MILAN, Italy — The round of Milan men’s shows that ended on Monday night was a three-day affair that honestly felt more like a long weekend than a fashion week fit for one of the world’s leading fashion capitals. With a growing number of labels opting for co-ed shows timed to the women's calendar, the men’s offering keeps growing thinner and thinner each season. There is the serious danger — as an Italian myself, I am officially worried — that, despite the best efforts of the Camera della Moda, at some point Milan Moda Uomo could shut down for good. This, of course, is a darkly pessimistic thought, but you never know. As the saying goes: mala tempora currunt.
The fact is, Italian fashion is in danger of becoming irrelevant, which does not depend on how long a fashion week lasts, but how interesting, directional or authoritative the fashion is. Two days of shows are actually more than enough if the catwalks convey substance and vision. This, sadly, is a rare occurrence. What we have instead — with the exception of a few stalwarts stubbornly cultivating their own personal niche (none of them newcomers, by the way), with Silvia Venturini Fendi calmly stealing the leading role with a take on menswear that's consistent, ferociously witty and all her own — is pale replicas of what other designers are doing elsewhere.
To put it clearly: Milanese designers are looking at Balenciaga, Raf Simons and Gosha Rubchinskiy a little bit too much. The spiral of copies is so swirling, you almost get a sense of vertigo, especially if you consider the added fact that Gosha is an appropriator, too. He samples from local subcultures (though they are his own) just as much as Italian designers copy him. Truth be told, appropriation is not bad, as long as it comes with a novel interpretation of the original idea. In Milan, instead, it was just an avalanche of tracksuits, bold-type slogans on oversized streetwear and square shouldered tailoring that looked seriously over-proportioned. Add to that the grasp that, at least conceptually, Miuccia Prada still has over the local scene, where designers a lot less culturally twisted than she is usually go after her every move, and you get the picture of how unoriginal the Milan men’s offering was.
There were blatant echoes of Gosha, old Moschino, OAMC and much more at MSGM, for instance. At No.21 the fat-soled, old-school sneakers looked dangerously Balenciaga, while the prints, the piping and the general air of '50s nonchalance channelled Prada, big time. It's the law of the market, of course: designers go in the direction where everybody else is going, hoping to sell.
Sportswear is the flavor du moment, so Milan, once the capital of a certain sensual formalism, is doing sport. The lazy and ubiquitous tracksuit has replaced the good old suit, but honestly, how much design work does it take to make a good one? Very little, I tell you. In fact, the Milanese tracksuits — just like their counterparts in Paris and New York — looked all the same, making you yawn. It requires skills and vision to turn the needs of the fast paced, comfort-obsessed contemporary lifestyle into something that's inventive design-wise and also palatable as product.
On a more positive note, what Alessandro Sartori is doing in the temple of classicism that is Ermenegildo Zegna is remarkable. In the span of two collections, with fierce determination, he has managed to fuse the height of tradition, superb craft and incredible fabrics with a newfound fluidity — both material and conceptual — that is convincing, commercially viable and absolutely ageless.
Silvia Venturini Fendi, whose twisted, feisty take on corporate banality translated into, hands down, the best show of the season, is another purveyor of transversal menswear that looks good on tracksuit-wearing kids and up-tight grown ups alike. Her way to work with logo and luxe shows a deep streak of Roman insouciance, while her relaxed approach to the art of masculine dressing exudes an even more Roman nonchalance, resulting in a wonderfully international recipe. When it comes to nonchalance, of course, we must not forget Giorgio Armani, who this season was on top form and feeling very Armani, aka deconstructing everything with ease and sophistication. Armani's weak point is certainly not the clothes, but the repetitive nature of his shows and the anachronism of his beefcake-studded castings, which paradoxically make his message less inclusive than it actually is.
This season the Camera della Moda made its best effort to fill the calendar with new names, hoping to both thrill the audience and signal generational turnover. The results, however, were mixed, not least because the shows were held in a rather generic venue that made every outing look like a fashion school show, not something professional or fine-tuned to the vision of each author. Within this frame, Japanese wunderkind Sulvam offered a wonderfully deconstructed take on tailoring that felt both edgy and classy. Malibu 1992, the line designed by local nightlife hero Dorian Gray, went ghostly, openly and happily referencing everything from Tupac to Romeo Gigli: you appreciate the energy, even though things looked a little homemade.
GCDS, the booming streetwear label conceived by Giuliano Calza, attracted a crowd of digital influencers, including Chiara Ferragni, to the front row. He is a darling of the hyper-flat digital world and despite the standing ovation, his show was full of hype-propelled, heavily branded stuff that you can buy easily online. Do we need to see things like this on a catwalk? Is this the future of Italian fashion? Not really. Here is a wildly successful brand. Fine. Catwalk shows, however, require something else. Camera della Moda, in this sense, should help young designers find new ways to express themselves: unexpected, impactful formulas. Streetwear is not designer fashion, so why keep repeating the same presentation formats? It’s time to move on.
Damir Doma, despite his latest outing being a tad too chaotic, proved the individuality of his approach. So did the piercingly cold minimalists Neil Barrett and Lee Wood, whose dry, brutalist take on the Übermensch is revitalising Dirk Bikkembergs. Also interesting were Simone Rizzo and Loris Messina. Their label, Sunnei, is a mix of aggressive marketing and pure enthusiasm, with all the right influences coming from Raf Simons and thereabouts. This season the collection looked a bit less focused, but it is something that can be fixed along the way.
Palm Angels' mastermind Francesco Ragazzi is the leader of the Milanese streetwear bandwagon. His references in American subcultures are clear, but so is his will to progress, adding a decidedly Italian taste for fabric and pattern. Yes, we've seen hooded guerrilla warriors before, but I think this is a starting point for some interesting developments.
Marni's Francesco Risso — whose narcoleptic and heavily Prada-esque take on dress up was one of the highlights of the week — is obviously a darling of the local scene: he's a bit more nuanced than the others. His brand of eccentricity, however, feels a bit forced, like he is constantly trying too hard in place of being effortless. His work is fascinating, that's for sure, but also deeply Milanese in the slight superficiality of the wide-ranging mix.
Risso, as well as Giuliano Calza from GCDS, are indicative of a very Milanese way of being which is impacting the fashion system. Milan is not a place that truly promotes talent. Local culture is all about cliques and being in the right circle. It's about who you know, not how many ideas you have. Italian fashion is suffering, but it’s not for lack of talent. There is plenty of talent. But it sits outside the small circles of Milanese fashion — and therefore often remains undetected.