Like Dynamation characters from a Ray Harryhausen movie, where the stop-motion models of clashing titans abruptly join forces to save the world, the behemoths of Italian fashion put on a show of might over the weekend, as if to prove that Milan’s struggling industry can still be saved. Three of the largest names — Zegna, Versace, Prada — took on the shape of real colossi amid the landscape of a greatly reduced show calendar, each cranking up effects to rival Harryhausen’s famous battle of the seven skeletons.
To the best of anyone’s recollection, no one had ever utilized the vast marble pile of Milan’s central rail station as a backdrop for a fashion presentation before Ermenegildo Zegna cordoned its vaulted atrium Friday to show a collection of just 44 looks. Interviewed before the show, the label’s designer Alessandro Sartori spoke urgently about diversity: “We feel a need now of openness and inclusivity.”
Was the cautious Sartori referring to the political situation in an Italy under the control of right-wing isolationists bent on closing its borders, or to a corporate hunger for a piece of emerging markets? It’s hard to know. But model castings are often a good gauge of designer message and, where even five years ago an observer might have developed snow-blindness amid the blizzard of white faces stalking a typical Ermenegildo Zegna catwalk, what you now see is closer to something writer Grace Paley once termed a “gorgeous chromatic dispersion.”
The guys on the runway resembled the throngs moving daily through the train station, one of the largest in Europe — designed by Ulisse Stacchini, inaugurated in 1931, and with a complicated past — and the population of recently arrived immigrants from Africa and Eastern Europe who congregate and shelter here. Openness and inclusivity are not, at a guess, regular features of these people’s lives.
Sartori is at heart a tailor. But he’s also a commercial pragmatist charged with doping out ways to capture the attention of a generation for which suits are something one wears to funerals or in court, though not to work.
One way he goes about this is by playing up notions of modular dressing, offering both expectable suit jackets — albeit ones with hook fasteners in place of buttons; spade-shaped pockets patched outside though opening from the inside; and utilizing materials reclaimed from the floor of Zegna factories, along with tricky weaves created from threads of woven leather and paper — and a hybridized bomber of a sort President Dwight D. Eisenhower had customized for himself when he was still a five-star general.
Even in the context of a pared-down show, the quantity of styling gimmickry was a burden: Houdini leg straps; rubber tape hieroglyph patterns on fabric; harnesses; and rabbit-and-wool felt caps made at the Cappellificio Cervo, a traditional hat-maker in northern Italy purchased by Zegna last year. Molded in one piece using hat blocks and methods little changed since the Renaissance, the caps looked like woolen saucepans and probably could block some of the unwelcome electromagnetic radiation we’re all bombarded with.
But an observer could be forgiven for thinking that it was not the clothes on the runway that mattered most at this show. The range of Ermenegildo Zegna offerings sold by most American specialty retailers requires no instruction manual to put on, or even the help of the in-store stylists Sartori insisted consumers increasingly want. A quick scan of the customized footwear — Zegna’s $750 Cesare, worn by every single male celebrity in the show’s front row — gave the clearest indication of Italian fashion’s current direction. Next stop: Sneakersville.
There they were again at Versace, thick-soled fluorescent rubber footgear pitched more to readers of Complex than GQ. Sure, the Versace show — its first full men’s presentation since the house was acquired for a little more than $2 billion by Michael Kors, or as it’s now called, Capri Holdings — deployed enough of the house’s signature elements and motifs to quash any sense that the brand was heading down-market to become “Korsace,” as the naysayers claim.
There were 1990s bondage motifs. There were silks and belted harness prints and Swarovski encrustations, like glorious barnacles, on bluejeans and denim skirts. There were satin boxing shorts and lace-trimmed negligee frocks — on assertively female models like Kaia Gerber, Bella Hadid and Vittoria Ceretti (nobody’s putting gender in a corner as long as Donatella Versace is around.) There were vinyl slickers and fluorescent-lined suits notable for the slick tailoring for which Versace gets too little credit.
Just as important to a revitalized mission of a designer that has battled past every kind of obstacle, there was a pumped-up soundtrack by Michel Gaubert built around RuPaul’s surprise 1993 hit, “Supermodel (You Better Work).”
People barely remember, but there was a period (way back when Gianni Versace, openly gay at time when few designers dared to be, was first forging a future aided by his baby sister) before drag had become a mainstream career path and when the cult of the first-wave supermodels was being created out of a vivid gay subculture. With acceptance came a certain inevitable loss of franchise, a fact of which Donatella Versace is aware. Present at the creation, she knows as well as anyone that if you want to dominate the runways, you had better “werk.”
While seldom mentioned in the same sentence, Miuccia Prada and Donatella Versace do have titanic resolve in common. One is intellectual, the other not. But both stand tall in a decimated landscape. Each has shown a ruthless willingness to rummage through her own design war chest for tools necessary to survive challenging times.
Have we seen severe boxy-shouldered black suits from Prada before? We have. Have we encountered styling gimmicks like bellows pockets on dresses or multiple belts lashed around male torsos like harnesses run amok? The answer is yes. Have there been shows that contrast elements of the military uniforms that form the basis of almost everything in menswear with traditionally feminine shapes? Of course, and not just at shows staged by this particular designer.
But seemingly only Prada would put a bustier over a man’s double-breasted suit (though shown on a female model, it could equally be worn by persons of any gender) and pair it with lug-soled monster shoes. And certainly few designers other than Prada are audacious enough to look for inspiration in patterns using the Frankenstein creature’s face as the repeat.
In an interview with vogue.com after a show held at the ambitious private art foundation she founded with her husband, Patrizio Bertelli, Prada described Frankenstein as a lovelorn monster with a “big, big heart.” Like the mythologies underpinning the Harryhausen films — and possibly also those used to support a Made in Italy narrative so critical to fashion and the Italian economy — the notion is a deeply romantic and a hopeful one. But there is something more. Things did not work out all that well for the “fallen angel” created (though never named) by Mary Shelley in her novel, as we all know.
For a while now the question has hung in the air of whether, in an increasingly globalized and digital age, Italian fashion can remain the dominant force it has been for at least half a century. Or will, at some point, the lovable monster die?