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High Stakes at Milan Fashion Week

From Prada to Valentino, Italian brands need the right creative thrust to rebound from the pandemic. Here’s what to watch for at this week’s Milan shows.
Valentino has been showing in Milan rather than Paris since the pandemic. Models walk the runway in looks from Pierpaolo Piccioli's Spring 2021 collection. Courtesy.
Valentino has been showing in Milan rather than Paris since the pandemic. Models walk the runway in looks from Pierpaolo Piccioli's Spring 2021 collection. Courtesy. (Andre` Lucat/SGP)

When Milan Fashion Week kicks off Wednesday, it will be the city’s third women’s ready-to-wear season to be upended by the pandemic and its second to take place mostly online: one year ago, Northern Italy was hit by the first major coronavirus outbreak outside China smack in the middle of Milan’s runway calendar, causing guests to flee and Giorgio Armani to stream his collection from an empty auditorium.

A groundbreaking gesture at the time, digital presentations have since become the norm and even the biggest labels have struggled to get both industry insiders and end consumers to tune in. It’s perhaps one of the reasons why some of Milan’s anchor brands are choosing to sit this one out.

Kering’s Gucci and Bottega Veneta will reveal their latest collections later this spring, closer to the selling season, while Versace delayed its video show to March 5 (during, but not affiliated with, Paris Fashion Week).

Moncler, which in recent cycles kicked off Milan Fashion Week with sprawling interactive events to fête the designer collaborations conceived under its “Genius” program, is also absent from this season’s calendar. (The brand is preparing a more focused outing for the following week when it plans to roll out its new collaboration with J.W. Anderson in stores and online.)

Still, while some houses decided that Milan Fashion Week was skippable, others opted to stick to the traditional rhythm for releasing their designs in what is set to be a critical season for their businesses.

Total turnover at Italy’s fashion companies declined by 25 percent last year to €50.5 billion ($61.4 billion), according to estimates by Milan Fashion Week’s organising body, the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana (CNMI). The pandemic hammered fashion demand, and the fact that Italy was particularly hard-hit made design and production a struggle, too.

Now, 2021 is off to a muted start as well, as variants of the coronavirus emerge and lockdown measures persist. But the accelerating roll-out of coronavirus vaccines is fuelling hope that weddings, trips and parties will start to bounce back — and with them fashion demand.

“We have hope that we will come back from this pandemic situation by the second half of the year,” CNMI’s president Carlo Capasa said.

While this week’s runway shows will again take place mostly digitally — without the usual tastemakers and celebrity guests, whose presence helps to amplify fashion shows — the collections themselves will be critical to the health of Italian brands, as they position themselves to try and scoop up what the industry hopes will be rebounding demand this autumn.

Here’s what to watch for at key brands in Milan this week.

New beginnings at Fendi

For his haute couture debut at the helm of Fendi’s womenswear in January, designer Kim Jones marshalled a cast of his favourite celebrities to make a statement about history, gender fluidity and intergenerational links to luxury fashion.

But the collection of ultra dressed-up looks gave few clues to what the menswear star’s approach to women’s ready-to-wear would be, nor how he might update the Roman fur maker’s positioning more broadly.

At Dior, where he is men’s artistic director, Jones has powered surging sales by drawing a coherent line between deft tailoring on the runway and hot products like high-top sneakers and monogrammed crossbody bags. He’s also been keen to share the spotlight, opening up the brand to a wider audience by teaming up with high-profile entities from streetwear and contemporary art.

As such, his Milan debut will be hotly watched to see how he will take the reins of a brand that was led by Karl Lagerfeld for more than 50 years.

Wednesday at 2:00pm CET

A deepening partnership at Prada

It’s been less than one year since Raf Simons joined Prada as its co-creative director alongside the company’s longtime star designer and controlling shareholder, Miuccia Prada.

A first womenswear show in September was all about juxtaposition: taking iconic fabrics and silhouettes from Prada’s vocabulary and layering them with Raf-isms, like language-driven graphic prints and cutouts. Some critics argued Simons’ imprint was heavier than Mrs Prada’s.

