MILAN — Where has all the sex gone?
The tango between dressing to please the Id and dressing to satisfy the Ego that used to define fashion in Milan, with a shimmy here met by a stomp over there, seemed, as the Italian ready-to-wear shows drew to a close on Sunday, to have turned into something of a line dance instead — everyone stepping in time to a more blandly choreographed tune.
It’s as if, in this brave new dawn of get-down-to-work Italy (or at least the promise, or hope, of such a brave new world), there’s no room for the flesh and fantasia of yore. The bunga bunga has left the catwalk.
How else to explain Roberto Cavalli’s decision to abandon his “we’re with the band” aesthetic in favor of a going-through-the-motions greatest hits tour of his oeuvre, from bright ethnic print maxi-dresses to sequin-paved leopard-print evening gowns by way of lacy white romance and distressed denim? Sure, there were a few moments of ostrich-trimmed rocker lust in there, but blink and you’d be on to a silver crocodile mini-suit. Mr. Cavalli is in the midst of negotiating the sale of a minority stake in his company and this was, it seemed, the runway equivalent of a pitch book.
And how else to explain the fact that at Versace, the brand that practically defined the idea of in-your-face Glamazon dressing (think: Elizabeth Hurley in that safety-pin dress; Jennifer Lopez in that cut-below-the-navel number), there were a whole bunch of ... jackets on the runway?
That would be suit jackets: single button, thigh length, and cut to mean business.
Granted, they came paired with midriff-baring tops and skorts, either brief or asymmetric, with one leg long and the other short in a style reminiscent of the artistic director Donatella Versace’s work at couture, and sprinkled among shift dresses with a graphic geometry, like a magnified version of the house’s famous Greek key pattern.
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But even the crystal-covered evening looks — miniskirts and halter scarf tops in pastel shades — and the long primary colored sheaths with a contrasting zigzag up the front had a Power Plate, as opposed to dominatrix, air. They got physical, it’s true, but it was the kind of physical that might burst into jumping jacks at any moment, as if Ms. Versace had been on an aesthetic cleanse and hit “refresh.”
Perhaps this is why Giorgio Armani, always the yin to Versace’s yang and a uniform of the executive suite, finally felt able to relax into his own signature instead of constantly contorting himself out of his comfort zone, as he has in past seasons.
He called his collection “Sand,” and started it with a short movie by the Oscar-winning director Paolo Sorrentino (“The Great Beauty”) about nature on the islands of Lipari and Stromboli, including brief shots of an almost-naked man and woman bound by ropes and lying on the beach (which provoked a momentary shift of unease). But the clothes themselves were simply fluid examples of what Mr. Armani does best: washed silk jackets in multiple incarnations (cropped and swinging, three-button, embroidered or knit); straight, easy trousers; organza skirts silk-screened with images of rolling dunes, and expertly gathered silk chiffon dresses, all in the sun-bleached tones of the seascape.
At least until evening, when elegant beaded cocktail numbers were paired with sheer organza harem pants or a cropped tulle trouser (or, inexplicably, a pair of shorts and a cropped tulle trouser). As if it was really necessary to remind us that these are clothes made for a nomad of the corporate kind.
Yet thus it went, collection after collection, to mixed effect. A mind is a terrible thing to waste and all that, but so, it became clear, is a body.
At Tod’s, a meditation on gardens led Alessandra Facchinetti to squared-off or crescent-cut separates in forest green and white and mahogany hole-punched leather, meant to evoke the negative of the pebbles on the bottom of the brand’s famous driving shoes; palm-print silk trouser suits, and mid-calf skirts. The workmanship was impressive, with some skins so light they looked, and could be manipulated, like paper, and the concept was clever but the net effect was of an intellectual exercise: the garments neutered.
At Salvatore Ferragamo, Massimiliano Giornetti produced a polished play on texture within the framework of the brand’s standards: cape coats; bias-knit halter dresses; midi-skirts; all often trimmed in snakeskin. Touched not by an angel but an animal print, and producing a very genteel purr.
And at Jil Sander, making a well-mannered debut for the brand that was once the secret sauce of glass-ceiling breakers everywhere, Rodolfo Paglialunga found his connection to the house’s history in schoolgirl uniforms, from v-neck thin knit sweaters to crisp cotton button-downs, wrap gabardine skirts and hip-slung drop-crotch Bermuda shorts.
There was a suggestion of — well, suggestion, in the slit-back of a shirt, and a striking sparingly pixellated print, but it was hard not to think these clothes doth follow the rules too much. Letting the mind govern the body is one thing; letting it rule with an iron fist another entirely, as both Consuelo Castiglione of Marni and Tomas Maier of Bottega Veneta have always well understood.
Though there was nothing seductive about the former’s 20th anniversary show, a celebration of craft and construction, it had a handmade, counter-intuitive appeal of its own. Oversize rough canvas schmattas were whipped into shape by judo belts, or came in the form of tunics over loose trousers and calf-length sundresses; blinding yellow and metallic versions of the same were splashed with painterly florals; and then it all got gradually gussied up with vintage ruffles down one seam, plus crystals and mirrors and other appliques de luxe. In disguising what lay beneath, the clothes nevertheless dangled the question of what you didn’t see.
Meanwhile, at Bottega Veneta, Mr. Maier said he was thinking of a “dancer’s walk” and how garments move on the frame, and that meant knit cotton bodysuits and leggings (ahem), covered by long linen dusters, which led him to sweats, but rolled up and slouchy, the sweatshirt tied in a big bow at the neck, which in turn gave way to a series of lovely dresses cut like a ballerina’s frock (sleeveless, tied at the waist, generous to mid-calf), crafted from raw-edged dark denim or strips of shirting fabrics or crushed gingham, occasionally covered by a veil of black tulle like a scrim, and sporting corsages of sequined and appliquéd flowers. They were smart, in every sense of the word.
“I’ll have one of those,” panted an audience member on the way out.
Apparently, one kind of desire is still around, anyway. The question is where has the other kind gone?
The fashion flock moves to Paris Tuesday, and the season’s final leg. Given the relatively colorful, and public, state of President François Hollande’s love life, perhaps we’ll find an answer there.
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