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MILAN — Financial crisis or not, Milan brought sexy and powerful back to women’s wear for fall.

This story first appeared in the March 4, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“These are difficult and uncertain times, and designers have been literal in the fact that women will need strong shoulders to carry us through [them],” said Sarah Rutson, fashion director at Lane Crawford, Hong Kong.

While retailers were surprised by the glut of party clothes at the shows, which wound up Tuesday, they liked what they saw — although that doesn’t mean they’re not cutting their budgets and asking fashion houses to do deals.

Nonetheless, buyers were generally upbeat about the season. “Economic doom and gloom doesn’t seem to have cast its shadow here in Milan. There was no shortage of the luxurious materials and deluxe craftsmanship that Italy is famous for, freshened up with new ideas and plenty of attitude,” said Linda Fargo, senior vice president and fashion director, Bergdorf Goodman.

“We are leaving Milan with collections that delivered clear, strong messages with new, powerful silhouettes and enough glitter and emotion to light up our customers’ wardrobes,” said Barbara Atkin, vice president, fashion direction, at Holt Renfrew, Toronto.

Still, in exchange for loyalty this season, buyers said they expected brands to reduce their margins going forward.

“We look at this from a community perspective. We are all feeling the pinch. There are a lot of hard decisions to make, but we remain positive that we can manage through this well with good discussions with our partners,” said Julie Gilhart, senior vice president and fashion director at Barneys New York.

“We are working alongside the designers, who are sensitive to the moment and focused on management, distribution and commercial conditions. A number of brands have expanded their product and price range to cooperate with retailers,” said Tiziana Cardini, fashion director, La Rinascente.

“Designers need to think very hard about their pricing strategy next year. We are very optimistic and hopeful and believe the situation will improve in the next six months to a year,” said Erin Mullaney, women’s wear buying director at Browns, London.

The exaggerated shoulder was a key trend for the season, with tailored jackets making a comeback and skinny pants and leggings continuing. Meanwhile, leather, fur, an abundance of textured fabrics, jewelry and bags aplenty were featured in many collections.

In terms of color, black and gray dominated, much to the chagrin of some buyers, although reds, purples, greens and metallics acted as foils.

Almost all buyers said they were working on tighter budgets this season — “who isn’t?” one said — with some leaner by as much as 20 percent, and so they were seeking bang for their buck. “This season we need to be relentless editors in order to offer our customers the best the market has to offer,” said Jennifer Wheeler, vice president, designer apparel, at Nordstrom.

In the main, retailers said that meant sticking to brands they and their customers know and trust.

“We’ll keep looking at new people, but we’re continuing to work with our current assortment of vendors,” said Joseph Boitano, group senior vice president, general merchandising manager at Saks Fifth Avenue.

Standout collections included Jil Sander, Prada, Marni, Bottega Veneta, Giorgio Armani, Gucci, Pucci, Roberto Cavalli and Gianfranco Ferré, retailers said.

Meanwhile, they tipped Christopher Kane at Versus and, for next season, Vionnet, the historic French house recently acquired by Matteo Marzotto and Gianni Castiglioni, as ones to watch in the future.

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

Linda Fargo, senior vice president and fashion director, Bergdorf Goodman
“The prevailing look suggests women in power, whether they’re glamorous and strong with important shoulders and suits applied to hourglass silhouettes or they’re ready to rock. The Eighties were clearly the decade du jour, though the Forties were also present: think large fox fur sleeves and ruby red lips….Raf Simons delivered big-time by expressing both the DNA of classic Jil Sander as well as a masterful series of sculptural pieces playing off the feminine curve. Pucci surprised us favorably by truly making a collection relevant to the desire for clothes with attitude. Gucci will appeal to the heart of the Gucci girl with a shimmering collection, which makes every day a party. Cavalli took a fiercer tone, which we loved — grommets, angles and all. For muted beauties, there’s Tomas Maier at Bottega [Veneta]. It’s a Versace moment, and Donatella seized it. We hope the dust settles favorably on [Gianfranco] Ferré as the two designers are hitting the right notes.”

Joseph Boitano, group senior vice president, general merchandising manager, Saks Fifth Avenue
“Overall, we are very pleased. There were two different trends: First of all, the sophisticated, dressed-up, tailored collections such as Prada, Versace, Armani and even Marni, which was beautifully pulled together, then the 1980s sexy, harder-edged collections, like Gucci, Cavalli and Pucci. It’s not either-or. Both elements are exciting. Diversity is great for our customers….One collection stood out: Jil Sander. It was exquisitely done. The classic tailoring moving into geometric shapes was beautiful and so relevant for today….We are also pleased to see cocktail dresses in so many of the collections. It’s a big opportunity. Versace’s were great, and Dolce [& Gabbana] did some beautiful cocktail dresses.”

