Get Ready for a Fashion Vibe Shift


There’s a change underway in fashion. The safe, swaddling allure of quiet luxury, the sort of luxury that was as much of a local specialty as risotto alla Milanese, seems less and less consequential — a sort of relaxed, neutral approach to self-expression that no longer jibes with the increasing urgency of the world. That seems less like a panacea than a surrender.

It started in January, back in couture, when John Galliano’s Maison Margiela show with its extreme theatrics and heightened emotions acted like a wake-up call after seasons of being stultified by camel. Continued in New York, at Willy Chavarria, who set a family-size table of sartorial intention. And in Milan, was picked up by Francesco Risso at Marni, who boiled fashion down to its essence so it could begin again.

Papering in white a cavernous warren of rooms under a railway track, so it resembled some sort of petri dish, Mr. Risso birthed a very chic primal scream. The shapes nodded to paper doll versions of couture tropes, so the New Look skirts, cocoon dresses, egg coats all looked as if they had been made of construction paper (or a leather or wool version of it) and a flocked velvet print resembled a scribble. Outerwear had a cave man hairiness and mini dresses were covered in finger paint swirls. These would not be easy garments to wear, but they sure jolt you out of your torpor.

As a result, they leave a lot of the more — well, normal, for want of a better term — clothes on many runways looking like remnants of a different time, like wardrobes for masters of the universe with bolt-holes in New Zealand where they plan to sit out the apocalypse in solo off-the-grid splendor, and fah! to the rest of the world. That’s no longer such a good look.

Or so I felt, anyway, watching Sabato De Sarno’s second Gucci show. There’s nothing wrong with what he is doing: It’s crystal clear and succinct. Mr. De Sarno believes, very strongly, in the leg, tailoring and the fragile slip dress (it’s a trend here, along with leopard, thigh-high boots and fluffy shoes). He believes in shorts and the platform loafer. But he’s very up front about the fact his ambitions aren’t much greater than making very nice clothes. It’s one, not bad, thing for a designer to refuse to be a dictator. Another for him to be so reticent that without a logo he might disappear. That approach has taken a brand that used to be one of Milan’s magnetic poles and rendered it minor.

If you’re in the market for a little shine without effort, great — check out Mr. De Sarno’s coats with hems covered in paillettes and sequins, and grandpa knits with a bit of sparkly fringe. They’re terrific, just as the pants with a hefty cuff at Matteo Tamburini’s debut at Tod’s were perfectly done. But Mr. Tamburini’s big idea was belt buckles shaped like auto grills and leather shoes with carwash fringe, because — driving shoe! Get it? In both cases, it’s not enough.

Sure, there’s a theory that when life is complicated, fashion should be easy. But it should not also be easy to forget. The longest runways and most glittering celebrities can’t fill that void.

That’s why the little moments of weirdness at Ferragamo and Bally stood out among the otherwise well-behaved wardrobing: the great coats dangling two sets of belts at the back at Ferragamo and the witchy, exaggerated collars on an evening suit; the fur skirts exploding from a proper wool frock at Bally, and the studded skirts and vests that featured, along with the obvious punk references, little cows. Really: cows. Moo.

Now the designers Maximilian Davis (Ferragamo) and Simone Bellotti (Bally) just need to go further. Lucie and Luke Meier did at Jil Sander — all the way round the bend, in fact, cutting everything on an exaggerated curve so suits and coats and dresses resembled sci-fi bed jackets, often in cartoon colors and often quilted or padded. Not that this was a new strain of comfort clothing (honestly, enough of that). It’s more like what to wear for a soft landing after a moon shot.

Dream big. Get loud. That’s the point. Interestingly, Jil Sander is owned by Only The Brave, Renzo Rosso’s conglomerate, which also owns Margiela, Marni and Diesel, a brand that made its own statement at the opening of the Milan shows. For years the group’s name seemed more like a keep-trying-dear goal than a reality, but all of a sudden it’s starting to seem like an accurate characterization. One that could define not just the company, but the moment.

To that end, Mr. Rosso might take a look at Sunnei, Milan’s resident upstart conceptual brand, where the clothes are beginning to live up to the social commentary that surrounds them. This season, for example, the designers Loris Messina and Simone Rizzo exposed the inner lives of models by blasting their runway thoughts on the soundtrack — “Breathe. Breathe. Don’t close your eyes”; “Oh gosh, the noise of my stomach. Oh gosh, I can’t wait to eat some pasta”— while covering their outer selves in plush padded opera puffers and carpet-stripe separates that unsnapped into — well, carpets. They were cool.

That is why Donatella Versace’s retreat to the archive via ’90s power punks at Versace and Peter Hawkings’ retro sex-’n-’struts formula at Tom Ford was so frustrating. Ms. Versace and Mr. Hawkings can cut rock star jackets. They love a bit of sizzle. But it’s like they are on rewind. The result is less safe than stale.

And it is why Matthieu Blazy’s Bottega Veneta, with its twisted approach to the every day, evoking heightened detail and emotion, is so compelling.

Mr. Blazy doesn’t just make a coat, he pinches the seams of its arms from neck to wrist so they stand up, creating a sort of two-dimensional frame that makes the wearer look like a walking portrait of themselves. He covers silk dresses in passport stamp prints so they become a wearable travelogue. Cuts leather into yeti scruff. And finishes a plain black shirtdress with a furry band and layers of fringe, so it jounces along almost on its own: professional on the top, party underneath. Soul all the way through.



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