Milan Season: Buyers Say Right for the Times

Italian designers spooned out the right fashion medicine for turbulent economic times: colorful and upbeat collections loaded with great accessories.

MILAN — Italian designers spooned out the right fashion medicine for turbulent economic times: colorful and upbeat collections loaded with great accessories, retailers said.

This story first appeared in the September 29, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“I feel that Milan put on a very optimistic season,” said Sarah Rutson, fashion director at Hong Kong-based Lane Crawford. “Everyone is mindful of the economic situation that we are all facing. In Asia, our last economic crisis is still very fresh in our memories, and in those years, we found that spending was really on special pieces, strong statements, glamour and feel-good items.”

While allowing that Milan Fashion Week, which wrapped up over the weekend, offered few runway fireworks, no dramatic new fashion directions and far too many extreme platform shoes, many buyers said they were satisfied with the offerings.

“We’re very pleased with Milan,” said Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus. “There are a lot of beautiful clothes in Milan and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

“I thought Milan was very safe this season with the ‘power brands’ turning out very commercial collections,” added Marigay McKee, fashion and beauty director at Harrods, noting that Italian brands represent a large part of the store’s business that performs “exceedingly” well. “While the commerciality means that shows didn’t create as much excitement as they often do, it means we don’t need to worry about them being difficult to buy — or sell.”

Buyers cited a preponderance of bold, chunky jewelry, belts, flashy prints, shiny fabrics and a sludgy color palette of cocoas and okras with metallic hues providing the highlights.

“Milan also showed us flashes of flesh through cutout effects and transparency. The female body is being celebrated and shown off to full effect,” said Averyl Oates, buying director of the U.K.’s Harvey Nichols. Among standout collections mentioned by retailers were Aquilano.Rimondi, Giorgio Armani, Bottega Veneta, Burberry, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Jil Sander, Marni, Prada and Versace.

The following is a rundown of what buyers had to say.

Linda Fargo, senior vice president and fashion director, Bergdorf Goodman: “Italy embraced the many moods of women. There was a strong presence of more or less sexy offerings, translated into shorter lengths, shapely hourglass belted silhouettes, skin-baring cutaways, transparency and close-to-the-body shapes. In another mood was soft dressing, which was languid and breezy and best expressed in the fabric of the season — satin charmeuse. Black as a summer color was still important here, though we were relieved to see a lot of neutrals, as well. We loved Milan’s obsession with fringe, and think our clients will, too. Must-haves will be the strong platform statement shoe and both the skinny-legging pant and collapsed narrow pantaloon. Most designers are offering bold unconventional jewelry as an add-on of growing importance. Collections of special note: Jil Sander for its innovative ways of dressing; Bottega Veneta for luxurious and delicious leather in all categories; Gucci for taking us away from it all; Marni for the relief of exuberant, artistic color and pattern; Versace for the sharpest sexiness, and Fendi for its uberfuture femininity.”

Michael Fink, vice president and women’s fashion director, Saks Fifth Avenue: “I love that the designers in Milan have returned to doing what they each do best, instead of competing to see who can be most clever, or ridiculous. This has been a week of selective luxury. Special, luxurious items for real women — well, for women who can afford them. The jackets and fluid layering ideas at Armani were just fantastic. Christopher Bailey’s nostalgic and romantic collection for Burberry, all gauzy and looking like best-old-friends, was even more ethereal in the showroom. Raf Simons at Jil Sander set the standard for the fringe trend in what was a collection full of silhouette surprises, especially when seen from the backside. Aquilano and Rimondi’s sophisticated, fluid collection of separates really wowed me. And their debut for Ferré exploded the icons of the house into an important new direction. Overall, a softer, more sophisticated, romantic mood is the tone of the week, with touches of the tropics thrown in for color and print. Transparent layers actually look plausible this season.”


Tiziana Cardini, fashion director, La Rinascente: “The collections were either excessively theatrical or too safe. It was disorienting. I believe the winning brands are those that have a strong identity and that take risks while being faithful to their DNA. I liked Jil Sander, Fendi, Alessandro Dell’Acqua and Marni. I appreciated Fendi’s precise silhouette, and the cutouts were masterfully executed, in a spectacular way. Ferré was also one of the most interesting. It’s the perfect matrimony between [creative directors Tommaso Aquilano and Roberto Rimondi] and Ferré’s archives. They translated Ferré’s theatrical architecture, with their contemporary sensibility. Of course, it’s their first collection, so we must give them time to grow, but it was successful.”

Jennifer Wheeler, vice president of designer apparel, Nordstrom: “The collections reflected an evolution, not a revolution. The most compelling collections and items are where we will be placing our bets. The main factor in what affects our open-to-buy is the strength of each collection. Optimism was reflected in color, lightness, transparency and mesh. Circular and geometric patterns were predominant, and fringe emerged as a strong trend. Jewelry, in particular statement necklaces and stacks of bangles, continue to be important. We loved the jewelry at Gucci, Marni and the tribal-inspired earrings at Jil Sander. Favorite collections were Gucci — tailored pantsuits, safari looks and jersey gowns with semiprecious stones; Jil Sander — sexy, modern suits and dresses with fringe; Marni — patterned knits and sleeker shapes, and Burberry Prorsum — outerwear, ombré knits and pants.”