Stephanie Solomon, vice president of fashion direction, Bloomingdale’s
“Milan put us in a good mood….There were a lot of references to the Eighties, and when you reflect back on that period, it was a time of great self-assurance. It was a time when women dressed to be noticed. The power suit, the big shoulders, lots of shine and glitter, neon colors: they are all trends that exude self-belief. If there’s one thing a woman needs in fall ’09, it’s confidence….Armani returned to his roots with short skirts and strong jackets with defined shoulders….As for Gucci, it takes guts to dress in a sequin jacket and leggings. You have to like yourself. And that is good news for women. Pucci, Cavalli and Versace were also strong. They were simply fun. [Burberry’s] Christopher Bailey took a romantic approach, and his soft dresses with oversize coats exuded confidence. Raf Simons’ neon and sculptural shapes [at Jil Sander] were all about getting noticed when you walk into a room. Prada was the same, with the slightly exaggerated hips. Tommaso Aquilano and Roberto Rimondi continue to show the promise of world-class design for the future — both in their own line and at Gianfranco Ferré.”

Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director, Neiman Marcus
“The fashion customer has closets full of clothes, and newness is going to be paramount in getting her into the stores to shop. Customers want specialness. We love all this shoulder action we’re seeing in Milan, even if some on the runway are extreme. And there’s the return of the jacket. We saw great jackets at Giorgio Armani and pagoda sleeves at Aquilino & Rimondi. The shoulder story is going to be a reason to buy. And we saw the continuation of the legging and narrow pants. Jil Sander’s sculptural shapes and color were a standout, and we loved the closer-to-the-body Marni, Bottega Veneta’s superchic dresses and the red leather coat at Prada was outstanding. In general, there was too much black and gray, and it continues to surprise us how designers love heavy fabrics. Our customers don’t respond to it. A lot of the revved-up sexiness is runway styling. It’s going to be interesting in the showrooms to see what the prices are. The customer is looking for price-value when she’s shopping.”

Julie Gilhart, senior vice president and fashion director, Barneys New York
“[Jil Sander’s] Raf Simons gave us a fantastic show in two parts. First he showed us beautifully tailored keep-forever items. The second part was filled with sculptural modern pieces. Everything looked rich…. Tomas Maier’s collection [for Bottega Veneta] was sexy and strong due to his new snug-fitting silhouette and casually glamorous long dresses. His dresses in velvet with crystal embellishment were must-haves. We don’t believe in ‘designing down’ to accommodate conservative spending, but we are looking for things that a customer can wear more year-round. We feel there is more perceived value in these types of pieces….It’s not a question of sexy or classic, it’s more about what will drive a customer to buy. There are all types of different customers who aspire to different ‘wants’ for their wardrobes overall, but what will drive them to consume is shifting. There is more consumer consciousness developing….No doubt it will be tough, but it will also be a time of creativity. It’s an amazing time to incubate new ideas.”

Sarah Rutson, fashion director, Lane Crawford, Hong Kong
“There has been a huge amount of ‘going-out dressing,’ which to some has given rise to criticism. However, we have to put it in the context of pre-collections that were very sedate and daywear-driven. Runway deliveries will have to be a ‘wow.’ What is selling for us are the special pieces, the point of difference. There was a lot of metal embellishment and grommets, animal prints, thigh-high boots, skinny leather and python-skin pants, tight and sexy Eighties dresses. A cape is the new coat silhouette. Fur has been about mixing pelts and having a full furry sleeve or shoulder different to the body of the coat. Highlights were Jil Sander, Marni and Prada, which summed up a season of pragmatic strength and optimism. Also, Neil Barrett’s women’s wear continues to maintain a strong following. His sparkled leather pieces and printed python and stretch jersey dresses and pants are going to fly out of the store.”

Barbara Atkin, vice president, fashion direction, Holt Renfrew, Toronto
“Our budgets are conservative and in line with a business model that challenges us to be uncompromising in our selections with a strong point of view. There were many highs and lots of surprises…. Bold-shouldered jackets look new and will make past season’s jackets look passé. The message was strong for coats and suits as important investment pieces. The big surprise was the amount of emphasis on sexy, flashy club and late-evening clothes: a strong signal that the Milanese designers believe in the luxury customer continuing their zest for maintaining the ‘good life.’ We will invest in great coats, suits and bold-shouldered jackets. Knitwear, especially sweater coats and cardigans, sexy dresses, leather — from biker jackets to skinny pants — fur and sequined pieces add to the mix.”

