Look Back in Anger

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

Post fashion editor Robin Givhan says designers in Milan have plenty to be upset about. The angry zeitgeist has led designers back to the 1980s.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 4, 2009; Page C01

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.

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