Italian designers -- specifically the men -- are in a bad mood, and they're taking it out on women.
Perhaps they are angry about a world filled with violence and instability. It might be that they are frustrated that the Italian government has fallen yet again. Could it be global warming and the widening hole in the ozone? Or maybe their mamas simply did not hug them enough when they were children?
When the fall 2007 shows ended here Friday, the facts could not be denied. The anger was palpable. The objectification was extreme. The clothes were mean. And it was always the men who were responsible. Far too many male designers thrust their provocative, distressing and unflattering fantasies onto the backs of women.
At Dolce & Gabbana, the designer duo seemed deeply conflicted about the role of women in society. Whore or madonna? Based on their runway presentation, as well as a photo exhibit that opened last week and examined their erotic dreams, one could interpret their take on womanhood as: My mother was a widowed mafia mistress.
At DSquared, mean-spirited oppressiveness was masquerading as a sophisticated joke. At Belstaff there were aesthetic abominations such as tight leather jumpsuits. The designer Giles Deacon, in his first show for DAKS -- an old-line British firm -- put women in shaggy sweaters and headgear that looked like slabs of plaster that cracked off the ceiling.
Can't these brothers, boyfriends, play husbands and "main gays" show a woman a little love and respect?
Donatella VersaceOnly the sophisticated, strong and sexy collection presented Friday evening by Donatella Versace served as a true counterpoint to Milan's descent over the last few days into a quagmire of misogyny. The first ensemble down the runway at the Versace show was a fitted black blazer with a short black skirt. The fabric hugged the body; it did not accost it. The matte black of the jacket was interrupted with panels of matching iridescence. The model took long strides in her platform pumps. This was the look of intelligence and eroticism that the men had only been able to conjure in the form of a cliché. Versace gave her audience an image of a woman who was mysterious, sexy and strong. But she did not look like Lara Croft, "Matrix" woman or an "X"-girl. These were clothes, not costumes.
One after another, Versace's models paraded out in clothes that were simple but beautifully cut. They hugged the waist and celebrated the hips. They sent up a cheer for a fine hourglass figure. There was a simple sheath in shocking coral worn with a black patent leather belt. The waistline of a white coat was imbedded with silver crystals, and the cuffs were dipped in white fur.
Versace did not dress women up like unconvincing drag queens -- all big hair, false eyelashes and trussed bosom. Men, are you listening? Versace offered grown-up glamour -- the kind that was nurtured by Hollywood, Barbies, rock stars and the cool girl in elementary school who was the first to get her training bra.
When Donatella Versace took over the label after the death of her brother Gianni in 1997, she talked of bringing a woman's influence to the collection. Initially, there were only hints of that shifting sensibility. A decade after his death, that feminine hand is unequivocally present.
The silver-chain-mail mini dresses are cut low in the back evoke a kind of fizzy energy. The evening gowns offer the perfect balance between being sexy but also chic. They are provocative, but also feminine.
One of the first gowns on the catwalk was all black with thin bands stretched across the torso. It hinted at the eroticism of bondage attire, but it did not transform the viewer into a voyeur into someone's sweaty fantasy. That dress stood out because of the skill with which it was executed and the restraint that was its hallmark. It was like an irresistible pickup line.
The Versace shoes, with their platform and chunky heel that sparkle when the light hits them just so, are the kinds of shoes a woman will wear understanding that she'll be massaging her toes by day's end. She doesn't care because she knows how long her legs will look and what kind of lift her derriere is going to get. Besides, those shoes are as mouth-watering as gumdrops.
Dolce & GabbanaThere were stilettos at Dolce & Gabbana that looked to be about six inches high. They bent and wobbled each time a model took a step. They made runway pro Gisele Bundchen stumble. They were so perilous that someone should have complained to OSHA. Those are the kinds of shoes that tick a woman off. They make her paranoid: Surely, the designer must hate me.
At Dolce & Gabbana, there was technical proficiency and design skill in the clothes, but there was no subtlety or restraint in the presentation. The designers noted that they have shifted their interest from creating clothes that are "molto sexy" -- which has always been their mantra when building their collections -- to those that are erotic. Apparently the difference has to do with the amount of patent leather in the collection, the height of the heels and the degree to which the corsets prevent a woman from taking a deep breath.
