Look Back in Anger
No Recession Chic on Milan Runways. Instead, '80s Are All the Rage

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 4, 2009

MILAN, March 3 Anger is rarely pretty -- a fact that explains the unpleasant state of so many of the fall clothes unveiled in Italy's fashion capital over the past seven days.

Designers have plenty to be upset about, considering that the global economy is spiraling downward. And American retailers have become villains here for running fire sales on so much designer merchandise that for a while Saks Fifth Avenue took on the look of a souk.

Out of that disgruntlement has come a longing for more decadent times and a desire to lash out -- only there's no one readily available to absorb the blows. One can't exactly kick AIG in the knees. The angry zeitgeist has led designers back to the 1980s.

For fall, designers have taken a shine to more pronounced shoulders, the hard-rock style reminiscent of hair bands like Metallica, the sexual aggressiveness promulgated by Studio 54 and a vulgarity that grows out of insecurity and fear. The missing element in all of this '80s regurgitation has been the hedonistic pleasure that made that period seem so glittering and fabulous (often aided by drugs).

The irony of the fashion industry looking back 20 years is that the '80s were not a particularly attractive time for clothes. Although women were flexing their power -- both professional and purchasing -- they did not look especially good doing it in acid-washed jeans, teased hair and poofy skirts. The designers of the day included folks such as Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana, who popularized tailoring so razor-sharp that it could draw blood if folks pushed in too close in a crowd. This was the "greed is good" period of fashion. If there was any sort of metaphorical message in these clothes, it was this: Stay back. Screw you.

Designer Roberto Cavalli noted, in a statement, that he believes in looking a recession in the eye and fighting back. Presumably a woman should do that while wearing one of his black jersey studded dresses or a pair of lace-up black jeans.

The designer has had his share of problems this season. The Italian company that produces his secondary line, Just Cavalli, filed for bankruptcy protection and as a result the designer announced that he was canceling the show. A few days later, the licensee filed a lawsuit against the designer for publicly maligning it. (His signature collection was unveiled as planned.)

Except for Versace, none of the designers made much of a success of this '80s revival. Anger has the ability to inspire and motivate. And while it may not necessarily be the healthiest emotion, it can certainly be a powerful one. But more often than not, the anger was self-defeating.

When styles are revived, there are two firm rules:

1. They should never return in precisely the same way. They must be tweaked to appeal to modern eyes or combined with something else to make them fresh.

2. They must look more expensive than anything that could be pieced together with a little help from H&M, Gap and Goodwill.

Dsquared offered a collection that was a visual mash-up of Guns N' Roses meets disco. Models marched down the runway in shredded bouclé jackets, cropped denim coats, faded plaid shorts, wrinkled evening gowns and oversize knit caps. They were wearing all this at once. Along with ropes of giant crystal necklaces. While clutching venti Starbucks coffees because they were out partying all night.

See Rule 2.

The collection that Frida Giannini presented for Gucci violated the same rule. It was inspired by Tina Chow, one of the party girls of Studio 54 and similar nightspots. And it was filled with skinny trousers with tiny pleats at the waist and cropped jackets. Sparkly tunics topped leather leggings, and fluid baseball-style jackets twinkled with crystals.

The collection was youthful and languid. It was even rather slutty -- in that way from when you were just past 21, flexing your sexuality, enjoying the pleasures of staying out all night and nursing hangovers at a cubicle job that was worth it only because it bankrolled the premium cocktails.

The problem with that kind of "slutty" is that it usually doesn't come with the trust fund to bankroll Gucci goods. Giannini created a fall collection that defined sexy in a manner that is immature and simplistic, rather than powerful or provocative.

Which brings the conversation around to Versace. The show Monday night marked the informal finale to Fashion Week here. The collection included jersey dresses that slithered around the body and were held in place by metallic silver belts. The coats were lush and chunky; a particularly fine black one was splattered with sapphire sparkles. The gowns fit the models perfectly -- a surprisingly rare feat in the fashion industry -- and the silk or jersey fabric was often interrupted with nickel-size paillettes laid out like scales that added structure to an otherwise fluid silhouette. And there were gowns with curving cutouts tacked together with metal bars -- a reference to the safety-pin dress made famous by model Elizabeth Hurley in 1994.

