaths and slender skirts, often in shades as quiet as black and ecru. His evening option was a long white shirt-dress with a full skirt worn by a model who, like all the others, had her hair tightly controlled in a rolled-under page boy. The effect was Grace Kelly meets Nurse Ratched—timeless elegance meets intimidating toughness. If the collection has its almost-certain trickle-down (and -out) effect, consumers will surely see an array of prim white shirt-dresses, along with a glut of paisley. Unique to Jil Sander, however, will be a group of intarsia sweaters with patterns echoing those of Picasso’s ceramics, which the designer received permission from the artist’s estate to interpret. One sweater, in particular, a short-sleeve, shrunken crewneck, was charmingly marked by teardrop-shaped dollops of teal blue.

The Jil Sander collection was not the most exuberant of the season. It was not the loudest proponent of the cacophony it unleashed. Other houses competed for that prize. Blumarine spewed forth a collection of fluorescent hot pants, floral appliqué bras, and “Ice Capades” glitz, as one retailer called it. It was a spectacle that went so terribly wrong, that was so astonishingly ugly, that one wanted some sort of postmortem—an Andy Cohen “Watch What Happens Live” sit-down with designer Anna Molinari—for explanations and recriminations.

At Marni, Consuelo Castiglioni produced a collection that was drowning in frothy effervescence and lacking in her usual sophistication. She indulged her preference for substantial fabrics that can be molded into asexual silhouettes that stand away from the body. Embellishments were large and cumbersome—so much so that the dresses seemed to clink and clunk as the models walked the runway.

At Emilio Pucci, designer Peter Dundas was inspired by gypsies, resulting in lacy, cropped bustiers, billowing skirts, and a cyclone of prints. Missoni, coming off its successful collaboration with Target, blended its signature patterns with silhouettes such as ruffled skirts and peasant tops for a collection that vibrated with uncomfortable, nervous energy. Ferragamo was an uninspired mashup of every trend from color to print to flouncy scarf dresses—but without any clear sense of direction or point of view from designer Massimiliano Giornetti.

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In the midst of this chaos, Jil Sander’s blend of austerity, pleasant indulgence and discreet femininity seemed just right. People are struggling through economic woes and financial angst. They are worried and frazzled. Simons’s collection exuded dignity in the midst of ever more garish colors and prints.

Like 1950s interior design or the era’s sleek architecture that spread low over the landscape, Simons’s clothes share an inherent discretion that resists unnecessary flourishes and attention-grabbing silliness. They reflect a time when silence was powerful, frightening, expected, and complex. His clothes were mesmerizing in their reserve.

The work was no less designed than other collections that were lavishly embellished or enmeshed in a riot of color, but Simons brought a sense of steadiness to his work that made it both eloquent and effortless. It was, in a word, calm.

It’s hard to enjoy a designer’s work when it seems twitchy with insecurity and pleading earnestness—when it seems to be shouting and begging for attention. And what adult woman—save “desperate housewives,” “little monsters,” and Nicki Minaj—needs her clothes to speak louder than she does?

While Simons was quietly suggesting a new direction for fashion, Maier was just as calmly arguing for beauty that endures. Maier is not the kind of designer who concerns himself with the twists and turns of fashion trends. He doesn’t look back at what was. And he is not obsessed with trying to guess at what will be years from now. He is only beholden to the importance of making dresses and skirts and tunics that express contemporary beauty.

The collection he created for spring was both simple and profoundly stunning. His masterful color sense paired a blood-red satin tunic with fuchsia trousers. His dresses sometimes looked as though he’d found a way to liquefy quartz as dresses in deep green with veins of black swirled around the body. He mixed black, gray, and purple in ways that startled the eye and then captivated it. And he did it without gee-gaws and doo-dads. There were no baubles dripping off the hems of skirts. Dresses weren’t weighed down with jewels the size of gumballs.

That honor goes to Dolce & Gabbana, which returned to its roots with an enticing romp through a southern Italian street festival—with colored lights, Sofia Loren singing “Mambo Italiano” and a carnival-like atmosphere.

Designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana produced a collection of vegetable-print sundresses, sturdy lace jackets and skirts, and jewel-bedecked slim dresses. It was an explosion of print and color and for the finale, the models returned to the runway in a parade of jeweled body suits—ending by posing like a group of boardwalk bathing beauties. As always, it was a celebration of vibrant womanhood—indeed, womanhood as a fetish.

There was pure joy and exuberance in this tableau of the design duo’s expertise: the beautifully wrought corsetry, the lush embellishment, the glorious emphasis on the hourglass figure. But the collection wasn’t so much challenging as it was reassuring: some things never change.

Donatella Versace was also true to the house’s history with her studded leather skirts, mini-dresses with molded bodices and lilac prints of star fish and sea horses. The effect would have been more powerful without the accompanying Lucite platform shoes. Typically and admirably, Versace models move with a strong, confident grace. These shoes—and is it possible to even look at Lucite shoes and not think hooker heels?—reduced the young women to wobbly little streetwalkers, cheapening the overall collection.

If there was an outlier collection this season, it came from the young design team of Aquilano.Rimondi. Earlier in the week, the designers, Tommaso Aquilano and Roberto Rimondi, had presented a capsule collection for Piazza Sempione—known for its tailored sportswear—to celebrate the house’s 20th anniversary. (The brand recently announced that the designers will stay on to oversee the entire collection.) Piazza Sempione was dominated by crisply pleated skirts and simple shirt-dresses.

Their signature collection was filled with couturelike fabrics lavishly embroidered and stitched into cigarette skirts, tailored sheaths, and mini-dresses with pinaforelike bodices. The colors were delicate pastels; the prints were like something from a Renaissance tapestry.

The clothes were like nothing else on the runway. They weren’t pushing fashion forward. They weren’t contemplating modernity. They were, however, exquisitely, calmly beautiful. And in the current storm—fashion, economic, and social—that was enough.

At Giorgio Armani on the final day of Milan Fashion Week, there was quaintly old-fashioned production of spot-lit models strolling, often two by two, on a stark stage. Often, his insistence on models who have been instructed to hold their hands just so and to move in a dreamlike reverie is both distracting and, occasionally, insufferable. But for spring 2012, the designer's intractability paid off. His choreographed dream state emphasized a beautiful collection of short jackets twinkling with beads, strapless evening dresses in the soft colors of Monet and for his finale, "Three Graces" in nearly sheer gowns dappled with crystals that glittered like droplets of water. It was a lovely, gentle collection that served as a reminder of why Armani continues to hold sway over our evening raptures from red carpets to royal weddings.

In contrast, the Caten brothers of DSquared served up a literal mud pit of models slogging along in shorts, faded plaid shirts and denim jackets. Their runway is always an insistent party, a festival of relaxed sportswear served up by sexy models strutting to a raucous soundtrack -- this time dominated by Lenny Kravitz, U2 and Coldplay. And, instead of handbags, they were clutching bottles of Heineken. The downfall for DSquared, however, was that while the mood was festive, the collection consisted of looks one could easily find for less, at places such as Abercrombie & Fitch, whose recently opened store in Milan sends clouds of pungent cologne into the streets where throngs of customers from all over Europe camp out, awaiting their turn to shop. DSquared surely hosts an incomparable runway party, but the spring 2012 collection can't compete with the intoxicating allure of the mass market.