Several days of Milan shows can convince you that fashion is one big branding exercise with journalists obfuscating matters by using grand language (“tropes,” “canon”) to describe what is essentially nothing.
You see the same leather jackets, the same large but tasteful bags, as if there’s a universal brand book that luxury companies must follow. Even worse, you see a narrow idea of life. The trouble with imitating European elites, as Bally’s designer did with bored-looking male models tricked out in blazers with silk neck scarves and trousers tucked into high boots, is that the style becomes part of a packaged reality, the same one you get on Instagram or in a brochure for private-jet travel or a hotel. It is ridiculous, of course.
Matthieu Blazy kicked off the Bottega Veneta show with a woman with tousled brown hair wearing what might have been her nightdress or slip and a pair of thick socks. She was followed by her flatmates or maybe her brother and sister, he in a pinstriped nightshirt over his office duds, she in boxers and her boyfriend’s shirt, both in socks. It helped to know beforehand, as some writers did, that the show would be based on the Italian love of promenading and socializing in the streets and squares. And if you’ve ever observed this tradition, at its peak during carnival, you know that it’s the sartorial version of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Or, in this case, The Good, the Bad and the Sleepy. With that little bit of context, you could sit back and enjoy the procession of 81 characters — the number of looks in the show.
We’re used to encountering an abundance of characters in movies and novels. But in fashion, apart from differences of race, ethnicity, age, and body type (and often not even those minimal standards), the clothing itself is rarely treated as a character with particular and individual qualities. Historically, that’s because couture houses since Worth in the mid-1800s were built around the personalities and tastes of their founders. If you wanted understatement, you went to Armani. And so on. Today, brands tend to stick to their guardrails, tweaking familiar styles and using everything that surrounds the clothes — the shows, celebrities — to create a sense of newness. Like other kinds of businesses, luxury brands are also using data to know where they rank in consumer engagement. It’s all very technical and rather dull and has become more so in the last five to ten years.
The truly remarkable thing about the Bottega show was how riveted people were throughout. The only other show that produced that kind of enthrallment, for different reasons, was Prada. Are people just starved for examples of self-expression that feel authentic and also a little bit strange without being off putting? Did the show’s intense pacing, with a drum-beating soundtrack, help open up all the senses? The answer to both is “Yes, without a doubt.”
Blazy, in his third season as creative director, didn’t literally take Italian archetypes and play with them. That would be deadly. Instead, he made abstractions. I saw in the opening looks — the slip and boxers as well as a big, sloppy lavender sweater with socks — the way teenagers and college kids dress, the self-conscious bagginess, the coziness they feel with their friends, maybe as well as the tolerance of older generations, to let them just be themselves. The “night” dress was a light cotton gauze, though it almost looked like silk or latex. Of course, the socks and boxers were hardly smelly-teen garb; they were made of leather, as was the pullover. Blazy drew on Italian dapperness with clean-cut dark suits and coats but added a newer look for women in professional jobs: a plain, lightweight gray wool tunic tucked into matching wide-leg trousers. Lace-edged two-piece silk dresses could have taken their pastel shimmer from the Easter-time window displays in Italian cake shops. A flouncy pale-blue dress might have been a nod to bourgeois correctness, a series of multicolor knit columns or skirts with fuzzy trimming to the influence of Asian and African immigrants in Italy.
Knowing what Blazy and his design team were up to, it was not hard to look at an extravagantly feathered pale-green coat with brown splotches and imagine it may have materialized from a sweet lump of pistachio stracciatella. Indeed, the spotted carpeting in the room was based on the same ice-cream flavor, apparently Blazy’s favorite. But in the modernist pattern of that carpeting (not so far from the design style known as Memphis), in the brilliance of the craft techniques in the clothes as well as some of the subtle details, one also saw a real connection with Italian history and culture. That’s a much harder thing to convey without belaboring it — and Blazy didn’t. He set up a big human stage and let you draw your own allusions.
Before the Bally show — in a mansion owned by one of Italy’s earliest merchant-banking families and recently acquired by the Arnault family, reportedly to expand their art foundation — the new creative director, Rhuigi Villaseñor, said that a childhood fantasy of his was to “win the lottery, so I could go truffle hunting and horse riding.” Fair enough. But his answer to luxury fashion doesn’t quite gel. He says it has become democratized. True, but the majority of his styles — belted leather coats, a mini with a hoodie and big boots, slinky party dresses — added to the sameness as well as the clichés of high living. Many of his clothes would look fine on a rail in a store, but they’re not cutting it on a runway.
Maximilian Davis’s second main collection for Ferragamo was an impressive step up from his debut. He caught the shifts toward a lean silhouette, body-conscious tailoring, and a new gust of black — which promises to be a headline at the Paris collections. He also deftly played on Ferragamo’s history with Hollywood stars, extracting only gestures and details, including an elegant, off-the-shoulder neckline for a sheer metallic lamé minidress, and not going for the full revival. In short, he kept the look modern and youthful without excluding the brand’s core customers. The accessories were also excellent with a new version of an early rope-chain sandal and bags with resin handles based on an archival Bakelite version. If the collection had one demerit, it is that it needed more lightness of spirit, a bit more humor and joie de vivre.
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