Creative director Donatella Versace presented a grown-up collection that oozed sex appeal but never vulgarity. It took many of the best aspects of the '80s -- the willful debauchery, the exuberance and the rise of the powerful woman -- and made them relevant and desirable in 2009.

But other houses were not so skilled in linking past with present.

The new designer at Emilio Pucci, Peter Dundas, traded in an emphasis on the bold and cheerful prints the house is known for and went in a darker direction. Could anyone have been surprised that it had an '80s twist? There were dresses with elaborate eagle prints, jeans with rhinestone embellishment and "Mad Max" outerwear. The collection gave Pucci a needed push away from the cliche of abstract-print everything. But much of the inspiration seemed drawn directly from the French house Balmain, whose designer, Christophe Decarnin, could be the ringleader in this '80s mass hysteria.

Designers here overwhelmed the runways with clothes that evoke isolation and selfishness. These clothes do not invite a friendly pat on the back. And couldn't everyone use a couple of those right now? Instead, these clothes swagger and make the wearer look as though she believes herself to be wholly self-contained.

The design team of Tommaso Aquilano and Roberto Rimondi presented their signature collection as well as one for Gianfranco Ferré. Both lines were dominated by harsh lines, sharp shoulders and dark hues.

At Ferré, the clothes had a pencil-thin silhouette except for the occasional flourish on a blouse. The dominant colors were black and charcoal. And the only real hint of softness were the ruffles that rose up tightly around the neck.

For their own line, the shoulders were just as severe and many of the models even wore black lipstick, but the duo tapped into the ostentation of the '80s with bubble skirts and balloon sleeves.

Of the two collections, their namesake one exuded the most personality and energy. It was elaborate and indulgent, but one shudders to think how expensive it will be.

At shows here, people have talked about what is appropriate attire in these times. Will anyone want to wear a big poof of fuchsia satin? But the reality is that people really aren't worried about whether their clothes look too expensive or lavish. What really concerns them is whether their clothes make them look strident, uncaring and disengaged from reality. Will some designer frock make them look like they have the same attitude as one of those executives who didn't understand that taking employees on a lavish spa retreat after receiving bailout money is not only crass but stupid?

No one wants to look like the imbecile who just doesn't get it.

Designer Consuelo Castiglioni faced down those obstacles and created a collection for Marni that spoke of richness and luxury -- in part because of her extensive use of fur and jewelry constructed of 24-karat gold and semi-precious stones. Yet her silhouettes are soft and welcoming. The sensibility of the collection is joyful rather than confrontational. And it is free of the haughtiness that emanates from so much of the '80s aesthetic.

There's nothing wrong with wealth or dressing in a way that reflects one's means. But wealth should be worn like a fragrance. A whiff of it in the room is fine. But it should not stink up the joint and linger long after the wearer has left the premises.

That's why collections from Marni, as well as Burberry, Max Mara, Missoni, Prada and Bottega Veneta were so successful this season. Designer Christopher Bailey opened the Burberry show with a white dress and a clay suede trench coat. The lushness of the coat was obvious. It was apparent in the glorious detail of his silk velvet dresses and crewneck sweaters. But the clothes also drew you closer to the wearer. There was an intimacy to them. And out of intimacy comes, one hopes, compassion.

Angela Missoni layered her fine-knit tunics, leggings, coats and head wraps. She referenced North Africa in the styling of the collection, but really these were delicate knits, elegantly conceived, and no smoke and mirrors were necessary to bring them to life.

Max Mara opened with a simple, perfect camel overcoat with a belt. Nothing else was required of this house. Its job for next fall was done.

Miuccia Prada offered a collection of weighty tweed skirts and oversize jackets, velvet brocade dresses and embellished coats. There were leather tunics adorned with spangles and fur tunics that evoked "The Flintstones," woman-as-huntress and no small amount of head-scratching confusion. Still, the collection offered a strong and enticing way to stand up to the depressing toll of a recession without the self-destructive rage.

And there was no collection prettier than Tomas Maier's for Bottega Veneta. It had nothing to do with the '80s. It wasn't futuristic or snooty. Instead, it was true to the house's belief in understated clothes that are sophisticated above all else.

Maier created a sand-colored cocktail dress with a bare back that was held up by fine strands of crystals. It could be a club-going dress -- just the thing for a champagne-soaked night. But it also announces that the champagne is vintage, the party is exclusive, the wearer would never sell herself cheap and there is no reason to let anger destroy a perfectly lovely evening.

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