MILAN, ITALY — When the sultans of sex, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, did a collection that could have been lifted from the Queen's wardrobe at Balmoral, it was clear Milan fashion was in retrograde.
Coming out of political and economic chaos -- namely, the government's collapse here last month -- the fall season was about stability, convention, perhaps even a yearning for the good old days. It was a staid reflection of traditional values of God and family, celebrating women as saints, not sinners.
Roberto Cavalli, of slinky dress and painted tight denim fame, found religion with ecclesiastical looking embroidery and stained-glass prints. Prada found lace, the most churchy of fabrics. Even Karl Lagerfeld was kindler and gentler, tossing aside the usual ferocious Fendi furs in favor of Elizabethan caped jackets and puff-sleeve knits.
These were safe clothes for unsafe times, the kind your mama might have worn. Which is odd from the vantage point of the U.S., where the times they are a changin'. But what the collections lacked in excitement, they made up for in luxury, with couture-like, hand-crafted details designed with the wealthiest .0001% in mind.
At first glance, Prada's models seemed to descend from the elevated, curved runway like superwomen from the sky. But these were everyday heroines, their modest black, ruffled dresses resembling widow's wear, with the odd men's shirt collar peeking out like a priest's collar.
But it was lace, the fabric that stays with a woman from the cradle to the grave, that was the heart of this collection -- and it will be the thing everyone will want to wear come fall. Lace was worked into full skirts that hit midcalf; into boxy, collarless jackets and modest, button-front shirts. Handmade in Switzerland, these laces were exquisite, instant heirlooms -- some three-dimensional with cutouts here, and lace flower appliques there.
Some pieces were see-through, offering a glimpse of a bra or panties underneath, hinting at woman's sexual journey. But this was not a kinky collection. Hair was slicked back into severe buns, secured with leather hair nets (the fall season's turban). Jewelry was spare and modern -- molded resin collars and cuffs. Purses were understated -- a black calf, hand-held tote with a ruffle of leather on either side. But the shoes had transformative power: kinetic sculpture to carry winged deities.
Versace's goddesses were a different sort, ready to walk the red carpet. Donatella was the only one to bring shoulder- and back-baring glamour to the week, thanks to her wet-look silk jersey gowns in shades of nude, purple, navy and pink. Still, there were none of the thigh-high slits we're used to. Instead, this collection was about restraint. Graphic bands controlled volume on coats, cropped jackets and short cocktail dresses, crisscrossing over shoulders, pulling in back pleats and panels, shaping the body and creating a sophisticated effect. She kept things from being too serious by collaborating with Dutch artist Tim Roeloffs on prints -- cityscapes incorporating Medusas and other Versace icons.
It's difficult to believe it was just a year ago that Dolce and Gabbana showed erotica on the runway, riding crops and all. There wasn't a corset in sight during this season's family hunt, just shapeless, below-the-knee dirndl skirts (and a rehabbed Lindsay Lohan in the front row). And yet, there was something comforting about the rich textures of curly lambskin coats, ribbed knits and full skirts in soft tweeds or mixed scarf prints. Gently padded chiffon dresses came in whiskered prints that resembled fur, gently caressing the waist and hips. Daddy's suits in Prince of Wales checks were sharply tailored with skinny pants, vests and shapely jackets worn with glitter-coated lace-up shoes for the slightest bit of big-city bling.
Even Marni's Consuelo Castiglione reined it in, relying on pops of bright pink, blue and yellow color to add interest to wearable coats and skirts, instead of tricky details and artistic prints. She played with proportions, layering a cropped beige jacket over a longer ruffled blue blouse and a yellow Harlequin print skirt, and ankle length trousers under a geometric print tunic and cropped fur chubby. Candy-colored sunglasses added whimsy where there wasn't much.
With a return to restrained tailoring and more sober styles building since New York Fashion Week, this was an opportunity for Jil Sander. The thinking woman's label, more antifashion than fashion, Jil Sander is the go-to for precision-cut pantsuits that have just enough of an edge to make them interesting but not too much to make them frivolous.