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The Heritage of Milan: No-Gimmick Lines Seen Luring Consumers

Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Jil Sander and Missoni among buyers' favorites at Milan Fashion Week.

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MILAN — Designers here delivered solid collections, easing up on sex and flash to focus on heritage values and investment pieces as customers ease back into spending mode, buyers said.

This story first appeared in the March 2, 2010 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Despite a condensed Milan show schedule that penalized brands holding showroom presentations, retailers found plenty to like, from pantsuits and outerwear galore to flat shoes and furry boots.

“Everything wasn’t just geared to the young customer. There were also some very work-appropriate looks that came down the runway, and I don’t even call that mature. I call that saleable, which is nice to see,” said Stephanie Solomon, vice president of fashion direction at Bloomingdale’s.

Buyers lauded a return to Made-in-Italy values like high-quality fabrics and craftsmanship, with a particular focus on tailoring and knitwear.

“The strength of the season was in its new direction, away from overt sexuality to a sophisticated maturity rooted in great iconic classics,” said Barbara Atkin, vice president and fashion director at Holt Renfrew. “It is interesting to note that, as the world moves quickly into the 21st century — obsessed with social media and Twitter commentary — the brands are going back to their roots, building on the trust and deliverance of uncompromising quality and fit.”

Dolce & Gabbana crystallized the moment with an emotional catwalk display that used a video backdrop to pay homage to the company’s skilled atelier, capturing the imagination of many buyers.

Key categories and trends of the Italian collections include outerwear, pantsuits, fur, shearlings and lace. Camel and green were cited as the primary color stories.

Buyers said they were increasing their spends in expectation that shoppers would be ready to splurge in the fall after three seasons of cutting back, following encouraging signs of a rebound in spending early this year.

“We are feeling…that the momentum we are experiencing for spring will carry into fall,” said Jennifer Wheeler, vice president of women’s designer apparel at Nordstrom. “Our budgets in Milan are up with the designers who are performing well for us.”

Nonetheless, conscious of the new market realities, Milan designers were generally taking a realistic approach to pricing, retailers reported.

“Some have added more entry-price items, while others have lowered prices slightly overall,” said Tancrède de Lalun, general merchandise manager of women’s and men’s apparel at Printemps. “At any rate, it allows us to offer customers a wider range of prices.”

However, Erin Mullaney, buying director at Browns, lamented that some smaller labels were still overpriced.

“The big houses have done a lot of work, and I think it’s time young designers tried to be more realistic and understand how much people will pay for an unknown label,” she said.

Here are retailers’ views on the Milan shows:

Tancrède de Lalun, general merchandise manager of women’s and men’s apparel, Printemps: “We have been in crisis for three or four seasons now, and customers will want to buy. Everything we have seen since the start of the New York season to Milan makes you want to buy, because there is creativity, but the offer is also reasonable. There was a return to heritage values in the sense that everyone [in Milan] did what they do best and did it extremely well. Dolce & Gabbana sent an extremely strong message about tailoring. It was terrific. In Milan, brands were addressing a powerful, strong woman. This was true from Dolce & Gabbana to Jil Sander, through Roberto Cavalli. A lot of shows brought women back down to earth with small heels or flat shoes, even at Roberto Cavalli and Jil Sander. Fur is essential.”

Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director, Neiman Marcus: “It’s too early to say there’s a business trend, but we are seeing customers returning to the stores. We are hopeful for the coming season and we’re very pleased with Milan. The whole contrast of masculine-feminine, boy-meets-girl is a very important story. There’s definitely a nod to the Seventies in the subtlest way. I’m in love with the idea of a pantsuit: It looks very new and superchic. It’s also an exceptional outerwear season. We all have to hope for another chilly fall and winter with all the ponchos, capes, vests. There was a lot of double-face cashmere bordered in leather, and lots of fur, with long-hair fur leading the pack. There’s fur on structured frame handbags and fur on boots. Our favorite collections were Prada, Gucci, Missoni and Gianfranco Ferré.”

