MILAN — There will always be an England – in Italy.
Regardless of whose name was on the label, designers here all seemed to have gotten the same Anglophile memo. Savile Row sartorial customs, horse-and-hound sportiness and regional outerwear like Aran Island sweaters exerted an irresistible influence on Milanese runways this week. And they made for some pretty unlikely kinship.
Burberry, Dsquared, Cavalli and Gucci are not names you will often read in the same sentence. Yet a pronounced Englishness ran through the collections from each of those houses, making Milan feel temporarily like an extension of the Tuscan region called Chiantishire.
Giorgio Armani, for instance, substantially altered his soft silhouette in a fine show to include a series of handsome structured suits. Thom Browne for Moncler made it easier than usual to see past the strenuous “Braveheart”-meets-Ice Capades production, which included kilts, skorts, sporrans and box-pleated jackets, to the real, and truly Anglicized, moneymakers, a clever group of puffer jackets quilted to resemble Irish fishermen’s sweaters. Umit Benan, having ginned up a meatpacking district alley from the dirty old days, replete with Dumpsters, graffiti and transvestite hookers, showed neatly tailored suits (albeit with terrorist ski masks). The designers at Ermenegildo Zegna put on a presentation in which the models looked as though they had walked out of White’s or Boodles or some other English gentleman’s club. That is, if English gentlemen wore suits woven from silk.
Referring to “modern mobsters” in their customarily loopy show notes, the Dsquared designers Dan and Dean Caten jolted both the crowd and their label awake early Tuesday morning with a show that took place against a jazz club backdrop. On a cast that consisted exclusively of black models, they showed their own moderately souped-up versions of double-breasted jackets in a cut first created by the master tailors of Naples.
Students of sartorial history will tell you those cuts originated with the custom among upper-class Neapolitan gents of the early 20th century of sending their tailors to London to copy the craftsmen of Savile Row. The results were a kind of brilliant bastardization: English formality given a Mediterranean sensuality and slouch. Plenty of the designer twins’ styling tricks were thrown into the mix: suspenders, watch chains, “ten gallon” homburgs with gutter creases and kettle curl brims, ragged denim saggers with the cuffs rolled up to midcalf. Behind the gimmickry, though, was a clear effort to mature a customer who at some point will have to pull up his waistband and get a job.
“I wanted this English gent feeling,” said Daniele Cavalli, the 26-year-old scion of Roberto Cavalli, a design house whose menswear more typically evokes David Bowie than David Cameron. “This gentleman feeling will have to be in all aspects of the day.”
The English gentleman Cavalli conjured, in a ninth-floor penthouse overlooking the Duomo, is another stock character of Anglicized Italian fashion: the Dandy.
The show and the Cavalli menswear transformation (weren’t the scary rocker capes, with fur tails flying, just a minute ago?) can be considered a work in progress. Are there that many lounge lizards who spend their days slouching around in python-print lounge clothes before donning dinner jackets adorned with golden owl-head brooches? One tends to doubt it. Yet, using a teleidoscope and analog technology to created subtly refracted versions of house motifs like snakeskin and feathers, the young Cavalli at least suggested that he is no dilettante and that he may yet find his way to that mysterious entity he termed a “real man.”
Frida Giannini is a past master and her Englishman was transmuted, according to the immutable law of Milanese fashion, into a Gucci guy. It takes a kind of wizardry to communicate brand message without using logos. Yet somehow even a moderately fashion-literate person would likely spot one of Giannini’s powder blue greatcoats, scarlet tweeds, sexed-up windowpane checks, snow-white cadet tunics and identify the maker.
And after all, it is no insignificant achievement to telegraph an aesthetic. A Giannini show for Gucci is ultimately a Gucci show. A Prada shirt, like a Prada catwalk presentation (or a Prada shoe), is consistently weird and off-kilter and consistently nothing else. The jazzed up (and highly Anglicized) geek-wear Prada showed could have come from no other designer. Designer may be the wrong word in this context, since the show was more of a characteristic essay in styling, a play on proportions and binaries like serious/playful, boy/man, rich/poor, beautiful/ugly.
This territory at Prada is well trod. The designer was much quoted this week saying that the point of fashion, after all, is the perfect shirt. Maybe she misspoke and meant to say the perfect shoe. As the models stomped by wearing lug-soled clodhoppers, the sound one heard was not exactly footfall so much as the beautiful and imaginary music of a cash register going ka-ching.
Durability, of garments but also ideas, would seem to be a preoccupation of the three most interesting forces showing this season. For Neil Barrett, the purity and precision of the Bauhaus informed the design. The color blocking, the odd materials (fur, mohair, astrakhan, rubber), the bonded and seamless structure produced by this descendant of English master tailors placed him squarely in the company of those who treat clothing the male body as an engineering project. His knack for proportion, his strict palette (white, black, tobacco, a multitude of blues), his ability to anticipate trend (he came early to the oversize volumes everyone copied this season) make him, more than ever, a designer to watch.
The same can be said of Italo Zucchelli, creative director of Calvin Klein menswear, and another designer influenced by the Modernists. Like Barrett, Zucchelli hones shape, streamlines form, experiments with technology to achieve deceptively simple effects. A sweatshirt in his hands is a lightweight bonded suit of armor. A suit is a climate-controlled security system. Masculinity is seldom in question. He has done the thinking for you and will keep your image safe from gender blur.
First among equals, Jil Sander may represent greatness in this particular design trinity. Sander, in her return to her label, has set about restoring not only a business but an image of contemporary adult masculinity. After years in the wilderness of prolonged adolescence and a wasteland of Casual Fridays, contemporary men are in need of some guidance. The case for aping English gentlemen of an earlier era was made by many designers this week, though not by Sander. More than anyone else in the business, she takes the hardheaded view that the past is the past.