With ruby slippers and '90s nostalgia, Milan designers take a backwards look for fall.

By Eric Wilson
Updated Feb 25, 2019 @ 1:15 pm
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Of all the curiosities that appeared in the fall collections during an uneven Milan Fashion Week, it’s the gaudily glittering ruby red crystal shoes and dresses that seem most peculiar. There were red crystal shoes from both Miuccia Prada and Sandra Choi at Jimmy Choo, red crystal mesh dresses at Emporio Armani, and also a skirt and booties at Philosophy di Lorenzo Serafini, a rare coincidence that suggested Swarovski was having a fire sale on bedazzled materials this season. Dolce & Gabbana had a red sequined dress and a pair of twinkling red shoes, too.

One obvious explanation for this trend in such times of distress — especially here in Italy, where elite designers have been facing a backlash over recent examples of casual racism — is that, like Dorothy, they’re clicking their heels and hoping to escape.

This has been an unusually strange season in Milan, filled with disconnects and sometimes aggressive displays by designers who seem to be seeking to simultaneously mollify and provoke. Gucci nearly blinded its audience with a flashing LED display that’s purpose, whether as the world’s first communal tanning bed or just an attempt by Alessandro Michele to hypnotize the critics, was suspicious. Roberto Cavalli deafened the crowd with music so loud that the runway shook. Bottega Veneta baked guests under a see-through tent in the sun. And some of the runways have been so long that the shows never seem to end.

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Still, some of them have been terrific. Gucci’s collection, once you poked a hole through the program and watched its reflection safely in the shadow of the eclipse, marked an advancement for Michele into looser silhouettes and less ornamented clothing, with designs I would describe as considerate. Lovely loose trousers and jewel-toned collages of tunics and scarves suggested a more relaxed and freeform approach that didn’t scream “Gucci” or “Guccy” so loudly. But in place of the usual embroideries, the models wore ominous looking masks (spiked or shellacked for serial killing) or had fake tears applied to their faces. This was, in Michele’s uniquely esoteric way, a mea culpa of sorts, as masks speak to the creation and manipulation of identity, a recurring theme of his work. When a balaclava he designed sparked an uproar for its resemblance to blackface, he responded by saying he would take the experience as a lesson, and a challenge to create something new.

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Prada’s response to a similar problem was to create a knockout collection on the subject of romance, good, bad, and otherwise. With tough-looking boots and hairstyles that suggested the Addams Family, and ugly Frankenstein prints shown alongside beautiful ones of roses and lightning bolts, this yin-and-yang show felt alluringly relevant in its bipolar embrace. Who else could combine black lace with army fatigues in one outfit and not seem standoffish?

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The most obvious signs that Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana remain in the doghouse for their disastrous display of cultural insensitivity in China last year were that the crowd of screaming fans outside their show on Sunday had dwindled to a whimper and prominent Chinese editors were not in attendance. Inside, however, the bubble remained intact. The designers put on an old-fashioned show with a theme of “eleganza,” with a camp British announcer narrating the gem-covered gowns and Sicilian black dresses as if they were in a stage rehearsal of “The Women,” or “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”

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Another explanation for the odd sensation creeping across Milan is this lure of nostalgia for more glamorous times. Some shows brought so many supermodels out of retirement that the potency of such moments is already beginning to fade. Guinevere Van Seenus, Farida, Tatjana Patitz, Jacquetta Wheeler, Gemma Ward, Violetta Sanchez, and Alek Wek walked in a powerful Etro show that beautifully wrapped generations of women in paisleys and velvet. Liya Kebede, Maggie Rizer, Georgina Grenville, Kirsty Hume, and Wek joined the cast at Ferragamo, too. Shalom Harlow opened for Donatella Versace’s awesome throwback to Nineties grunge, and Stephanie Seymour closed. The music, too, was stuck in the 1980s and 1990s, with soundtracks featuring INXS, the Pixies, Hole, and Nirvana on repeat.

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Daniel Lee’s debut as creative director at Bottega Veneta, meanwhile, was definitely not nostalgic. The approach of his predecessor, Tomas Maier, was strict in its quiet elegance, and, at times, uptight. But Lee, who comes from the hallowed halls of Celine, smashed through Bottega’s heritage like the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a butt kick that Bottega deserved. A moto detailed jacket and pants in thick black leather, in particular, and padded skirts and coats, suggested a harder edge in store for the brand, but there were also some pretty festive dresses made in disco-ball mosaics that glittered as much as the red crystal dresses elsewhere. The wide frame of Lee’s jacket collars was also sharply cut, and that look is likely to create a real fashion movement this fall.

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The death of Karl Lagerfeld on Feb. 19 cast a further shadow over the week, but his final Fendi collection, in collaboration with Silvia Venturini Fendi and shown two days later, was incredibly moving. Some of the models appeared to have tears in their eyes, as did Lagerfeld’s many friends in the front row. And such a beautiful show it was, with spare autumnal tones on crisp jackets and loosely woven mesh tops, punctuated by a bright yellow slicker or a soft teal pleated skirt and sheer blouse with a high collar in the personal style of Lagerfeld. You could really see his hand in the attachments of large bows to several of the looks, and the clean lines that sprung from his illustrations.