Milan Menswear For Spring 2013 was a relief as fashion designers, chastened by the economic crisis, relied on tried-and-true designs, writes Guy Trebay
OF the many insults to intelligence cranked out by corporate culture over the last decade, surely “brand DNA” must be the worst. Capitalism is many things, but so far as is known, it does not begin at the cellular level.
What is particularly vexing about the metaphor is that it gave rise to other empty buzzwords like “authenticity,” which in almost every case means the thing under consideration is a fake.
People want simple stories, as we all know, and as the Web has fragmented all aspects of ordinary life they hanker for them more hungrily than ever. That this should also be true of fashion ought to come as no surprise.
Since brands usually originate from some inventive mind or creative germ, their stories, when legible, can be highly persuasive. Conjuring moods and atmospheres, rehearsing narratives, is, after all, an important part of fashion’s task and its magic. Rappers who throw exotic foreign labels into their rhymes well understand the power of name-checking Prada or Gucci.
So this week it comes as a relief that the designers behind those and other houses here, chastened by the economic crisis, stuck to basic concepts and their own simple tales. Declining in general to gin up kitsch references to cowboys or rockers or Mods or American Indians, they relied on tried-and-true design.
In the best cases — Prada, Jil Sander, Calvin Klein, Gucci — they hewed to those aspects of design that drew consumers to their labels in the first place. A lot was made of the fact that Miuccia Prada presented a menswear show in which women also appeared, that the palette was characteristically kooky and muted, that the clothes were minimal and androgynous and based on simple shapes and flattened planes.
No one seemed to mention how much they resembled similar efforts by Phoebe Philo at Celine, which is not of necessity a bad thing.
Few other designers manage as well as Prada and Philo to create clothes that, while distinctly of fashion, have a context in the actual world. Each has the ability to intrigue consumers without challenging them to dress for the airport or office as if every day is Halloween.
Prada was tough and cool, stripped of the wacky piled-on ornamentation of some recent shows. Trousers with inseam stripes of varied colours, shown on the usual striplings but also on male models in their 50s, were more radical for being plausible when worn not merely by persons of either sex but also those of a certain age.
Jil Sander, in her return to the house she founded after a not-entirely-voluntary retirement (during which she designed breakaway-hit collections for the Japanese mass-marketing behemoth Uniqlo), was also assured on arrival.
Fans from Sander’s early days could always count on her to provide hard-working fabrics in shapes that were deceptively simple, proportioned and detailed with a precision few designers could match. One of the more famous quips about Gandhi was that it cost a fortune to keep him poor: His vaunted simplicity was not achieved by simple means.
Similarly, the hang tags on Sander’s garments let you know that minimalism doesn’t come cheap. Whether Sander — with a collection of long shorts, sleek lightweight tunic coats (some without sleeves), painterly colour-block prints and barrel-shaped car coats, some in signature colours like Yves Klein blue — will regain her niche in a difficult marketplace is an open question. Yet there is every reason to celebrate her return.
And there is also cause to praise two designers who, not being showboats, sometimes fail to get their due. Frida Giannini’s show for Gucci demonstrated again how well she understands the idea behind Gucci and its origins in a sweetly indulgent era when, unlike today, dolce far niente did not seem like the punch line to a cruel joke. Who has time for the good life when you are working two jobs to survive?
Apparently the Gucci consumer does, and so Giannini creates clothes for him to wear on a Mediterranean idyll: Neatly cut suits in the colours of Necco wafers, double-breasted and worn over lean trousers punctuated with a broad crisp cuff precisely at ankle height.
She presented lightweight coats at fingertip length and with an easy full proportion. She sent out a white version of the classic Gucci loafer, the one with the egg-snaffle bit. She offered her rendition of the ubiquitous weekend bag in a baiadera stripe (and in alligator: The lizard wore it better). The mood and the world she conjured may not be altogether imaginary, Italy, too, has its one per cent.
Italo Zucchelli, at Calvin Klein, is another underrated designer with a gift for capturing the mood of alien cultures. In his case it is not the super rich yachting off the Sardinian coast but what, before his show, he termed “American heroes.” What he seemed to mean was an ordinary Joe, a person for whom a jeans jacket is a basic item of work wear and not an ironic commentary on Americana.
Most intriguingly, what Zucchelli does is eliminate frippery, tinker with a basic vocabulary of shape (a jeans jacket was shown in both a rib-hugging version and one boxy enough to cover a television set), crank down the neutral palette that is a house signature to the point where it suggests bleached bones in a desert, and essay a variety of deceptively effective tricks using complicated fabrics. A subtle black-over-white micropleat fabric rendered as a dinner jacket, for instance, is something no one with less of Zucchelli’s expertise should ever attempt.
That there were many standouts among the shows here this week (10 to 12 of them a day) owed a lot to designers cautiously hedging their bets. It is logical that in a city as industrial as this one, they might be at their best when most commercially restrained.
Across the board there was a welcome absence of kitsch. (Well, almost: Dsquared, Dolce & Gabbana and Versace took affectionate theme-park tours through, respectively: Club land, Sicily, and Las Vegas, complete with gladiators in see-through mesh underpants right out of an International Male catalogue.)
The flight from kitsch is a theme worked by Tomas Maier at Bottega Veneta, where he once more pulled off an ultrarestrained sartorial training session for the ultra rich. It is hard to imagine what, without his strong hand guiding them toward impeccable casual taste (think silk or suede Baja pullovers, cotton crepe sweaters, neat suits subtly surprinted with vaguely floral patterns), the hedgies would do.
Actually it isn’t. They would show up for lunch at the Four Seasons restaurant, that last bastion of elegance, in Mark Zuckerberg hoodies or mum jeans.
Similarly, at Salvatore Ferragamo and Missoni, the designers Massimiliano Giornetti and Angela Missoni kept faith with their devoted clientele. Signs of continued hope, if not of sweeping optimism, were easily detectable. Even those collections that did not merit a great deal of contemplation provided images to lift the spirits of a Gloomy Gus. At Neil Barrett, it was of models walking in the rain outside an ancient palazzo wearing baseball-style jackets patterned like soccer balls.
At Umit Benan, it was the woolly and heavily inked designer scampering across his set — tableaux of rumpled beds, their occupants recumbent — in just his boxer shorts. And at Giorgio Armani, it was a flight of handsome models closing a show that, whatever its merits, could never be mistaken for that of any other designer.
Wearing crisp white suits with short pants, they were like a signal from the designer, who turns 78 this month, that life, the good one, will surely go on. NYT