Arriving in Milan for the start of Italy’s main fashion week on Wednesday, I couldn’t escape the feeling I was suddenly lost in a fever dream – and not one of my own making.
How was it, late that night in a fancy villa somewhere off in the suburbs, that I found myself in a spontaneous moment posing for a selfie between Bryan Boy and Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister of Italy? I hadn’t had that much to drink at that point, just a sip of red wine that was so bone dry I abandoned the nearly full glass to its resting place on a marble mantelpiece, next to the 20-something-foot Christmas tree that had been decorated with enormous, glittering crystals and pictures of Karlie Kloss, who happened to be standing next to it. It being the tree, that is, not the wine glass. I swear I’m not making this up.
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Berlusconi, who, as it turns out, has some ownership connection to the joint, now rents it out for parties, though presumably no longer of the bunga-bunga variety. This one was for Swarovski, to introduce its holiday advertising campaign with a “Winter Wonderland” celebration, the September timing of which only makes sense if you work in fashion and are accustomed to completely ignoring the calendar. Dinner tables were set with pine branches and green holiday candles dripping wax on crystal stars and crystal trees and piles of purple calla lilies. Maye Musk, currently the chicest model of the senior set at age 69 (and mother of Tesla ceo Elon Musk), was seated at my table. She appears in the campaign with Kloss, Naomi Campbell, and a slew of other influential types, who, believe it or not, were photographed in their holiday finery last February. And so, with my sanity circling the drain, I complimented Musk on her finely pleated dress and asked if it was by Issey Miyake.
“It’s not Isaac Mizrahi,” she said.
“Nor Issey Miyake?” I asked.
It was Nina Ricci. I praised her jewels, too, a wad of gumball-sized crystals, by Swarovski naturally, that ringed her neck. Isn’t that heavy?
“Anyway, I’m a model,” she said. “Nothing’s heavy.”
I could have talked to her all night, but it was getting so late and, really, it had been a long first day of shows with many more to come. There was Gucci, of course, which was equal parts perplexing and satisfying, in a way that only a fashion show can be that purposefully makes it impossible for its guests to see the actual clothes. In fact, the sensation that the audience is at risk of being left in the dark, dashing from show to show while processing too many visuals with too little information, has only increased as Milan Fashion Week carries on.
And so, I decided to press pause before sitting down to the keyboard to write this until I had some answers to report.
While a lot of people were reasonably upset by the fact that Alessandro Michele, the Gucci creative director, had bothered to create a museum worthy set of statuary modeled from different eras and regions (I was seated in the Egyptian wing, I believe), and then presented his collection under lighting dimmer than the backroom of a gay discotheque (who knows what was going on behind that Buddha?), I chose to follow the designer’s instructions and enjoyed the immersive aspect of the experience. Here and there amid the flashing strobe lights came glimpses of models dressed in what looked like the uniforms of a high school wrestling team, a go-go boy in a mesh shirt and hotpants, a Bugs Bunny sweater vest, and (soon to be on my personal order) a T-shirt with Bob Mackie’s signature scrawled on the back. This collection, or what I could see of it, raised a lot of questions, not the least of which is whether Bob Mackie, like Dapper Dan before him, is screaming cries of design appropriation right about now.
In essence, Michele’s offering for spring was more of the same bizarrely rich tapestry that he has enticed us with since his assumption of the throne of Gucci, and that makes fashion critics nervous. When, oh when, they ask, will he move on to something new? But that’s kind of like asking Michele when will he stop making clothes that sell so damn well and stop getting people into stores during a time of world turmoil. So you can hardly blame him for flouting the rules.
On Friday, I had the chance to see the clothes up close under normal circumstances in the Gucci showroom, and they were fantastic, with an interesting side story to tell. According to the house, Mackie, who still sells clothes on QVC, indeed had been made aware of this homage, which went far beyond the T-shirt and came about as the result of Michele’s friendship with Elton John.
Sir John had lent several of his old stage costumes designed by Mackie from his personal archives, and Michele then created his own takes on these deliciously vulgar displays of over-the-top performance glitz: A collarless purple jacket with green sequin snakes, a tiny glittering purple jacket with neon lightning bolts, and several other outrageous designs that will make up an Elton John capsule collection for Gucci in the spring.
If there is one thing we can all agree on, it is that the spring collections in Milan have at least featured an awesome soundtrack. At Gucci, it was a pounding version of the song from “Requiem for a Dream.” Alberta Ferretti, whose collection mixed swimwear and her own take on glittery disco wear, started her show with the voice of Whitney Houston belting, “How Will I Know?” Ferretti, like many Italian designers who are seeking to remix their images in the face of ever more fickle consumers, may have made some followers uncomfortable, but she’s certainly not boring.
Two other big shows – Fendi and Max Mara – were less provocative, but especially strong efforts from houses better known for their fall collections, given their specialty is outerwear. Fendi’s versions for spring – layered transparencies, printed with a pastel motif inspired by Italian futurism, were quite fetching, all the way down to the hosiery and see-through shoes. The combinations resulted in outfits so diaphanous they could have been a promotion for a lingerie campaign. But they allowed the bags to shine in many varieties, from tiny ones attached to a strap to big bags affixed with tropical inspired bananas, monkeys, and palm trees (complete with tiny coconuts). Max Mara picked up on the transparency trend, too, with paper-thin trench coats and sheer overlays that suggested nothing less than the overt French sex appeal of the show’s longtime stylist, Carine Roitfeld, which undoubtedly was the intention.
As for Miuccia Prada, her women’s collection was a bit of a potboiler. She picked up the plot from her most recent men’s wear show with a set design that portrayed enormous renderings from a graphic novel on the ceiling and walls of her show space, but the lines were now harder to follow and required some explanation. Oversized baby doll dresses appeared in punkish color block patterns and cool short jackets were embellished with illustrations and lots of studded panels, like comic books that extended beyond the two-dimensional. We later learned that much of the featured artwork paid tribute to the pioneering female cartoonists of the 20th century, and that this was a Prada statement on empowerment, but it wasn’t readable at a glance, not in the context of a runway show. And that reflects a challenge for smart, purposeful designers today: How do you communicate a bigger message in an environment of instant gratification? Do you leave a trail of breadcrumbs as clues, or rely on your devoted fans to figure it out?
Jeremy Scott does not require deep thought to understand. His latest exercise in irony at Moschino pitted butch biker chicks against the My Little Pony fan club, followed by a non sequitur into dresses sculpted as orchids and floral bouquets, leaving Joan Smalls to walk the runway with thorny rose stems protruding from her bodice and Gigi Hadid to compete for recognition with a carnival of carnations. While the images they created were amusing, I have to say the models didn’t look like they were enjoying this particular narrative all that much.