Joan Burstein, owner, Browns, London: “There was nothing revolutionary, but I expect that in Paris, not Milan. But I liked what I saw here. I think accessories still remain very important: Jewelry was bigger and bolder than ever. I think Jil Sander was absolutely fabulous. It was elegant, chic and also a little sexy. It had all the right elements for temptation. And I loved Marni — the fabrics and the way she combined everything.”

Julie Gilhart, senior vice president and fashion director, Barneys New York: “Modern times are dictating a desire for ‘less extra stuff,’ and Raf Simons [of Jil Sander] showed how to do this without being boring. The quality and approach to fashion was great at Bottega Veneta. Some of the silhouettes may be hard to wear, but no doubt they were beautiful. Investment clothes are extremely important right now, and Tomas Maier addresses this issue through his clothes and accessories better than anyone else….It was great to see a lot of color on the runways. We need that for spring after a dark fall. The transparency layering idea adds a new element and, when done correctly, can be alluring and beautiful. Fendi and Marni’s execution was good. Obviously there is a lot of shape in the form of rounded silhouettes, but you can only buy so much of that.” Gilhart said standout pieces included “Jil Sander fringe pieces; Bottega’s cut fabric, ribbon dresses; Burberry dégradé trenchcoats; Marni’s multicolored knits; Prada’s gold metallic dresses, and Fendi’s new ‘classic’ handbag.”

Stephanie Solomon, vice president of fashion direction, Bloomingdale’s: “When times are tough, you have to be focused, and for designers, that means sticking to a vision of making women look beautiful. In the current economic climate, women want to appear feminine but not totally girly, which is why I thought this season’s trend from Milan of combining men’s wear tailoring and soft feminine designs worked well. Armani has always had a vision of making women look beautiful, but he delivered it to the max this season, subtracting the theatrics that distracted you from the clothes in previous collections. Christopher Bailey [of Burberry] pulled out a collection combining beautiful chiffon dresses and capes, while Aquilano.Rimondi avoided excess geometry or intellectuality in favor of focusing on a love of women….The goddess gown trend tapped into an area where women are going to spend: celebration. Gucci, Armani and Versace all had these amazing glamorous evening gowns. It was ethereal. You want to float and escape in the evening. That’s when it’s an appropriate time.” Solomon’s standout collections included Gucci, “particularly the slouchy pants and tailored jackets,” Armani, Versace, Burberry and Aquilano.Rimondi. “I also liked Gabriele Colangelo.”

Cindy Ho, fashion and merchandising director, Kuwait-based Villa Moda: “Some designers were very interesting, new and diverse, while others were playing safe. The most impressive were Marni, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci and Prada. Marni’s colors, handwork and embellishments were gorgeous and perfect for our market. Dolce & Gabbana was new and innovative through the combination of silk pajamas and Baroque fabrics. Prada was very special, very bold, revolving entirely around the same theme in very different ways. Gucci was a very luxurious collection. That said, overall, the week was flat compared to last spring. Fall-winter was stronger.”

Mohan Murjani, chairman of Murjani Group, which last year opened The Galleria, India’s first luxury mall: “Of all the shows, Gucci was for me the best, especially in terms of Frida Giannini’s pure focus, consistency and ability to perfectly capture and portray the character and sensuousness of the Gucci woman….From fall to spring, she showed great creativity through new, fresh and wearable clothes.”

Carla Sozzani, owner, 10 Corso Como: “Milan was colorful and happy. The collections were very vivid. My favorite show, though, was Prada, which was less frilly and flowery. It was very severe, in a way, but extremely feminine. I loved it. There were not so many bags this time, and more concentration on the clothes and the shoes.” Alluding to the many tumbles on the catwalk off towering shoes, Sozzani noted: “It’s time for flat shoes.”

Sarah Rutson, fashion director, Lane Crawford, Hong Kong: “To offset the mood of darkness of the economy, our customer will be looking for that sense of joy and light in their purchases. There were so many themes: sexuality and soft bondage, zippers and multiple bras on view; Eighties references; slashes and cutouts on dresses, and the global traveler-safari theme, along with beach references to shells and fish, in prints or accessories. Important details were degraded color finishes, a lot of fringes and tassels, real and printed python, gold, metallics and giant stone embellishment along with a multitude of sequins. Jewelry was a big statement with giant stones worn on the ears, neck and wrist. My favorite shows were: Burberry Prorsum, especially the sublime colors and dégradé trenchcoats and capes; Prada’s sensual and womanly take on the Fifties, with modern and crinkled fabrics; Marni, which continues to be a retailer’s dream, and Jil Sander’s take on tassels and the sexuality of the slashes.”

Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director, Neiman Marcus: “The whole romantic spirit — the ruffles the flounces, the bows — is right on the mark. Seeing a lot of dresses, with close-to-the-body silhouettes, is encouraging. And it’s great to see a real injection of sportswear into many collections. Jil Sander was outstanding and designer Raf Simons has redefined fringe, an important element in Milan. We loved Marni for the joyous colors, patterns and terrific colored horn accessories; Burberry for its ombrés and classicism; Bottega Veneta’s lavish luxe, and Aquilano.Rimondi’s chic take on orientalism. We loved the Lurex, lamés and sequins, the florals and random dots. One-shoulder silhouettes, oriental shapes and details and a new desert color palate are also important.”

Marigay McKee, fashion and beauty director, Harrods: “There was a distinct move away from flashy toward a more understated look, especially for Milan, where we usually see the flash. One got the impression that these collections were largely geared toward one’s ‘free’ time: pajamas at Dolce & Gabbana, garden-inspired themes at Burberry Prorsum, skorts at Missoni, in addition to many stunning gowns for the evening and micromini hemlines for the day — not so office-appropriate. Important trends were feathers and fringing. Exaggerated shoulders were a little trickier, but were fresh. I especially loved the metallic fabrics in Milan, particularly those at Prada and Burberry. One-shouldered dresses and gowns were everywhere, and perforations and laser-cut fabrics were beautiful and added detail and sophistication to many collections, particularly Fendi. I thought Gucci looked the strongest it has in seasons. The show was absolutely beautiful to the last detail — from a commercial standpoint, it was perfect for Harrods. I also thought Fendi was very strong, particularly the bags. I thought Burberry Prorsum was the most creative and engaging show of the week.”

Barbara Atkin, vice president of fashion, Holt Renfrew:
“Milan gave us exactly what we came here looking for — luxurious product with the right amount of ‘wow.’ In the world of apparel, designers gave us well-balanced collections with many choices for our customers’ varied lifestyles. Heritage houses in the luxury world are raising the bar and positioning themselves at the top end of luxury. The overlying trend was geometry versus femininity, and key elements included seasonless fabrics; details like fringe, ruffles and bows; transparency and cutouts, and polkadots. Key items include lightweight, easy toppers; strong-shouldered, man-tailored suits with ankle-bearing slim pants; longer vests; jumpsuits; soft flirty skirts; lightweight cardigans, and short, above-the-knee “fit and flare” shirt and halter dresses. Accessories took center stage this season — bigger and bolder than ever. Luxury brands are reinforcing the importance of the statement handbag and jewelry this season, as evident in bold earrings, necklaces and cuffs. The waist was emphasized by the use of dramatic belts. Clearly, the entire world of accessories has become an important extension of designer brands. There was a lack of innovation this season in footwear, as designers did not take forward their aggressive and extreme designs, except Fendi, which gave us a new trompe l’oeil stiletto wedge. My favorite collections were Jil Sander, Marni, Prada, Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana.”

Averyl Oates, buying director, Harvey Nichols: “With the financial world in such a downturn, we expected Milan to be more subdued, minimal and toned down in comparison to last season. Despite this, it is still about luxury and, this season, about chic simplicity and subtle details, often inspired by the Twenties through the Forties. Fringed dresses at Jil Sander will be one of the must-have items of the season and no doubt will influence what’s happening on the high street. At Missoni, the Lurex story looks fresh and grown up, and the softer new style of prints once again shows that the house has moved on and is a force to be reckoned with. The color-blocked sequin outfit that closed the Marni show must, despite any talk of credit crunch, encourage every woman to reach for her wallet. Finally, as always, we must mention Prada. The chic, couture-inspired, bustier crinkle dress shown with a cropped open jacket is timeless, feminine yet provocative….Milan got the mood right by creating exciting clothes you must buy regardless of the bank balance.”

Rosi Biffi, owner, Biffi and Banner, Milan: “The best were Marni, Alberto Biani and Gucci. Marni [creative director Consuelo Castiglioni] has the creativity of an artist; Biani is chic, has measured, true elegance, is young and refined; Gucci is the expression of energy, modernity and curiosity. At Marni and Gucci, everything was special and unique. At Biani, the pants were not easy, perhaps, but beautiful, as were the slim jackets in soft and delicate tones. A number of shows were boring and uncoordinated. Overall, this was a season when both designers and clients were careful, keeping their eyes wide open.”

Michele Giglio, owner of seven boutiques in Palermo, Italy: “Giorgio Armani was very feminine and sexy. Gucci’s daywear was impressive. It worked very well. I liked the safari jacket, the suits — everything was very elegant. Prada was revolutionary, innovative, [Miuccia Prada] always takes risks. We should take pride in our Made in Italy, our fabrics, craftsmanship and designers.”