As Simons and Prada settle into the partnership, their first autumn collection may continue to put the tension between their trademark styles front and centre. Or we could see them develop a more hybrid vision that blends their respective taste in unexpected ways.

Either way, the stakes are high for this collection to find a market. After revenues fell 40 percent in the first half of 2020, Prada bounced back with retail sales declining just six percent in the second half and recovering to pre-pandemic levels in the month of December, thanks to renewed traction in a Chinese market where local sales are booming.

Shares in the company are trading at their highest levels in nearly three years, but are still far lower than their 2013 peak: so even with a seemingly speedy rebound underway, investors could use a convincing collection to boost sales.

Thursday at 2:00pm CET

Reigniting growth at Valentino

Valentino, too, is trying to lean into signs of fresh momentum in the market.

The Rome-based brand’s revenues fell 27 percent to €882 million last year, but the company says it saw a “rosy upturn” in the fourth quarter thanks in part to a speedy recovery in wholesale orders for its pre-fall collection, which the brand flagged as the first season designed by longtime designer Pierpaolo Piccioli since devising a new strategy alongside chief executive Jacopo Venturini, Gucci’s former merchandising master.

Piccioli has long wowed fashion insiders with his poetic, ultra-feminine ready-to-wear and haute couture runways. But sales momentum has slowed since 2016.

The designer has seen commercial success with casual, logo-driven lines like VLTN, but the disconnect between those items and the gowns he was designing for the likes of Lady Gaga made it hard to market the brand coherently. Now, Valentino’s mission is to articulate its positioning with refreshed commercial products that are more in line with Piccioli’s runway vision and with the brand’s heritage.

With a live-streamed show from Milan’s Piccolo Teatro, Valentino could elaborate on—and go public with—some of the ideas introduced to wholesalers for pre-fall (that collection is being kept confidential until its delivery in May).

Monday at 2pm CET

Tod’s and Ferragamo: leather-goods laggards

Other brands facing pressure to renew themselves this season include Ferragamo (Saturday at 2pm CET). The Florence-based brand once united Italian leather goods with celebrity glamour as the shoemaker to old Hollywood stars like Audrey Hepburn and Greta Garbo. Over the years, its handbags and silks have also been swift sellers. But Ferragamo has a long way to go to bring back the buzz of its storied past. While the brand has continued to bring new talent to its design studio, it has struggled to reenergize its ageing image.

The pandemic hit hard, with sales tumbling 33 percent to €916 million last year, and media reports including by the Financial Times have flagged that an overhaul of the brand’s senior team could be imminent, including the potential departure of designer Paul Andrew, chief executive Micaela Le Divelec Lemmi, and executive chairman Michele Norsa (Ferragamo’s former CEO who returned to the Florence-based house to help steer it through the crisis).

Tod’s (Friday at 3pm CET) has also struggled, reporting declining sales for the fifth consecutive year, with revenues dropping 30 percent to €637 million. A new designer, Walter Chiapponi, who joined the brand in 2019, has been working to refresh the shoe- and bagmaker’s image, trying to turn its sporty take on Italian sophistication into something more laid back and accessible for young consumers. But the business, whose flagship product is still brightly coloured suede moccasins, has a long way to go to shake off a precious, Euro-preppy vibe that may be off-putting to more cosmopolitan consumers. While designer collaborations with the likes of Alber Elbaz and Mame Kurogouchi did little to move the needle, the modernising thrust of Chiapponi’s collections has been well-received.

The long-standing challenges at Ferragamo and Tod’s illustrate just how hard it is to make ready-to-wear pertinent for a shoe brand. But keeping up consumer interest as a footwear pure player, without other categories to animate their marketing and their stores, would be no easy feat either. So expect continued efforts to ignite fresh energy.

Related Articles:

LVMH Is Trusting Kim Jones to Define Fendi’s Post-Karl Look

Can a New Chief Bring Commercial Magic Back to Valentino?

Tod’s Factory Strategy: Is It Working?

Editor’s Note:  This article was revised on 24 February 2021. An earlier version of this article described looks that were mistakenly identified as coming from Valentino’s pre-Fall 2021 collection. They were not. Valentino’s pre-Fall 2021 collection has not yet been revealed to the public. The looks described in the article were from resort 2020-2021.

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