By  on January 21, 2008

MILAN — On the last day of the Milan fall collections, Citibank, America’s largest bank, announced the greatest quarterly loss in its history—a staggering $9.83 billion write-down.

With hushed talk about the “R” word circulating in and around the fashion industry, the news sounded ominous. But for fall ’08, designers showing on the Milan runways seemed to offer an antidote: rugged, testosterone-charged clothes, luxuriously embellished and crafted for men. After seasons marked by anorexic silhouettes and wisps of masculinity, male power made a comeback. Shoulders grew more pronounced as designers heaped on raw luxury in the form of shearling, cashmere and fur.

“We know things are going to be expensive, but they look expensive,” said Michael Macko, vice-president and men’s fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue. “It’s okay if something looks like it warrants the price.”

“There’s a realness and nostalgia to this season,” added Bergdorf Goodman Men fashion director Tommy Fazio.

On the opening day of Milan Fashion Week, Dolce & Gabbana unveiled a forceful collection that embodied both of those qualities. Labels as varied as Bottega Veneta and Dsquared drew inspiration from basic workwear, and Versace was among those who opted for a strong silhouette. The designers hardly spoke in one voice, but collectively they signaled a change of direction.

Here, highlights from the Milan collections:

Last season, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana sent out cargo shorts with a built-in LED system. For fall ’08, they didn’t need high-tech gadgets to shine. In an inspired move, the designing duo abandoned the glossy surfaces and metallic extremes of the past two seasons and, instead. delved into two of their historical leitmotifs—Sicily and romanticism—to produce an unabashedly rich collection.

“There’s a sensuality to the collection,” Gabbana said before show. “It’s a bit of a memory of our first shows—the true Sicily,” Dolce added.

Of course, at Dolce & Gabbana, nothing is quite as straightforward as it seems. Although poorboy caps, slinky white tanks and a kind of idealized rustic sexiness marked the designers’ early men’s collections, the one they presented for this fall offered much more than just memories of their greatest hits. It was an inviting masculine dreamscape where men dress and act like primordial protectors in super-sized shearlings, chunky hand-knit sweaters and sturdy thick-soled boots.

Suits, too, took on new proportions and at times came veiled in organza. The coating was barely perceptible but cast a subtle sheen. Craftsmanship was evident in every piece, adding up to a whole that equalled the sum of its parts.

Let retailers cry foul over the exaggerated proportions, heavy weights and hefty prices. Runway shows encourage a suspension of disbelief and transport the audience beyond mundane reality. The Dolce & Gabbana show did just that. As in a dream, the designers returned home and proved it’s truly where the heart resides.

 A psychologist would have a field day analyzing Miuccia Prada, though it’s unlikely the gifted Italian designer would ever grant anyone the opportunity.

Still, many try, season after season, to pick and prod and get at what she’s getting at. Most fail outright. Others think they’ve made headway only to be blindsided again. (It’s easy to imagine Prada taking a perverse delight in the attempts.)

For fall, the designer said she wanted to convey a sense of flat surfaces in her eccentrically sexy collection. But the show—staged on a sloping, elevated stage—was hardly flat. Once again, it left us scratching our collective heads in inspired wonder and awe.

Prada steamrolled surfaces and turned shirts on their backs. Ties and belts hung from the neck and waist, respectively, like perverse afterthoughts. Shirts—pressed to the chest like hot wax—buttoned in the back and featured optical stripes that swayed and swirled and grew bolder before fading. The compressed silhouette seemed at once emasculating and strangely enticing.

Backstage Prada reiterated her goal to stretch the boundaries of men’s wear and implement new perceptions. She insisted there was no message—which, of course, is a message in itself. You may never understand the “why” behind one of her collections, but you instinctually know when it’s right.

Has any other designer ever so deftly filled the shoes of his employer’s namesake as Raf Simons at Jil Sander? Only Simons could regard something as static, familiar and succinct as “marble” in such a variety of ways that he sustained an element of surprise throughout his riveting Jil Sander show.

The linearity and meticulous construction of the tailored pieces evoked the timeless grandeur of marble structures, while the molded shoulders of the outerwear echoed the soft contours of marble sculpture. Coats had internal construction inside oversized shoulders to create volume around the arms. Fine leather jackets skimmed the upper body so closely they could have been superhero costumes.

Ensembles in photo-realistic, allover prints of marble’s veins, pebbles and swirls were unexpectedly maximal for this quintessentially minimalist house. But their surfaces appeared so smooth, you could instantly recognize the strain of hermetic flawlessness from previous seasons.

Simons pushed the limits of pattern design in his exploration of marble’s natural inconsistency. In addition to the marbleized prints, he developed opalescent black fabric, check patterns composed of randomly wavy lines and totally woven “patchworks” of classic tweeds, integrated at random angles. Knits, lightly speckled with color, upheld the theme.

In contrast, a group of wool, tailored pieces was composed of fastidiously controlled, narrowly folded knife-pleating that registered on the eye much like pinstripes. These were said to suggest the corrugation of classical columns and pillars.

In recent seasons, Christopher Bailey has appeared eager to flex his creative muscles and explore territory outside the precise tenets of the Burberry aesthetic he established early in his tenure. At times he seemed to have become averse to that which made him famous: trench coats, military might and a coolly modern interpretation of British style. But, for fall, he wisely let go of this notion and returned with a fresh eye to the hallmarks of the English brand. The great overcoat returned, and so did Bailey’s singular sense of British style, as seen in a smattering of printed silk shirts, flared trousers and kooky knit hats.

“It felt right to go back to tradition and explore the archives,” Bailey said. “But everything has a modern hand.”

Modern, yes, but the collection was also moody and warm, with moments of eccentricity. An autumnal palette of mossy greens, slates and muddy browns set the tone, while crochet insets on cashmere cardigans and dress shirts cut out of lace provided an offbeat counterpoint.

Bailey has an affinity for shine and texture, and both worked well when tempered with matte surfaces. Delicate plumes—they looked almost like fishing flies—fluttered romantically up the side of a black V-neck. Another sweater, made entirely out of them and then painted silver, was an exercise in overkill. But that was one of very few missteps. Bailey’s instinct to go back helped bring the collection forward.

“His name is Alexandre Versace,” Donatella Versace said backstage of her men’s wear design consultant, Alexandre Plokhov, before Versace’s striking fall show.

Donatella was joking, of course, but the alias was more apropos this season than last. In his sophomore effort for the house, the Russian-born designer did a better job of melding his own distinct design leanings—like graphic, dramatic cuts—into the Versace landscape. And he did so as DV made a compelling case for powerful luxury.

“We did a man who can stand next to today’s woman,” Donatella said.

Not only stand, but tower. Long, longer and longest was the message of the collection, and it came in several forms—from sweeping morning coats to floor-grazing toggle ones—all done in luxury blends, like cashmere and mink. Even the heels of shoes were accented with metal insets to aid in the illusion of length.

Suits took on similar dimensions, and here Plokhov’s handiwork was strongly in evidence. What worked less well was the color palette. The inky blues and bloody Bordeaux looked almost cartoonlike—as though they belonged in a Tim Burton movie—and detracted from the collection’s inherent luxury. Donatella would have been wise to take a lesson out of her own handbook and toss in some sensual neutrals, as she did with her splendid spring women’s show.

Still, Versace established a much more appealing men’s collection this season. Now Donatella needs to let the Versace man stand tall and have some fun while doing so.

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