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Milan fashion week sees brands offer a more restrained glamour

From shimmering red carpet gowns to tailored skirt suits, Italian womenswear is the traditional home of sensuality and glamour. But at a testing moment for the luxury fashion industry, a new, more complex, vision of femininity is being mooted this Milan fashion week.

Thursday’s Max Mara presentation took George Barris’ 1962 photographs of Marilyn Monroe on the beach – windswept and wrapped in a chunky knitted cardigan– as its starting point. Notes distributed at the show referred to Monroe’s intelligence and thirst for knowledge, rather than to her appearance: the night classes she enrolled in at UCLA; the poetry she wrote; the books by John Milton and Fyodor Dostoevsky she read so voraciously.

Undoubtedly, the results were still sexy, featuring a roll call of supermodels including Gigi Hadid, Lindsey Wixon and Joan Smalls. But the sensuality was nuanced, not brash, as they wrapped their arms around themselves, as if for comfort, in luxurious camel coats or wiggled down the catwalk in alpaca dresses and houndstooth pencil skirts. Shoes were practical flat loafers; bookish backpacks were worn. In an echo of the previous day’s Gucci show – which eschewed the usual jet set glamour in favour of androgynous 1970s librarian chic – many of them wore spectacles.

At Fendi, creative director Karl Lagerfeld’s vision was covered up and full of 1970s references, with polo necks, funnel neck collars, buttoned-up shirts and luxurious leather pinafores.

In one section, models  were covered up by puffed up, cushion-panelled coats covered in geometric patterns in mustard and brown, recalling 1970s tube carriage upholstery. Girlish headbands and leather “flowers” draping out of bags added a note of whimsy.

Even at Roberto Cavalli’s secondary line, Just Cavalli, a brand known for flashy femininity, there were brown and mustard polo necks and cuban collars, although in Cavalli’s world no woman would ever want to cover up entirely so these modest tops were teamed with revealing lacy panels and miniskirts.

The change in attitude reflects a shifting landscape for the industry as a whole. After the boom years of the turn of the decade – when China’s burgeoning wealth translated to huge growth for European luxury brands – sales have been down at many Italian mega-brands including Gucci and Prada.

Much of the issue stems from a shift in taste, away from obvious logos and bling. Instead, a more sophisticated vision of luxury has been favoured by consumers, as presented by understated, niche labels such as Céline and Loewe. This shift can be seen in the recent use of older women known for their intelligence, such as Joan Didion and Joni Mitchell for Céline and Saint Laurent respectively, in advertising campaigns rather than the usual twenty-something models.

Last week, Prada announced a 1% fall in sales in 2014 – following growth of 9% and 29% in 2013 and 2012 – and issued a statement saying: “the luxury goods market is undergoing a readjustment, the extent and nature of which is not clear yet”. Gucci also had a tough 2014, with operating profit down 6.7%.

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