MILAN — The last days of Milan Fashion Week took place as cases of the coronavirus crept closer and news reports came that at least two people had died in nearby cities. Though there were temperature checks at the airport — a uniformed man with an electronic thermometer greeted people disembarking from London — apparently it wasn’t enough. Schools and public spaces were ordered closed.
But not the shows! Though a cough nearby could often pause conversation, the shows would (and did) go on.
At least until the very end. Then Giorgio Armani, given the theoretic honor of being the closer, announced he would unveil his collection “behind closed doors. The decision was taken to safeguard the well-being of all his invited guests by not having them attend crowded spaces.” Instead, it would be held in his empty theater, and streamed live.
Through a screen (or phone), it was possible to see the empty Armani theater, a facsimile of a reflecting pool with nodding lotus blossoms at its core. Out flowed models wearing iterations of Armani classics in black velvet and flowers etched on silk in pink and blue; languorous silhouettes and strains of “Swan Lake;” cavalry epaulets, watery moiré and tufts of new leaf marabou — and a finale of red, black and blue sequined gowns with pyramid shoulders and traditional knotted black tassels, all gowns taken, according to the news release, “from the Giorgio Armani Privé Spring/Summer 2009 and 2019 collections, which were specifically inspired by China.”
After the controversy that Mr. Armani caused earlier in the week, when he said during a news conference with Italian journalists after his Emporio Armani show that women were “regularly ‘raped’ by designers” because they were pushed to submit to trends and wear clothes that were overly sexual and inappropriate for their age, body or mind-set (he didn’t exactly apologize afterward, though he did make a statement saying he wished had used another word), the ghost show made for a strange, subdued ending to a relatively subdued set of collections.
Every chief executive sitting front row at their brand’s fashion show and greeting guests with enthusiasm would later turn to the side and whisper, sotto voce, “the situation is complicated.” There’s been a lot of beige. A lot of protective layering.
A lot of “wrapping things for warmth,” as Veronica Etro said backstage before her whistle stop tour of lavishly decorated gauchos and bohos; (security) blanket coats; denim, paisley and lamé; all of it finished in a series of weather-resistant patent leather slickers in black, which she dubbed “a color that protects.”
Sex is off the agenda. Even at Versace, the brand that went viral last season with Jennifer Lopez live and leaving little to the imagination in jungle print, Donatella Versace was singing the praises of sensuality that is “almost restrained, sketched and never shouted” in her show notes.
Everything is relative, so that actually meant (for both men and women; increasingly the dual-gender shows are not about gender fluidity but one for him, one for her) big 1980s shoulders and belted jackets; zebra stripes and supersonic florals; metallic pinstripes and black leather; slashed slip dresses held together by chunky gold staples and chain mail glam. Still, it’s a sign of the times: Familiarity can be a refuge, even if it feels a little stale.
There’s been a general about-face away from the digital world and its virtues (what virtues? being the operative principle), save for a trend toward LED screens as a backdrop in numerous shows, like a Band-Aid of modernity. As far as clothes, the techlash has become infectious. Instead, the focus was on craft, and tradition.
“I need to return to my culture,” said the shoe designer Giuseppe Zanotti during his presentation, looking longingly at one of the delicate court shoes with a tuft of feathers and horsehair at the ankle on display, rather than one of his sneakers, which he called a monster of his own creation (though he still had a lot of them; needs must).
He was tired, since he had woken up early to do a series of live streams for his employees, editors and influencers in China, who hadn’t been able to make it to Milan. “I killed my sensibility,” he said mournfully.
Francesco Risso, waxing philosophic at the end of his Marni show, echoed the same idea. “Behind each object is a hand, but is it the hand of time or the time of the hand?” he said, referring to a collection which had been like nothing so much as a D.I.Y. trip down the rabbit hole to the warrior queendom of Zog (Mr. Risso took his bow in a white rabbit mask that encased his entire head; the atelier had made it for him the night before).
Scraps of leathers and suedes were patchworked together in a rough Betty-Rubble-meets-the-Road-Warrior series of sleeveless minidresses and billowing greatcoats; tunics and trousers, and princess chemises held together by a big silk bow at the breast. Later cable knits met ribbed knits met angora on chunky cardigans, and tapestry fabrics he said were woven in Venice on looms invented by Leonardo da Vinci were spliced into velvet brocades and silk.
Even molten gold and silver got collaged in, framing holes in the fabric like melting portals to a recycled world. Make do and mend never looked so good.
Tactility is staging a return — especially among the founding families of Milanese fashion. At Salvatore Ferragamo, Paul Andrew played with plush shearling and foliage-embroidered chunky cashmere and trompe l’oeil corseted tweeds. At Missoni, Angela Missoni sent out geometric knit bathrobe coats and cardigans like a hug for the urban professional (also ribbed Lurex polo dresses over matching leggings).
And at Agnona, Simon Holloway wrapped and layered and enveloped in camel cashmere and cream shearling, gray flannel and ebony double-face wool. If it sounds so timeless it would fit Rip Van Winkle, it was, a bit. Almost every brand created a brown leather trench. Safety is often boring. But it doesn’t have to be.
Or so Daniel Lee showed at Bottega Veneta, abandoning the tough-guy trickiness that had marked the clothes in his first two shows in favor of extreme comfort dressing: long, unconstricting, with a certain enveloping clarity of purpose and a touch of the X Games.
Black overcoats were cinched at the back with a leather clasp rendered just slightly askew, a single gold button glinting beneath the broad collar; ribbed skinny silk knit tubes in neon brights devolved at the knees into swirling strands of fringe (fringe being the single biggest trend in this city).
It didn’t all work — fringed pants resembled costumes for a lost yeti and droopy balloon-shade crystal-covered frocks called to mind a deflated disco ball (they were better as jeans) — but shearling coats and bags trailing more yard-long fat jellyfish tentacles were so squishably soft you wanted to either reach out and pet them or cuddle up inside one.
In that warm, wiggling cocoon, what could possibly go wrong?