Robin Givhan on Fashion: Eclectic Shows on Milan Runways

Designers for Milan houses Bottega Veneta, Jil Sander, Versace, Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana reacted to unsettled economic times in varying ways. Tomas Maier showed restraint, Versace projected power, while Dolce & Gabbana offered earthy sexuality.
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 29, 2009

MILAN, Sept. 28 -- Everyone has a different tonic for the sourpuss mood caused by economic malaise. For some, the answer is to seek that inner Zen spot by surrounding themselves with soothing elements. Others decide that the answer to bad times is to punch back, to kick and holler, to go Bacchanalian even. They need to feel spent before they can find serenity.

The designers who recently finished showing their spring 2010 collections here didn't take a formal vote on the best response to this era of economic stress, but the majority opinion on the runway is that raucous, passionate excess is the only way to make it through the hard times. Restraint and stoicism will only serve as reminders of the pleasures that have gone missing.

Bottega Veneta

The designer Tomas Maier at Bottega Veneta was virtually alone in his argument or meditative tranquillity. The airy and elegant collection he showed Saturday morning was the essence of pretty. It was filled with silk and cotton dresses in shades of buttery yellow that slipped off the shoulder, and crisp ivory summer dresses that would make everything else that might surround them on a hot June day -- distressed jeans, wrinkled linen sundresses, baggy cargo shorts -- seem sloppy or overwrought.

Maier presented his collection at the company's new offices, which are about a 20-minutes drive from the center of Milan. Maier insisted on punctuality and order -- and none of the frazzled energy that comes from guests racing in at the last second. Maier wanted peace. That desire comes through in his clothes with the spareness of the designs, the understatement, the refusal to act out. Maier's work references all those things a grown-up is supposed to be.

Jil Sander

Raf Simons has a lot in common with Maier. Both of them share a love for clothes that are controlled and lacking in flamboyance. But while Maier is quick to show his romantic side, Simons's work for Jil Sander has always been more tightly wound and austere.

Only the most perceptive eye can locate the sex appeal in Simons's clothes. It reveals itself in the same kind of repressed, yet potent way as Michelle Pfeiffer revealing her wrist in "The Age of Innocence." Simons typically offers a sensual rationing of skin in an era of plunging necklines, HBO and illicit sex videos.

For spring, however, Simons moved directly from wrist lust -- skipping necking, canoodling and hooking up -- directly to garment-rending passion. After his Friday night show heaved to a conclusion, it wouldn't have been surprising if one had wondered: Should I have used protection?

Like all great designers, Simons is a storyteller, an anthropologist and a technician. He knows how to speak through a well-placed seam or a seam that has been shredded. He understands what moves people emotionally and what makes them squirm uncomfortably. He showed his talents in his usual open white loft. By moving the cluster of photographers out of sight and earshot, there was a heightened sense of intimacy in the room with its low benches and bare walls. Video screens hung from the ceiling and throughout the show, they played, on a loop, a savage sex scene: groping, writhing, hair-mussing.

The models, with stoic faces, moved around the room wearing mostly neutral tones. Dresses had roughly torn fabric remnants attached to them like some elaborate Post-It system. Soon dresses and jackets emerged with slits ripped up from the hem or crescents slashed along the sides of the torso. Another dress had its sleeves hanging below the shoulders as if they have been torn from their sockets in a single violent and passionate movement.

Yet for all the simplicity of the clothes, a single rip, seen against the backdrop of the video, took on potent meaning. Perhaps it told an entire story about love and hate. Or maybe, passion and repression. Or could it simply be a tale of desire and loss?


There could not have been two shows more contrary in message to Simons and Maier than the collections from Donatella Versace and Frida Giannini. Their work roared down the runway with audacity and aggression. The soul of Versace has always been an assertive brand of femininity and sex appeal. Versace, for the past few seasons, has taken that sensibility, tamed it and incorporated it into daywear that a professional woman could love.

In her spring collection, which she showed Friday night, she brought out the almost tribal prints in yellow and lime, pink and black. It would be wrong to describe her dresses, with their thigh-skimming hemlines and metallic lashings around the waist, as being for party girls, because there is always something womanly in the way that the models move on the Versace runway. With their confident walk and through the silhouette of the clothes -- the strategic cut-outs and structure of a corset bodice -- the models are able to control the gaze of the audience. Look here, not there. These garments are for women who have much more on their mind than merely a party.

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