Anita Barr, director of women’s wear, Selfridges: “Milan offered up a real departure from the high-octane glamour of previous seasons. Designers such as Dolce & Gabbana and Miuccia Prada showed simple, pared-down classics that reinforced the real craftsmanship of fashion. I think this mood will have real impact on the industry with retailers giving their customers increasingly bespoke experiences and products in store and shoppers expecting and seeking out quality, investment fashion for real women. My favorite show was Prada. It was beautifully executed and really wearable. I loved the frill-front dresses, coats and shoes. The four-day schedule [of the shows] was great.”

Sarah Rutson, fashion director, Lane Crawford:
“The schedule was so packed that it was almost like taking part in the Olympics to get to everything! We are having an extraordinary spring season and our buys have to reflect that optimism: that the consumer is back and spending. I’m very happy with the sense of real day clothes for real women — tailoring and knitwear, everything that Italians are incredible at. They’re not trying hard to talk trend, but embracing the quality of craftsmanship, quality of fabrics and finish — a return to heritage. Value for money with finish and quality of fabrication is paramount now. The customer will not settle for trend and hype over quality. Those days are gone. Our favorite collections were Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Trussardi 1911 and Pucci.”

Stephanie Solomon, vice president of fashion direction, Bloomingdale’s:
“You absolutely must have new outerwear for fall 2010. It’s really all about anoraks, a camel coat and even if it’s a big, chunky sweater, it’s meant to be worn as outerwear. The next big trend is the suit, as seen at Jil Sander — either a pantsuit or a skirt suit. At Dolce & Gabbana, Jil Sander and even at Prada, there were some suitings that looked very ladylike and classic. I also liked Giorgio Armani. He imbued his show with a new youthful spirit, which I think will attract a younger customer. And then I loved D&G. They showed us the true Nordic Milanese snow goddess, and the best knits I’ve seen in a long time. I do believe that fall will be significantly better because I’m seeing items that women don’t own in their wardrobes.”

Colleen Sherin, fashion director, Saks Fifth Avenue:
“Milan celebrated Italy’s rich sartorial heritage while exploring its sensual side. The coat took center stage as the number-one item of the season. Decorative and statement outerwear will be a key category for us. Other key trends include leather — supple and tailored as a luxurious fabrication; fur and fur trim, with the newest being fur sleeves; military-uniform influences; feminized men’s wear; plaids; velvet; lace; ruffles, and frills. I loved the high-waisted, back-zip, slightly flared trousers with a Seventies feeling at Pucci. The idea of shorts for autumn-winter continued from New York. Italy’s tradition of easy, luxurious knitwear was also a focus of the week. There was a lot of black. I would like to have seen a bit more color in the collections. Highlights include Dolce & Gabbana, Pucci, Prada, Marni and Roberto Cavalli.”

Christophe Penne, vice president and merchandise manager, Al Rubaiyat Co., Saudi Arabia: “Fur was largely present in all the collections, especially beautiful pieces at Giorgio Armani. All the gray color shades were very nice, and the very fluid fabrics almost made me forget it was a winter collection. The best show was Dolce & Gabbana, where the staging was incredibly emotional. The amazing soundtrack; the live backstage video projected on screens; the testimonial given to their sartorial team at the end of the show, and the astonishing 70 models that then took part in the finale parade gave a strong feeling of humanity to fashion, which is often perceived as a ‘cold’ industry. Gucci was very strong, too, with a Sixties connotation to the collection, with amazing dresses with a lot of lace details, especially on the back.”

Tiziana Cardini, fashion director, La Rinascente: “It was a positive season. Designers further fine-tuned their message revolving on the value of heritage with roots in craftsmanship. They underscored the identity of the brand and product is in the forefront again. I loved their focus on outerwear, which is the foundation of a wardrobe, the first thing you notice, and designers did an extraordinary job. Alberta Ferretti and Versace had beautiful coats, for example. There were lots of furs and shearlings, and materials were always thick, luxurious and important, while the simplicity of cuts was generally enhanced, with clean silhouettes. There were fewer references to specific decades. I was pleased there were more pants this season. Favorite collections were Alberta Ferretti, Versace and Jil Sander. I also liked Moschino, Roberto Cavalli and Missoni.”

