MILAN, Italy — Fashion never happens in a void. Even at its most outlandish, it is one of the most acute reflections of the times we inhabit. To be sure, fashion is a distorting mirror. But it can sometimes have prophetic power. This was particularly evident at the men's fashion week, which closed in Milan on Tuesday. As our global reality gets grittier, scarier and more painful by the day, designers presented collections which seemed to fall into two very different camps.
Many of them opted for pure escapism and went hyper-decorative, festive and absent-minded, delving into feats of preciousness and glittery, glistening abandon hardly seen since, well, the French Revolution (speaking of gritty times). Alessandro Michele, the prime originator of the whole rococo-on-the-streets phenomenon, led the way at Gucci. He inhabits a wonderfully free bubble. Harsh reality be damned — it’s beauty that interests him. Embroidered socks and white mink coats, anyone? What the long-haired, philosophical creative director has done to evolve fashion's general mood and dominant aesthetic tendencies is nothing short of remarkable, especially if you consider that just one year ago, he was a relative unknown picked from the ranks of the Gucci studio. The whiffs of decadence and languid romanticism — which are now ubiquitous — come straight from Gucci. And with them a growing avalanche of embroideries, esoteric patches, flowery patterns, even bows. Not that Michele invented the bow, but he certainly owns it as the symbol of a contemporary masculinity that is liberated, fey and very soft.
The catchy and charming Roberto Cavalli collection — Peter Dundas' first for menswear — certainly benefited from a healthy dose of New Gucci-ism, which took Cavalli's trademark excess to new heights of dreamy, bohemian indulgence. The result was more poetic than brash. But back to Gucci itself. For many, the latest show was business as usual. Alessandro Michele has no intention of changing the recipe every six months. He has a clear point of view and the stubbornness to stick to it, opting only for the smallest of evolutions season after season. Frustrating? Maybe. Or maybe not. This strategy can also be seen as a stroke of genius, if you look at the relationship between clothing and our times from another perspective. By sticking to a formula and presenting a collection that is not dissimilar to what is already stocked at Gucci shops — quite bravely, he even dared to re-issue Gucci’s now-ubiquitous furry slippers, celebrating these as a new classic — Alessandro Michele is linking the desire he creates through his runway (and its media amplification) to what’s currently available at retail. Today, fashion is about the now, but most catwalks create immediate appetite for goods that are only available six months later. Not at Gucci, where what you see on in the catwalk is basically what you already have in the shops. This is something Hedi Slimane is also doing and the approach has potential.
But back to decoration. There were embroideries aplenty, from Dolce & Gabbana's kitschy take on the spaghetti western cliché to the profusion of jacquard textures and crystals at Zegna Couture, probably Milano's best collection and certainly the most elegant. The decorated — or is it decorative? For men, this is a perilous topic for vaudeville lies just around the corner. Not for the refined Stefano Pilati, however, whose subtleness and understatement were on display.
Of course, a general focus on embellishment was not only an escapist reaction to the grittiness of our times. It is also an aesthetic instrument for tapping sales in important markets — Asia, in particular. Very young and very affluent Eastern customers often like it visually arresting and rich, so why shouldn’t designers tend that way? The Dsquared2 collection was probably the collection that most openly targeted Asia — and not only for the manga-punk theme and the number of Asian models on the runway. It was all about the high-impact, hyper-visual-ness of the proceedings.
But Milan was not only a case of pervasive embellishment. Hard times push many designers into a defensive or aggressive mode, hence the proliferation of cowboys — from Antonio Marras to the aforementioned Dolce & Gabbana — and the nth manifestation of militarism, which was interpreted this way and that, from the lingerie-tinged mods at No.21 to the heavily teutonic and gloomy atmosphere that loomed over the Jil Sander catwalk.
One designer who has always had a fruitful dialogue with the times, suggesting new ways to read the current moment, while reshaping the way we dress, is Miuccia Prada. Her latest effort was charged with a vibrating hue of melancholia and romanticism that made you think of some of Antonio Marras’ best moments — done of course in the wonderfully dry, elitist Prada way — vigorously putting her back on the edgy map.
This was an agenda-resetting Prada show, gloomy and ominous in its succession of dead boys walking clad in what looked like historied hand-me-downs, culled from a family archive and reshaped for today. With its matte surfaces and concise, time-consumed patina, the collection suggested the kind of elegance that only happens in war time, when scarcity of resources makes one re-use and reshuffle what already is available, from the bigger brother’s shoes to grandpa's coat. It made for a potent show and, most of all, for a striking fashion message: a lean, stark silhouette that will generate waves. Ever the progressive thinker, Miuccia offered an effective way to talk about hard, dark times: hers is a dignified gaze that does not remove the horror, but uses it as a fuel to get forward. Because, you know, escapism is beautiful, but reality always strikes back. Unless, of course, one decides to stay home and shut the world outside the door. Bathrobe coats — the coziest and most tempting — went down the hilariously furry Fendi catwalk. And pyjamas aplenty were a clear reminder that the pleasures of domesticity heal and cure the aggression of daily life. Which, of course, is just another form of escapism — and a poetically lazy one.
Otherwise, Milan's answer to the moment was as reassuring as re-rendered classicism. From Boglioli's romantic take on tailoring — creative director Davide Marello is one to watch — to Giorgio Armani's unmistakably timeless take on simple fluidity, it seemed that the answer to uncertainty was to be found in things that last. Which, of course, is also fashion's endless oxymoron: surviving the test of time, while constantly redefining the now. From here to eternity and back.