In Milan, shallow waters, designer islands, and the world of Donatella Versace

Alexander Fury
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A look from the spring/summer 2015 Versace menswear show

Donatella Versace wanted her show to be a celebration of the Versace World. Sounds like a grand statement, but you got it. Versace’s Cuban-tinged collezioni not only felt like a distinct entity from Dolce and Gabbana’s Caprice Espagnole, Neil Barrett’s slick sportswear tinged with Roman classicism, or Stefano Pilati’s serene Ermenegildo Zegna show: it felt a world apart, as did they.

Maybe that’s something to do with the Italian psyche. The country only came into existence in 1861: hence the fact regional accents and attitudes vary wildly. There isn’t only a North-South divide in Italy, but a fragmented national identity with each of the peninsula’s provinces jockeying for prominence. What an echo that finds in the fashion world, in the ferocious competition between rival brands. Montagues and Capulets had nothing on Armani versus Versace in the eighties, or Gucci’s rivalry with Prada a decade later. And each, of course, proposes their own form of national dress.

For the most part. Alongside the mega-wattage shows bolstering the schedule – Prada, Armani, Versace, Gucci, all labels with a global fashion resonance – you’ll find a multitude of lesser-known names, churning out slick but fairly anonymous suiting that all, somehow, identify a single key trend a season – sports! shorts! knits! – and latch onto it for dear life. This season, FYI, it’s a slim trouser cropped at the ankle. Ankles!

If the designers of Milan are islands, these brands (often with named but unremarkable designers at the helm) form a soupy sea of Super 100 wool lapping at the shores. They’re necessary to keep Italian fashion afloat though – they’re all making a killing, quietly. Those conservative suits go down well in China, currently the largest single menswear market in the world. Ask any of them where their best market is, and they’re extolling the virtues of the Chinese consumer before you even reach the end of the sentence.

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Stefano Pilati for Ermenegildo Zegna, spring/summer 2015

Arguably, Ermenegildo Zegna used to be one of those anonymous brands. It had a higher profile than most – Zegna manufactures suiting for a welter of fashion names, including Gucci, Saint Laurent and Tom Ford, while their fabric alone is a highly sought-after commodity. They create over over 2.3 million meters a year, and 1.6 million pieces of sportswear. They are a giant. Until recently, they were less slumbering than lumbering. Then Stefano Pilati happened.

Today, Zegna can justifiably open Milan fashion week, because what Stefano Pilati is doing there is very good indeed. He’s giving the brand not only a fashion relevance, but a distinct point of view. He’s pulled them out of the soup.

Pilati isn’t doing anything revolutionary, really. He’s creating real clothes with a luxurious bent that warrant a place on a catwalk. This season, ostensibly, Pilati’s inspiration was architecture versus space. Which translated to big coats, big trousers, and a generally relaxed feel to the clothes. There was also formality versus leisure – hence stripes, simultaneously redolent of business suits and deck chairs.

They’re emphasising the appellation “Couture” at Zegna at the moment – which I said yesterday stood for craftsmanship (sorted), expense (around eight grand for a suit? That’s nailed) and exclusivity (if the latter doesn’t scupper your chances of picking up some Pilati, its scarcity will). However, couture is also the creative force behind many a French mega brand – John Galliano once rightly said that couture was the “engine” of a given house. It’s the same for Zegna – I just hope they can steer Pilati’s prodigious talent down the right path.

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The backdrop to the spring Versace show, in Milan

Tim Blanks of commented to me that he liked the Zegna show because it was so Pilati. That’s the reason I liked Versace so much too. Donatella Versace is absolutely true to herself, and to the legacy of her brother Gianni. In menswear, as in womenswear, that legacy is about sexuality and sensuality, of fabric (frequently, not much) slithering over skin.

Obviously, that notion is inherently tied up in the idea of people wearing the clothes – which is why, despite their undeniably outré presentations, Versace shows never feel like one of those pointless but far-too-frequent exercises in flashy gimmicks. At least, not recently. She’s nailed what a man comes to Versace for, or rather who that man is, which is ultimately more fruitful as you can expand to offer him everything he needs. As if to prove just that, Donatella roped half of the Versace Home collection to the backdrop of her show space – wanna chair? She’s got just the gilded Louis Seize fauteuil upholstered in leopard you’ve been looking for.

Dolce and Gabbana undoubtedly share Donatella’s breadth of vision. If Dolce and Gabbana were a country, they would of course be Sicily. If nothing else, their shows are exercises in excavation, and they have uncovered such reams of history under the Sicilian soil it would put Pompeii to shame.

This time, it was – very specifically – the Spanish influence on Sicily, which I suppose came across in some Italianate tailoring given a traje de luces twist with a curved waistcoat and possibly cropped trousers (there, again!). Frogged and frilled with velvet trim, those ended up looking more dodgy Duran Duran. But somehow, when stitched onto slouchy, oversized silhouettes with an air of Americana, it worked. The issue is the lack of focus – that sports stuff is a fresh departure for Dolce and Gabbana, and one that feels relevant. The sea of suiting just drowned it.

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An oversized t-shirt, by Dolce and Gabbana

That focus on building blocks of a man’s wardrobe – away from the classic tailored suit – is becoming more and more evident. Neil Barrett showed his entire collection with tracksuit trousers, in cotton sweatshirting or super-fine wool. They had a precision and a pin-neatness, but avoided stuffiness. It helped he twinned everything with luxe trainers, with glinting metallic panelling, or hefty-soled Chelsea boots, and outerwear was variations on Harringtons, Crombies and Perfectos. Really, they’re all technically “sportswear” – there’s no need to think that has to mean saggy shorts and raggedy t-shirts. Barrett gave them a crispness, a starchiness even, that would have stifled in a suit. Here, it worked.

There was nothing stiff, or starchy, or even ironed at Tomas Maier’s Bottega Veneta show. It matched the audience, many of who appeared to have literally rolled out of bed for Bottega’s traditional, crack of (fashion) dawn 9.30am show. Maier’s clothes were crushed, artfully rumpled and twisted around the body, like an off-duty, off-guard Nureyev in his sweat-stained training trackies. I’m not selling it, but it had a rawness, and a sensuality, that was compelling. Maier’s clothes are always tactile, but this time there was a interesting injection of tense sexuality that felt new.

Plus, in Milanese heat, any designer advocating perspiration as the new black gets my vote.

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