Barbara Atkin, vice president and fashion director, Holt Renfrew: “The designer business is on an upswing and our budgets will reflect this positive trend as we focus on more depth within the collections. Clothes were steeped in luxury highlighting abundant furs, leathers and suedes, feminine lace work; artisanal use of collage and patchwork effects; accents through Lurex and lamé touches and trims, and knitwear as art wear. All of these things restore our faith and trust in Made-in-Italy clothes. Our shopping list consists of coats; leather; printed novelty skinny pants and leggings; silk blouses; power suits; knitwear, particularly sweater dresses, sweater coats and cardigans; longer hemlines for skirts and coats, and fur for coats, trims and accessories. Our favorite collections were Gucci, Prada, Fendi, Missoni and Dolce & Gabbana.”

Erin Mullaney, buying director, Browns, London: “Outerwear was a huge trend in Milan, perhaps due to the lack of this category last season or for the harsh winter we’ve just experienced. There was a lot of light fur, shearling, parkas and down jackets. Dolce & Gabbana, Versus, Missoni and Bottega Veneta were definitely highlights, even if generally we were a little disappointed to see spring trends carry over into fall. Military was huge again, especially the color khaki, which felt a bit repetitive but remains commercial. Designers are making a real effort with price. The big houses have done a lot of work, and I think it’s time young designers tried to be more realistic and understand how much people will pay for an unknown label.”

Jennifer Wheeler, vice president of women’s designer apparel, Nordstrom: “Our business confidence going into fall is positive. As for currency, or pricing concerns, we were able to make good progress last fall regarding the overall perceived value in the designer market. Our hope is that the European designers will continue their diligence in providing a compelling pricing range within the collections. Overall assessment of the Milan season: Beautiful and understated, with a strong heritage message. Fall 2010 is the season to buy an entire new coat wardrobe. Milan highlights a return to heritage and sartorial tailoring, where camel is the new black and shearling is the new fur. The Milan collections featured minimalism, topped with maximalism — clean, minimal sportswear and tailoring topped and popped with luxe furs and gorgeous shearlings. Other key items included tailored looks in sportswear and suiting, trousers, sliced or asymmetrical skirts, patchworks, lace and ostrich feathers. Our favorite collections were Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Missoni and Versace.”

Averyl Oates, chief buying director, Harvey Nichols: “There’s a continuing heritage message coming out of Milan of going back to one’s roots and refreshing old ideas. The Fifties revival is particularly strong, as seen at Prada’s ‘Mad Men’-inspired show featuring beautiful printed hourglass silhouettes and cat’s-eye glasses. I also liked Dolce & Gabbana, Missoni, Moschino, Gucci, Pucci and Marni. Generally speaking, outerwear was the focus, especially shearlings and fox fur. Military has been evident at every show, not least in the form of outerwear. Body-consciousness is less evident and silhouettes are longer and leaner.”

Carla Biffi, buyer, Biffi, Milan: “Black is no longer working for us. Customers want something that catches their eyes, so we’re excited about the earthy color palettes. We liked the young luxury aspect at Gucci, Fendi and Marni, the mix of daywear, studied fabrics and use of color such as Fendi’s yellow Peekaboo bag. Overall, though, the four-day schedule felt like there was little time to cover Milan in the correct way, and timings meant young designers were overlooked, which is a real pity.”

Leonardo Girombelli, brand manager, TheCorner.com, owned by the Italian e-tailer Yoox: “I liked the strong-yet-sweet woman on the catwalks and how designers are experimenting while going back to their roots. I don’t think it’s a good idea to play it safe now. Materials and craftsmanship were sophisticated and precious. Tops were more important than bottoms, with leggings, for example, gaining traction. I thought knits were also excellent. Marni and Jil Sander were bravely innovative, and very avant-garde.”

 

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