MILAN, Italy — While the action outside of the fashion shows increasingly takes the shape and contours of a cabaret, populated with attention-seeking wannabes who think the shortcut to power and fashion influence is a look — the sillier, more outlandish and jam-packed with ‘it’ items the better — the catwalks embrace a new kind of twisted normality. At least, this is the message that emerged from Milan men’s fashion week, which ended yesterday.
If Miuccia Prada, fashion’s dada provocateur-in-residence, avoids thought in favour of conscious plain-ness, you just have to sit down and take notice.
Of course, a hint of normality is not at all a surprise. It has always been the case in menswear, where cultural and aesthetic parameters restrict daring flights of fantasy and fancy, containing exuberance within well-defined, difficult-to-escape (if increasingly softening) limits. Metrosexuality or 'spornosexuality' notwithstanding, men are brought up to tame their inner peacock, that's for sure, and we're used to that. It's just that, this season in Milan, normality became plain, simple and slightly anonymous.
That said, Milan's new normality has nothing to do with “normcore” — the trend that's been on everybody's lips over the past six months or so — unless you consider as such the flood of colourful shower slides (the ones at Fendi were particularly outstanding) and sturdy tourist sandals (at Salvatore Ferragamo they were made of perverse collages of the most precious skins) that appeared under suits and dress pants. But while normcore embraces non-descriptness as a mantra, coming across as anti-fashion, and hence a form of fashion thinking, Milan's new normality seems devoid of thought and theory. It puts the emphasis on the “norm” and, in a way, signals a shift of focus: from fashion as a laboratory of images broadly intended as cultural artifacts with the power to shift sensibilities to fashion as a factory dishing out products with no strings attached.
Again, this should hardly come across as a surprise; fashion, as an industry, is all about the product. The final and fundamental act of the whole system — despite the glamour, the glitz and the volatility — is a commercial transaction rooted in product. Yet, in the straightforwardness of the fashions that we’ve just seen in Milan — from Prada's wardrobe of slightly-off-yet-perfect staples and Calvin Klein's flesh-toned sportswear, charged with a tingle of fetishism, to No.21's off-kilter basics and Giorgio Armani's self-referential repertoire – the tautology that a jacket is a jacket, and should simply be perceived as such, is overwhelming.
A product is a product is a product — and that's it. Fantasies, for the moment, are banished and, with them, the immaterial yet all-pervasive aura which turns lifeless pieces of clothing into lively, fascinating objects. If Miuccia Prada, fashion's dada provocateur-in-residence, avoids thought in favour of conscious plain-ness, you just have to sit down and take notice. And if you feel slightly bored watching the parade of perfectly classic, utterly timeless pieces — the ones that you should really rush to buy as soon as they hit the shops — well that's just a side effect. Or is it?
All in all, Milan, was not that boring; rather, it was bland, lukewarm. It lacked the rush of adrenaline injected by the unexpected. It did not produce a fashion moment, but a series of highly theatrical shows filled with banal fashions. We saw nice clothes, perfectly made clothes, clothes in frankly challenging fabrications. And nothing else. "I find the challenge of re-creating a basic by means of slight alterations far more interesting than producing something crazy," said No.21 designer Alessandro Dell'Acqua, which was somehow a perfect summation of the Milan season, but also an expression of its weakness. Enhanced basics are the norm in many areas of today’s fashion market, not least on the high street. Why should one buy designer versions of these? What makes these pieces truly outstanding? Sometimes, honestly, it’s hard to tell the difference.
But there is more. Most of the looks seen on the Milan catwalks struck an uncanny resemblance to the street style snaps of fashionistas and beautiful nobodies that flood social networks, which is not a good sign. When designers narrow their attention span to fashion-land, and fashion starts to feed off fashion, the result is asphyxia or cannibalism.
Fashion needs a kick in order to progress and avoid homogenisation. But the Italian tendency to conformism was instead blatantly apparent in the Milan collections: they all looked more or less the same, as if designers took cues from identical inspiration boards or — more likely — worked with the same consultants.
The topic can also be seen from another angle. In some senses, what Milan seemed to be channeling was the luxury of anonymity: a reaction to everything that is boldly eye-catching. The quest for invisibility — which, by now, is the real provocation — could be seen in softness, volume and muted colours. Paradoxically, it was also evidenced in a proliferation of graphic signs over surfaces: patterns that can make one disappear in the crowd of the concrete jungle. Indeed, this season, geometric patterns were everywhere, from Zegna's stripes, Emporio Armani's graphics and Gucci's marina stripes to Fendi's texturism and MSGM and Andrea Incontri's mismatches.
These same motifs, of course, can also act as a signal, putting the wearer under a spotlight. But one way or another, visual deception is the result. And the apparent oxymoron perfectly catches the spirit of this uncertain moment in menswear: according to Italian designers, men are torn between the opposing forces of standing out or blending in, two primary human urges that transcend fashion and time.