Jennifer Wheeler, vice president, designer apparel, Nordstrom
“Milan gave us a futuristic take on the historical female warrior: a Joan of Arc meets ‘Mad Max’ meets Xena. The collections offered some great items. These will be our focus, as that is how our customers will be buying from us, more so than ever in this climate. We are all looking for the formula to stimulate the consumer. The customer wants to feel she is making smart investment choices in her wardrobe. However, what she will be compelled to buy is something new that she falls in love with and has to have. We do believe that sexy will retail and resonate with our customer. The most compelling fashion messages, trends and items were skinny pants, miniskirts and tunics, strong shoulder details, floral brocades, future warrior looks, leather and disco-nightlife apparel.”

Averyl Oates, buying director, Harvey Nichols
“Waists have been defined: sex is clearly back — not just seen in thigh-high boots and punk-rock Balmain-ish references (as in the display of chain mail and grommets at the strong but pared-down Cavalli show, and the energetic Pucci show with motorcycle jackets and skinny leather jeans), but some looks have even been alluring and coquettish….[At Jil Sander], the series of sculptural jackets, dresses and cocoon shapes…gave us a futuristic couture show unlike any other seen this season. Tomas Maier showed a very sensual collection for Bottega Veneta…. Gucci presented a gorgeous glittery collection of timeless tops with sparkling spandex leggings, very Studio 54 or Eighties disco. Miuccia Prada, on the other hand, presented a show…with references to the early Forties in both style and mood, when women presented their feminine side against all the odds; what should have been perfectly groomed chignons were mussed up, heels were high and silhouettes voluminous with the deepest V necklines. Marni was cool and even more sophisticated than before, showing every kind of desirable jewelry, from rock crystals to chunky flower necklaces shown over rich jacquards and brocade fabrics, all exquisitely embellished.”

Cindy Ho, fashion and merchandising director, Villa Moda, Kuwait
Ho said she was “very happy” with Milan Fashion Week, which delivers a “strong and important message” with lightness of colors and materials. “This helps the mood of those buying goods in September.” She said there was “a lot of creativity and a strong image, with unique and very special pieces.” She said Jil Sander was “amazing.” Ho liked the layered look at Missoni, with light and deconstructed knitwear…Bottega Veneta’s “beautifully structured, fitted clothing” and color palette ranging from peach and apricot to beige. Marni was “very special” with “beautiful embellishments and colors.” Prada was “so strong,” especially the embellishments on leather. Meanwhile, Dolce & Gabbana’s renewed focus on head and shoulders was “special” compared to the previous season. Ho liked the reds, khakis and bottle pink where used, and said they looked beautiful together. She also praised the new suit, its cut and the very special slits. In terms of budgets, Ho said that “if the price is correct for the piece and not overrated, then there is no problem.” She trimmed her budget “by 10 or 15 percent,” and noted some designers had lowered their prices by 10 percent for their pre-collections.

Erin Mullaney, women’s wear buying director, Browns, London
“We were most moved by highly individual and not so trend-driven collections. Marni was one of our favorites, combining colors, patterns and accessories to create a unique look….Jil Sander was a fabulous collection….It was very forward thinking and modern and there was something for everyone….Bottega Veneta also stood out from the rest of the mix, which drove the high-sex, broad-shoulders, Eighties theme to almost too far. It was beautifully understated, pretty, soft and feminine in a week that was so hard. Pucci had a new energy and new vitality. It was right on trend, very sexy and very strong. Christopher Kane for Versus had amazing accessories, which will be commercially successful, and we’re picking that up for fall. We also felt Pollini was strong…. We noticed interesting developments in knitwear, especially at Missoni. Sex always sells, but it doesn’t have to be overtly sexy; it can be understated like at Prada. We have to give women a reason to buy; we have to work harder so that they feel like they get value for money, something sexy and unique that is going to make them feel like a different person.”