The designers' runway Thursday afternoon was filled with women wearing tight leather everything, carrying crystal-studded riding crops, hiding behind black patent leather eye masks and swaddled in leopard coats encased in black tulle.
It is impossible to discuss the designers' ready-to-wear without considering the photo exhibition in which they are the stars. The images were originally shot by photographer Steven Klein for W magazine, and they reveal the designers, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, in various stages of undress and in situations that reveal their secret erotic fantasies. (Klein interviewed them, thus ensuring the pictorial accuracy.) In the exhibition's opening photograph, Gabbana reclines on a bed in only his briefs and a pair of stilettos. In another photograph, Dolce lies on the ground on his back as a woman stands over him. Her stiletto-clad foot rests on his naked chest. He's staring up her skirt. Other images combine rosaries, nudity, the iconic "mafia widow" and an admiring homoerotic aesthetic.
Ordinarily, one would be loath to engage in pop psychology to make sense of a designer's collection. But Dolce and Gabbana have given viewers the equivalent of an illustrated guide to their therapist's notebook. They've invited folks to ponder their mindset.
What does it mean when all the women in the images seem to be portrayed as some tortured combination of Freudian cliches? What does it mean when designers invite their professional colleagues to contemplate their life-size, semi-nude portraits? The photographs ask the viewer to decide whether they are art or porn. Perhaps they are simply artful pornography.
Fashion design is a highly personal expression. After all, designers are not merely creating a bunch of frocks. They are helping individuals define themselves. They are offering a definition of beauty and helping the culture place value on certain aesthetics.
On the runway, two talented designers have decided to use their skill to craft a fantasy world in which women are alternately dominant and submissive. In one moment, they're using their sexuality to gain the upper hand. In the next, they're practically bound and gagged. But nowhere in the Dolce & Gabbana imagination are men and women equal. The clothes may not be pornographic, but their message is certainly obscene.
One has to ask this uncomfortable question: Do these designers actually like women? Or more specifically, do they respect them?
DSquaredThe designers Dan and Dean Caten, who are responsible for DSquared, displayed great skill for cutting the perfect pair of low-slung trousers and cropped jackets at their show Friday afternoon. They know how to blend sportswear with a glamorous sensibility. But they also put blinders on a woman's head -- the same sort that one might see on a carriage horse trotting through Central Park. They stuffed models into hot pink platform boots with dizzying stiletto heels. They had them walk onto a set that blended the grandeur of the Roman Colosseum with the brutal chaos of "Oz." Screaming spectators (or inmates) dangled from the set's dome roof. The models were like a flock of brightly colored birds being set up for a cockfight. Missoni, GucciThe collections from designers Angela Missoni and Gucci's Frida Giannini are free of binding and trussing. No riding crops are involved. They do not appear to be putting women in the fashion equivalent of a headlock.
Missoni, who has taken the creative reins at her family's label, presented a collection Friday afternoon that cinched softly woven jackets with a gentler alternative to a corset: thin strips of leather forming a lattice around the torso. Print dresses and knit ones wrapped around the body. The collection was soft but not slouchy.
Giannini's Gucci collection was dominated by a 1940s sensibility with strong shoulders, knickers, high boots, bomber jackets and black evening gowns studded with glittering crystal brooches. The collection had a sense of strength and intelligence to it that has been missing from too many runways this season.
Still, one hesitates to fully embrace Giannini's collection. It's hard to have faith in her commitment to this point of view. During her barely two-year tenure as the creative director of Gucci, she has been a promiscuous designer, first showing an affection for girly-girl frocks, then rock-and-roll style. She moved on to mod. She dabbled in glam rock. She toyed with disco. Now she is claiming that retro glamour is her true love.
Designers have a right to change their mind and a mandate to evolve. Eventually, Giannini will have to stand for something. (Is she a girl? Or a dame?) But unlike so many of her male counterparts, at least she already upholds a woman's right to her dignity.