Fierce creatures

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 March, 2010, 12:00am

Daniel Jeffreys in Milan: I have good news. Milan was much more upbeat than last season, even if the theme was 'heritage' and the silhouettes were retro to the point of pastiche or mockery. Had Paris recovered its joie de vivre?

Divia Harilela in Paris: Yes! And what fantastic clothes. Designers expressed differing views of femininity, whether the models wore sleek minimalist clothes, masculine tailoring, protective gear or had their breasts and curves on show. It made for a dynamic and interesting season. The message here was about empowering women.

M: Miuccia Prada embraced the female form with a collection that was all beehives, balloon skirts, nipped bodices and breasts refashioned as erotic projectiles. I thought I had wandered into an episode of Mad Men right down to the 1960s comic-book images beamed onto the walls. You have to hand it to Prada, she likes to entertain but I wonder how wearable it all is.

P: Marc Jacobs also embraced womanly curves at Louis Vuitton but in a far more pleasing way. You were fooled into thinking it was springtime - the sun was shining and there was a fountain surrounded by a circular catwalk in the tent. It was like a scene from a Federico Fellini film with the models' breasts spilling out from corsets. The bouncy ponytails and billowing hips in 50s-style tea skirts had a touch of Doris Day, even though Jacobs cited Brigitte Bardot as his inspiration. Neat jackets and cool cable knits were more modern. Accessories were minimal - besides chic short gloves and modest pumps, each girl carried the brand's best-selling Speedy in new materials (oiled croc, anyone?) and shapes. It was beautiful although I felt the pain of the casting agent - where did he find all those ripe bodies in Paris?

M: Prada didn't bother with bodacious bodies - she just pumped up the silhouettes with artful tailoring. My favourite was the outfit that opened the show in which the soft wool used for the bust had been shaped with exquisite architectural skill. The model's breasts looked like ice-cream cones designed by Frank Gehry. More wearable were the twin sets with layered colours, dresses in autumn gold or the moss green of an October forest, a suit made from coffee-coloured PVC and an evening dress with heavy black beading. Legs were sheathed in rich woollen tights made with the same cable knit as mountaineers socks. A brightly coloured line was woven down the middle of each leg, resembling mustard on a hot dog. And, as one has come to expect from Prada, the shoes were transcendent, with cute butterfly bows and pilgrim buckles.

Watching all this retro-ocity one wondered, has creativity been completely overrun by the archive? Did Paris have any moments of genuine genius?

P: Fashion's mad genius here is Nicolas Ghesquiere. At Balenciaga, there were so many new fabrics that editors were left speechless. On a futuristic, light-box runway he sent out rounded knits with colour blocks or stripes that looked moulded, almost stiff. Newspaper headlines in primary colours came printed on a series of geometric tops that morphed into unzipped trousers, topped with a cropped jacket. The fabrics were light years ahead - quilted shaved fur, stamped cashmere, neoprene, perforated leather and some that looked like packing material - all constructed with his couture craftsmanship. And the Lego heels! People are still talking about them.

M: Peter Dundas led the creative charge in Milan. He once said he makes clothes 'that are supposed to be taken off'. This season the Pucci programme notes described the show as 'rich in desire'. But it wasn't the revealing dresses with extreme cut-outs and sheer fabrics that were the highlight. That accolade went to the high-waisted pants with the bold gold zip in the rear that plunged towards the crotch. This guy has given the phrase 'sex appeal' a whole new lease on life. Who was the most erotically charged designer in Paris?

P: That would be John Galliano at Christian Dior. His collection was about the seduction of the French libertine - you could just imagine her riding off into the sunset on her horse. There were equestrian references as seen in the jodhpurs with buttons down the side, Prince of Wales checks and tailored riding jackets. The girly pieces, such as the rose-print silk shirt dresses and ruffled tops, were kept modest with fur-trimmed coats or leather trenches worn on top. Legs were covered with sexy thigh-high boots or socks with ruffled tops. The embroidered silk evening gowns had big knickers underneath. How were the gowns in Milan?

M: There were plenty, especially at Versace and Bottega Veneta. Everybody leaving Versace's show had one word on their lips - sexy. There was lots of colour blocking and classic Versace red plus another deluge of zips, which were placed in so many locations they seemed to carry a subliminal message that these outfits could be removed in ways that would appeal to any girl's inner contortionist. I especially liked the series that closed the show, which had multiple hemlines and silken fabrics in shades of white, cream and red. What was the colour message in Paris?

P: Everyone here was doing the minimalist thing so there wasn't much colour. But what was with the overload of beige? The entire Chlo? show made the short journey from ivory to oatmeal. Hannah MacGibbon cast aside the girly image of Chloe's past with a convincing modern woman of her own, but her menswear-inspired belted overcoats, tailored wide-legged trousers and button-up silk blouses, cravat included, needed more of a punch. If I want basics, I can go to the Gap.

