MILAN, Italy — The Milan Fashion Week that closed yesterday was a crazy ride. There is no getting around it. As an Italian myself, my words do not come without a modicum of discouragement and bitterness. Italians really have little clue how to value their national treasures, nor how to stand united against adversity. It is a historical fact. They’d rather fight internally and protect their narrow little fiefdoms than overcome differences in the name of a higher goal.
The Milan show schedule was hell. Compressed over just five days, it made the life of editors and buyers complicated to say the least, forcing us to adopt an inhuman pace and to make some drastic choices. It was quite simply impossible to see everything. Poor logistics made things even more complicated, obliging us to make infinitely long — and infinitely silly — rushes from one corner of the city to the other, back and forth, all day long. Whoever put together the calendar seems to have no idea how to mediate between the giant egos of designers, the result being both farcical and disrespectful of everybody's efforts.
Milan Fashion Week felt like a perfect meal served on plastic dishes.
It's funny, actually. This edition of Milano Moda Donna was supposed to be a rebirth. The recent management changes at the Camera Nazionale della Moda and the arrival of chief executive Jane Reeve gave everyone hope for change. But change is hard in Italy. There is always a dinosaur blocking your way. Our up-and-coming designers, with a few exceptions, are well into their forties. And, save for a couple of thirty-somethings in editor-in-chief roles, the Italian fashion press is firmly in the hands of the old guard.
Worst still, Italy seems to be averse to generational turnover. Struggling young designers are often patronised by powerful editors who just squeeze fresh blood to their own advantage, without offering real support. It's not just visibility that new designers need, in fact, but a working infrastructure and business support. It is rather unlikely that an established brand will take a newcomer under its wing and put him or her under the spotlight. Even Mr Giorgio Armani, who generously offers his Teatro venue to a promising young talent every season, limits his encouragement to the staging of the show. It would be more interesting to witness an effective passage of knowledge from one generation to the next. It would also be a natural way to preserve Italy's unique savoir faire, sought after by designers the world over.
Fighting against the windmills, to reference Don Quixote, is pointless, anyway, not least because, despite the averse conditions, there is a lot boiling under the surface and a new wave of creators is trying to push their way forward: Arthur Arbesser, to name one, whose minimalist sensibility and knack for artsy presentations is a refreshing breath of fresh air; or Angelos Bratis — this season's guest at Armani/Teatro — a sensual purist with a Vionnet-like proclivity for technical wizardry. It's just that these agitators are, more or less deliberately, moving under the radar. So much so that the international editors who keep labeling Milano as old often do not take time to discover them. They should. These stalwarts might not be as cool and networking-inclined as the Brits, or as cocky and assertive as the French, but they need attention.
Because in the end, the reason for the frenzied shortness of Milan Fashion Week is the international press itself. Last season, Anna Wintour left early, skipping the Armani show on the closing day and upsetting everyone. Mr Armani was furious. He loudly proclaimed that he didn't care, but then, this season, in a typically Italian about-face, he pushed his own show a few days earlier. Wintour sat front row and things were right again. But it is not just Anna Wintour who leaves Milano as fast as she can, many editors do. The city is, tellingly, a little boring and a tad sad, with a cultural offering not as rich as its glorious modernist past would demand. The whole of the Italian fashion system, however, cannot be held hostage by a bunch of fashionistas, not even the most powerful person in the industry, who is so busy anyway, she can only attend big shows and little else. Then again, Ms Wintour might be absent, but her team is always present and this is something the Camera della Moda should acknowledge, even in a realm as despotic as fashion.
Apropos of slow renewal, nostalgia was looming large this season on the catwalks, which is just another sign of a country obsessed with the past. The counterculture and rebellious 1970s were on everybody's minds. From Peter Dundas at Pucci to Veronica Etro, many delved into the era, maybe to alleviate the pain of a heavily conformist present. There was little or no forward thinking, unless you consider Miuccia Prada, whose raw take on brocade looked positively harsh and marvelously brutal, or Consuelo Castiglioni, who celebrated Marni's 20th anniversary with a breath-taking journey from monastic forms to the unbridled frenzy of decoration. Other names worth mentioning are Marco De Vincenzo, a designer prone to amazing surface manipulation — even though he could do away with the ladylike shapes and the heavy styling — and Gabriele Colangelo, a vibrant purist. Rodolfo Paglialunga's debut at Jil Sander was safe, yet assured. And Donatella Versace opted for a razor-like sharpness that looked captivating.Italy should revert back to a time when being self-sufficient made it attractive for foreigners. It should work on renewing itself, opening spaces for new names and pushing boundaries. The Camera della Moda should nurture real talent, most of all, but it should do so relying on new advisors to map Italy's creativity. Otherwise, you know, it will be the nth failure. Of course, being a country in a permanent state of crisis does not help. Servility to external needs and demands is the result of an industry that relies almost solely on exports to survive.
If there were scarcely any unprecedented ideas in Milan, welcome to the present state of fashion. Although protected and promoted by the local press, New York and London were certainly not that much better, if a tad less nostalgic. Innovation in fashion today is an almost impossible goal: the system as a whole rejects it. Because most of the things lauded as groundbreaking are often deceptively so — just consider some industry darlings who, at a closer look, are little more than devotees of Nicholas Ghesquière, Rei Kawakubo or Miuccia Prada.
Which brings us back to MFW. Italy needs energy, but most of all it needs institutions that will let the energy flow correctly. This season, to put it bluntly, the fashion on the runways was good — not excellent, a tad safe, but generally well executed. But, to use an analogy, the table service was poor. Milan Fashion Week felt like a perfect meal served on plastic dishes. Other fashion weeks might offer pre-cooked or humble meals, but they serve them lavishly with silver cutlery.
So, Camera della Moda: push thing upwards and onwards. And you, international editors: stop being unforgiving for the sake of it. It will work to the advantage of all. Italy's unmovable old guard will eventually retire. At least, that's what we hope.