MILAN, Italy — The Milan men’s fashion week that closed yesterday was flowing smoothly. Nothing particularly new, really. Designers had played it relatively safe, largely bolstering the codes of their respective labels without adding much to the overall fashion debate, until, suddenly, the action ground to a halt at the Gucci show, the brand’s first following the exit of former creative director Frida Giannini.
Are you ready for the ‘fourth sex’? The gender-bending trend is going to get massive.
As soon the first look hit the runaway, a model, so lanky and long-haired you could barely tell if he was a man or a woman, the pussy bow of his red silk blouse enforcing the impression of total, if natural, effeminacy, you immediately sensed you were about to witness something big: a blatant about-face for the brand, though certainly not a fashion epiphany. Fey depictions of masculinity have been part of the collective sub-consciousness, at least in this hyper-romantic and flamboyantly sensitive sense, since Mick Jagger and Brian Jones, back in the heyday of the Rolling Stones, began exchanging clothes with their girlfriends. Hordes of rock stars followed, until The New York Dolls turned gender-bending into farce.
Following the urgent brief to make Gucci younger and fresher again, Alessandro Michele — former head accessories designer, who oversaw the collection, stepping into the limelight almost overnight following Giannini's abrupt and early dismissal — delved into the decadent and slightly psychedelic with a zealous fervour not dissimilar from the way Hedi Slimane, season after season, approaches underground iconography and turns these tribal styles and behaviours into desirable product at SaintLaurent. What he did, with little more than a week to produce the entire collection, was outstanding: surely young and, at least in this corner of the fashion world, undoubtedly fresh, having practically done away with all the high-octane testosterone that once fuelled the world of Gucci menswear.
But was this truly Gucci’s new direction, or merely a clever move to put the brand back on the fashion map while it awaits a real plan? Was it genuine style or a mere communications tactic? You can't really tell. Cynical, it was not; smart, it was for sure; commercial, not at all, especially if you keep in mind the mass luxury market Gucci has courted of late, which will hardly be ready for a look so wild and free.
One way or another, Gucci brought excitement back into the sleepy Italian fashion scene. If a brand that has had masculinity so firmly on the agenda all of a sudden embraces the femminiello, an homme-femme as delicate as the silk he wears, it means one thing: change — a little, perhaps, but for Italy it’s still a lot.
For the rest, it was mostly endless repetitions of familiar styles — and this applies to conservative and progressive labels alike. Even Miuccia Prada played it safe and left you scratching your head, turning the clock back to the mid-90s, when she convinced fashionistas all over the world that black nylon was the pinnacle of luxury. If Milan fashion's number one prankster starts to bore you, it is a problem. Or maybe it isn’t. Looking closely, Mrs Prada keeps losing momentum season after season. As her show venues get more theatrical and complicated, her collections repeat the same tropes ad nauseam and ad infinitum. This season her choice to focus on uniform dressing felt like a déjà vu, but it was interesting to imagine Mrs Prada putting an end, with her ultra-sombre black and charcoal lab coats, to the current cult of faux eccentricity and fancy dressing.
Strangely enough, both the Gucci and Prada shows, albeit dramatically different, had lot in common. They both pointed clearly, though in opposite manners, toward genderless fashion, resolutely blurring the masculine-feminine divide with neutral clothing. And they both enforced the message by sending men and women together down the catwalk, dressed more or less in the same way.
Giorgio Armani, who has a word or two to say on the subject of sartorial androgyny, also mixed menswear with womenswear. Are you ready for the ‘fourth sex,’ then? You should be, because the trend, which has been on the runway in London for several seasons now, is going to get massive.
Of course, shows mixing womenswear and menswear collections might simply be explained by the temporal overlapping of menswear and Pre-Fall. But I think there is clearly a lot more going on. Metropolitan society is moving fast toward a convergence of genders and fashion is moving with this.
Whatever it is, here comes another glorification of youth. Genderless styles, in fact, require bodies so lean and skinny, so pale and neutral, they can only be adopted by those at the age of puberty or a little older, which, in a way, is just another expression of the pervasive nostalgia that characterises our days: the longing for what you do not have, astutely turned into fuel for desires that urge you to buy.
The genderless trend, however, was not just romantic. It often rhymed with deviance and provocation in a rock ‘n’ roll kind of way. Again, nothing new. In these uncertain times, it is common practice to look at what successful houses are doing and replicate this. In fact, currently, everybody wants to “do a Saint Laurent” (as in Hedi, not Yves), bringing energy back to dormant style shores. Never has the skinny rocker been so widely explored as a style icon as it is today: from Diesel Black Gold to Roberto Cavalli, everybody proposed a version. It made for a lot of boredom, but also displaced the “normcore” vibe everybody blindly adopted last season. It was time. Normality, in fashion, is an unbearable concept, especially if it is blindly embraced without a modicum of perversion.
All these movements and changes, of course, did not prevent some Milanese designers from producing extreme visions of machismo. There was a lot of that too, if a tad softer than usual. At Versace, for instance, the goings got predictably ubermensch, without the S&M factor.
Generally speaking, however, the focus was not on attitude, but ambiance. It was a triumph of everything that is tactile and real, as opposed to virtual, which generated a widespread obsession with nature in its wildest, most lively state (soil and trees featured in many show venues).
Which, in a way, brings us back to the beginning. Is the rise of the femminiello something real or something virtual? Most likely, it will spawn a thousand editorials, but what about the effect on the lives of real customers? We are no Nostradamus to predict, but it's clear that true change often comes unannounced by big trumpets. For instance, the recycled fabrics and sustainable materials married with elegantly utilitarian silhouettes that Stefano Pilati proposed at Zegna Couture were truly, deeply progressive. They were understated, too, so passed a bit under the radar. In the long run, however, they will produce true change and real improvement. Milan's best collection was also the quietest one.