M: I've had it with beige - it seems to me like a weak-willed compromise. There was some interesting colour from Giorgio Armani. In a room jammed with celebrities, led by British actor Clive Owen, Armani sent out a collection he called 'the New Chic' but it was more a case of 'the Old Sophisticate has got his mojo back'. What made the collection sing was not the strangely distracting hats, which represented yet another Milanese reference to the 40s, but the sophistication of cut and drape as seen in a cheerful red coat matched with a swinging skirt that popped like a champagne cork. Talking of which, did you party much in Paris?

P: There were plenty of parties and tonnes of celebrities including Kylie Minogue, P Diddy, Charlize Theron and Catherine Deneuve. The big bash of the week was the Viktor & Rolf party, where Grace Jones sizzled in leather - she could easily have taken down many of the fierce women on the catwalks.

M: This is the era of the fierce woman. She was evident at the Costume National bash in lots of tight black ripped stuff. But apart from that we were all too busy for parties. Milan has got very serious, with all the main events jammed into three days. There were lots of celebrities though, including tonnes of Italian actresses and Avatar star Zoe Saldana, at Max Mara, although that was where the fun ended. The fabrics on display were of the highest possible quality with gorgeous camel, cashmere and corduroy but they deserved better than the quasi-military treatment they received. The only piece that seemed to really get Saldana going was a Mata Hari dress in black silk. Otherwise she seemed as puzzled as the rest of us by gauche touches such as double military pouches on belts used to cinch cadet-style jackets. Did you see many marching bands in Paris?

P: Who needs soldiers when we have kick-ass spy girls? The Emma Peel lookalikes at Hermes were clad in sleek, tailored leather with bowler hats and croc umbrellas, some with mini Kelly bags attached. Off duty they wore chic leather three-piece suits (tie included), croc separates and leopard-print, accessorised with orange accents and a magnifying glass around the neck for a killer look (pardon the pun). The tailoring here really stood out but I'd rather forget those horrible mohair blanket skirts. Mission, abort.

M: A spy girl from the 20s was the inspiration at Ferragamo, where the house gave its soul over to Greta Garbo. Black and white images of the film star played on a huge screen before Massimiliano Giornetti presented his first womenswear collection for the brand. Until now, the Ferragamo womenswear division has been like a Rolls-Royce stuck in the mud. This collection was like a tow truck, yanking the house back onto a more familiar highway, where signposts such as 'elegance', 'fine tailoring' and 'exquisite craftsmanship' whipped by at speed. The palette was rich and autumnal and the reworking of Garbo's masculine suits was done with effortless panache. Were any of the Parisians in need of a tow?

P: No, although Karl Lagerfeld needed a truck of Antarctic proportions to transport an iceberg from Sweden to Paris for the Chanel show. Modern-day yetis lounged around on the melting ice in classic tweed jackets with tufts of fur, maxi coats and angora mini dresses shaded from white to glacier blue. There was tonnes of faux fur (since when did the Kaiser get a conscience?) and the accessories were worth braving the cold for - crystal necklaces, frosted camellias, ice cube-shaped bags and hairy boots with stalactite-inspired heels.

M: Lagerfeld's collection for Fendi didn't get my temperature rising. This time he showed jackets and coats with a patchwork of different skins, an approach that always seems clumsy and cheap. There was a heavy feel in most of the pieces, including a mid-calf skirt with a drawstring waist that looked like it had been made from curtains.

P: Viktor & Rolf was also disappointing. Out came 90s supermodel Kristen McMenamy, literally the size of a house, wearing the entire contents of a winter wardrobe. The Dutch duo then peeled layers off her and used them to re-dress some scantily clad models. They repeated this again, backwards. It was so confusing I couldn't pay attention to the clothes. I did manage to spot some sporty outerwear with drawstrings and studded leggings that were cool but not earth-shattering.

M: At the D&G show, the girls were sent out as rampant ski bunnies ready for a romp behind the nearest snow drift. Short shorts with wool cuffs and ski suits with Nordic patterns - including reindeer - were all about the apr?s ski. The lovely thing about a D&G collection is that it's almost always fun and uncomplicated and the clothes look like they are made for good-looking girls who always have a blast. Look out for the adorable bags decorated with miniature snowballs and gloves. Who was the master of accessories in Paris?

P: I loved the chic, pared-down accessories by Phoebe Philo at C?line, including the leather envelopes and boots with a chunky gold block heel. It was by far the best show and defined the hip, minimalist look now in ascendance. It opened with a sharp funnel neck double-breasted navy coat that had a single line of buttons down one side. More razor-sharp tailoring followed with tunic dresses and rounded sheepskin coats punctuated with thick leather trims and oversized leather pockets. For those sexy moments, there was a sheer white lace top matched with a thick A-line skirt, and a sequinned black bolero worn over a sheer long-sleeve top and tube dress. Very modern.

M: I like the way Philo combines materials. Everybody in Milan had an obsession with using at least two materials per garment but Sportsmax upped the ante by often using four. This created a lot of complex detail that made the clothes look animated, even if the models wearing them were not.

