MILAN, ITALY — The dire state of the economy was in evidence both on and off the runway here in Milan for the showing of the fall/winter 2009-2010 men's collections, the first to be fully conceived and come to fruition during the current recession. Although no one has hit the runway wearing a barrel and suspenders, certain details -- carpetbag satchels, flattened hats worthy of a hobo, patchwork jackets -- suggest the prospect of a looming depression.
Instead of blazing new ground, most designers have decided to emphasize comfort and nostalgia, highlighting the things that make us feel safe and sound, connected and insulated from the outside forces swirling around us.
Of course, various designers here approach this ritual as theater and, never ones to play it subtle, Dolce & Gabbana followed up last season's sleepwear-inspired fare by digging deeper down -- right to the padded mattress.
With the word "Sicilia" displayed on monitors above the stage, the show began with swelling violins and a montage of nostalgic black-and-white photographs depicting a simple, presumably bygone way of life on the island of Sicily.
Cut to the Killers tune "Are We Human," and out poured a parade of quilted satin drawstring pants, tuxedo trousers and jackets, boiled-wool military jackets and mixed-fabric trench coats in velvet and wool.
The color palette was predominantly black, gray and brown with pops of pink and fuchsia that grew more prevalent like a rising sun peeking over the horizon (brighter days ahead?) until the finale -- a series of fuchsia tuxedo jackets hand-woven in a tight over-under pattern like the webbing in a lawn chair.
The show notes hammer home the handcrafting, citing as inspiration a need for "profound and binding ties" and a return to "traditional values and craftsmanship" that "linked men and their own roots, their own land and family," but the collection seemed to be less about that and more about wrapping one's self in bubble wrap, a not-so-subtle acknowledgment that before this crisis is over we're going to need industrial-strength insulation against the cold sting of the new economic reality.
For Burberry Prorsum, creative director Christopher Bailey continued his short course in British contributions to the arts, after last season's collection inspired by the late British filmmaker Derek Jarman, with a nod to renowned UK photographer Bill Brandt and the idea of "modern nostalgia" evoked by his photographs of England.
Like Dolce & Gabbana's trek back to Sicily, Burberry looked back fondly, playing up the idea of connectedness. Bailey has pulled out and dusted off the instantly recognizable Burberry check pattern, pretty much absent from the runway the last few seasons.
Seeing the scarves in the heritage plaid was like old-fashioned comfort food served up alongside string ties, cloth newsboy caps, herringbones and chunky cable knits.
At Bottega Veneta, creative director Tomas Maier chose to make the cardigan sweater his touchstone for the season's theme of familiarity. Not the actual cardigan sweater, mind you, but the silhouette, fabrication and attitude.
The result is soft-shouldered wool coats, suede blazers, flannel pants and cashmere turtlenecks and sweaters, each piece looking just broken-in enough to sleep in. Combined with an earthy color palette of bone white, ash and graphite grays and a shade of brown he calls "truffle," the combined effect is getting back to the earth, to roots.
It's hard to tell if Roberto Cavalli's homage/appropriation of the Southwestern U.S. aesthetic -- a wood-and-Navajo-rug set piece with antlers over the stone fireplace -- will register elsewhere.
But the blend of cowboy and Indian motifs was unmistakable, the Navajo rug design appearing on slippers as well as trousers that had leather pieces patched in so that from the back it appeared the wearer was sporting chaps.
Western-style cloth ties, wide metallic belt buckles and studded chunks of bling that looked like freshly panned gold nuggets were the finishing touches that hammered home Cavalli's OK Corral collection.
The way things are going, the industry could use a gold rush right about now.
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