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From bling to geek chic: can Italian fashion move beyond ‘molto sexy’?

As is often the case, it was the enduringly fabulous Donatella Versace who gave Milan fashion week one of its most memorable moments. Her hair poker straight and preternaturally shiny, her tiny body clad in a flared trouser suit, the designer was flanked by two glamazons in glittering mini dresses as she explained her latest collection. “We’re closing the door on the archive for new interpretations of what Versace is,” she said. “Times have changed. Psychologically and practically, the basis of a fashion language is different. It’s about finding a new language, particularly online.” That new vocabulary was written all over the models’ gowns, the dazzling embellishments hashtags, @-symbols and a new logo called “#GREEK”, or, as Versace explained it, “the emoji of the future”.

Where London fashion is generally perceived as a hotbed of creativity, New York known for big business and Paris as the spiritual home of chic, Italian fashion has a reputation for producing high-quality clothes – but being a little stuck in its ways. The industry has been run by the same players since the 1970s (Armani, Cavalli, Gucci, Prada, Versace). While there are notable exceptions – at Prada, unpredictability comes as standard – the world view tends towards convention: men are suave; women are sex bombs or mamas. As luxury consumers’ tastes shift away from well-known labels towards understated brands such as Loewe and Sacai, Italian fashion is particularly vulnerable. Change was in the air.

Versace, Milan fashion week AW15.
Photograph: Fairchild Photo Service/Condé Nast/Corbis

The shift was seen most clearly at Gucci, where a new creative director, Alessandro Michele, has been installed to counteract falling sales. For the first womenswear collection under new management, Gucci’s customary bling was replaced with jaunty berets, nerdy beanies, eccentric fluffy moccasins and androgynous male and female models styled in wilfully geeky glasses. Suddenly, the customer was not a minted St Tropez sunbather but a bookish Wes Anderson fan – a transformation that will not have been undertaken lightly by luxury conglomerate Kering, for whom Gucci provides 79% of revenue.

Prada, Milan fashion week AW15.
Photograph: Fairchild Photo Service/Condé Nast/Corbis

Other Milan modernisations have had longer to gestate. In the year since Jeremy Scott showed his first unashamedly attention-grabbing McDonald’s-themed collection for Moschino, the house has become an Instagram fascination, creating clothes designed to be “liked” on social media. This season’s hits included teddybear-print bags and jumpers that were available to buy online immediately – capitalising on instant exposure, rather than saving catwalk creations for the traditional autumn store drop.

Gucci, Milan fashion week, AW15.
Photograph: SGP/Rex

Some brands made renewed attempts to address how women really wear and buy clothes. Backstage, Angela Missoni talked about separates and mix-and-match dressing, rather than sticking to the brand’s signature crochet dresses. Prada presented layers of shirts, jumpers and coats – with brooches clipped on to lapels and models carrying bags and wearing gloves. So, while the collection looked sufficiently otherworldly in its entirety, there was plenty to buy. There have been subtle shifts at Bottega Veneta, where clashing colours, graphic patterns and tank tops gave the label a cooler edge. And with Peter Dundas presenting his last collection for Pucci – sparking rumours that he could replace Roberto Cavalli at his namesake label soon – developments look set to continue.

Moschino, Milan fashion week, AW15.
Photograph: Pietro D’Aprano/Getty Images

Still, there is a long way to go. Trends were thin on the ground, and many brands continued to offer slightly bored critics more of the same. Clearly, in the main, the big boys of old-school fashion rule the waves: the biggest fashion event at the upcoming Expo 2015, which will bring the world’s eyes to the city from May until October and takes Italy’s other big export, food, as its theme, will be a Giorgio Armani retrospective.

Ironically, the brand that got closest to actually breaking the internet was Dolce Gabbana, with a collection themed on motherhood. Models walked the runway holding babes in arms (one was actually pregnant), wearing dresses decorated with children’s drawings, to the accompaniment of the Spice Girls’ Mama. Though this felt incredibly traditional – and very on-brand for a label that revolves around la dolce vita – it also tapped in to two very modern fashion stories: baby North West making the rounds at fashion week with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, and Angelina Jolie’s wedding veil, which was embellished with her children’s scrawls.

The world view was old-school but the results were modern: this was the show that ended up trending on Twitter. So two truths were underlined this Milan fashion week. First, that impact comes not just from the medium but also the message. Second, that it’s not just shoppers who use clothes to reinvent themselves but fashion capitals, too.

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