Katerina Moseeva, commercial director, Bosco di Ciliegi, Russia
“Sportmax reinterpreted many strong trends the right way, which makes the collection very sellable, also given the quality-price ratio.” She also liked Etro, which she described as “very rich,” with golden details on skirts and clutches, “beautiful knits and coats.” “You feel like buying these clothes. In times of crisis, you shouldn’t offer basic pieces, but strong, beautiful collections that trigger a desire to buy.” Moseeva was particularly impressed by Jil Sander. “There are trends at Jil Sander that we’ll see in two or three years.” The second part, with the black dresses lined in yellow and asymmetrical, were “strong and well constructed.” She also described Moschino and Moschino Cheap & Chic, as “very beautiful, feminine and sellable,” citing coats, knits and dresses. Moseeva said she based her budget on the performance of the fall-winter collections’ sell-out. She didn’t cut her budget and in some cases, she bought more because some companies expanded their collections with different price points, such as Moschino.


Tancrède de Lalun, men’s and women’s buying director, Printemps

“There were two distinct extremes, either very calm or very sexy. Leather, fur, leggings, thigh-highs, sequins, studs and short dresses made a visible statement. Compared to last season, styles were not as risky, there were fewer prints and less color. Brands stayed true to their style and didn’t venture into the unknown. This is not the moment to ignore one’s heritage. Both sex and classic will sell as long as brands stay true to their DNA. Gucci, Pucci and Dolce & Gabbana are likely to rise above the gloomy economy for their sexy and festive flare. Pucci has completely changed its course towards sexiness, which is very on trend. The best brands are those with a strong identity and they will be the most successful. More than ever before clients pay close attention to value, each product must justify its price.”


Tiziana Cardini, fashion director, La Rinascente
“Designers presented well-defined, creative and strong collections, which shows they are reacting to the moment.” However, Cardini expressed doubts about the 1980s-disco mood on the catwalks. “Nobody wishes in times of austerity to see collections that are severe, but the overtly sexy inspiration appears to be strained. It could work for a young customer or in the fast-fashion industry, but not in the high-end range of the market. I loved Prada, the image of a sophisticated woman who doesn’t shy away from being eccentric. It’s sexy yet cultivated, wicked yet upper class. It was one of the best, directional and inspiring.” Cardini also praised Jil Sander because Raf Simons “evolves the brand, respecting its DNA, creating a strong tie between the creativity of the original Sander designer and his own.” She said Marni was “the most British of the Italian brands, with its college eccentricity, combined with practicality.” Cardini praised the balance, this season especially, “between Marni’s two souls: the eccentric, poetic and odd and its Milanese functionality.”

Marigay McKee, fashion and beauty director, Harrods

“My favorite shows were Bottega Veneta and Marni. They were both absolutely stunning. Bottega for its clean lines, beautiful color palette and the romanticism of the cocktail dresses; Marni for being fun and playful while capturing the mood with some of the best outerwear I’ve seen this season. Pucci and Cavalli stood out as they departed from their usual formula and showed much edgier collections than usual….The use of leather and fur was also a stunning enhancement that added sophistication to the edginess….Gucci certainly broke the gloom factor with sequins, sparkles and embellishments that rocked with bling despite the crisis. Blumarine also was a splash of exotic color….Versace put on high-octane glamour that was gladiatorlike, whilst Cavalli sent out warriors to fight the climate, in neutral tones (blacks, navies and grays) — the antithesis to the usual Cavalli prints. We have not cut our budgets, but are being cautiously optimistic, as we are trading up on last year and business is healthy. We are not dropping any brands due to the economic situation…. Overall Milan was very good for us with the right mix of commercial content versus aesthetic-newness content.”

Linda Dresner, owner, Linda Dresner, Birmingham, Mich.
“We’re being very careful and we’re choosing particular pieces rather than collections. It’s not the moment to have quantities of the same label. It’s the moment to be original in your choices. I’m buying clothes that have a strong personality, and we bought from artisanal people, like Daniela Gregis. I loved the coats from Capucci, and I liked very much the new collection by Romeo Gigli.”

Anita Barr, director of women’s wear, Selfridges

Jil Sander was definitely my highlight of the week. It was a fantastic show and a really inspirational collection that focused on a modern silhouette is a paired-down classic color palette. You could see the impact that the likes of Balmain and Martin Margiela have had recently. Power dressing with exaggerated shoulders and nipped-in waists was prevalent, combined with Eighties-inspired hair and makeup. Jil Sander, Pucci, Marni and Burberry all certainly broke through the gloom, but for very different reasons. Pucci’s aesthetic was so different to what we have come to expect that it made a real impact, and Marni, as always, used a brilliant and idiosyncratic color palette. Burberry also showed some beautiful pieces, particularly the tweeds and coats. We didn’t really see any outstanding newcomers, but historically that’s what we usually expect from London and Paris. Right now, customers want to buy exceptional investment pieces, whether they’re sexy or classic.”