Luis Bunuel film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, which was apparently the inspiration, includes an infamous scene where people sit at the dining table on toilets and go to the toilet to eat. The Sportsmax people say their collection was not that confused (or ironic) but rather was 'tiptoeing a tightrope between the eccentric and the classic'. It seemed more a sporty take on Alpine eroticism.

Talking of mountains to climb, Tomas Maier has built one of his own at Bottega Veneta in terms of expectations. I have to confess I was a tad disappointed. The first set of leather coats that came out seemed much too bulky, even clumsy, which is not a term usually associated with the brand. However, towards the end there was a quartet of exceptional and erotic evening gowns made with triacetate over a tulle bodysuit that will make hearts beat faster. The fabric played with the woman's body like a maestro does with his violin.

P: Alber Elbaz at Lanvin always makes my heart skip a beat. His woman is powerful and doesn't need trousers to prove it. Her armour is a chic, tailored dress with architectural shoulders, embellished with a shaggy fur trim or a trail of crystals down the back and accentuated with geometric tribal jewellery. For the evening, Elbaz reworked loose blousons and track pants in gold and silver lam? and decorated them with feathers and African beading.

M: None of the girls I saw backstage were wearing those chic track pants. In fact, I am always struck by how the models look much more ordinary than one might expect. It's a credit to the transformative power of fashion that girls who might not merit much more than a second glance on the street become ethereal beauties once they are dressed up by an army of assistants - I counted about 200 of them in Dolce & Gabbana's dressing area and it was their hard work that was honoured in the designers' autumn collection.

A homage to Domenico and Stefano's Sicilian roots and the words 'sartorial' and 'sensual', the former was expressed through precise tailoring and the latter through short shorts with hemlines that seemed headed more towards the navel than the knee. Semi-transparency and a nod to the boudoir were also strong themes as was the trademark underwired brassiere that has been a feature of their style for almost two decades. Surprisingly, the collection also had polka dots and some delicious splashes of colour in hand-painted flowers that bloomed on soft silk. For those who love Dolce & Gabbana's gypsy-style religious ornaments, there were pieces hanging everywhere.

P: Stefano Pilati at Yves Saint Laurent was also having a religious moment - or so we thought - with the papal capes, gold chains around the waist and nun-like headgear. Turns out protection was on his mind, which explains the sci-fi plastic panels and coverings (they'd come in handy for a rainy day in Hong Kong). There was some clever construction and elegant Parisian separates, including jackets with slashed armholes, cape dresses, 70s high-waisted trousers and voluminous sheer blouses. Usually a dark horse, Pilati incorporated colour accentuated with feathers and origami. Some pieces reminded me of YSL's original work, which was timely as a retrospective to the master opened here that week.

M: It was all about heritage in Milan. Italian brands seem to know how important it is to have instant global recognition of their DNA when they put out a new collection. This thought was in my mind as I watched the Gucci show, where Frida Giannini stripped off all the sci-fi hardware from the previous collection and reached into Tom Ford's closet for some gorgeous remodelling of Gucci chic.

As the girls come down a runway, I often score each garment on a scale of one to 10. Rarely do I award an outfit a perfect score. This time I gave two 10s and a fair number of 9.5s. The second of the perfect scores went to a rich chocolate-coloured cocktail dress with ticker-tape fringes and an alluring silhouette. The Gucci logo, once splashed everywhere indiscriminately, was hardly in evidence. There were also thigh-high suede boots that showed impeccable taste, not easy for a form of footwear that can so easily look like hooker chic. These were powerful clothes designed to be worn by confident women. Bravo!

To what extent did the ghost of Alexander McQueen hang over Paris? His suicide was on people's minds in Milan but not to a huge extent because he didn't show a collection here.

P: Hussein Chalayan's Mirage collection was dedicated to McQueen. Based on a road trip through America, there were tornado-inspired swirling micro pleats on dresses and Swarovski-studded evening gowns with patterns that recalled car headlights on a dark, lonely highway.

But in all honesty, the best tribute to the designer was his final collection. Instead of the usual big production, McQueen's team chose to invite a few select editors to a private presentation. Kate Moss exited in a flood of tears and everyone else wasn't far off. The models walked around the room slowly and solemnly, their heads completely covered except for dramatic feather mohawks. The collection comprised 16 outfits that he worked on personally, each as indescribably beautiful and dazzling as the next. Every look was seeped in history, whether it was the digital print of saintly figures taken from 15th-century painter Hieronymus Bosch, the Edwardian shape of a black and gold jacquard gown or the regal, gold-embroidered lions on a red cape dress. They were the perfect testament to McQueen's talent as a tailor, artist, romanticist and fantasist. For that and much more, he will be missed.

M: True innovators are hard to find in fashion and McQueen really has no equal in the current scene, but I think Marni's Consuelo Castiglioni is a contender, in a much quieter way. This season she put away her boho rags and went for a cleaner, more conceptual approach. I was especially taken with the stripes swirling around dresses that had a lovely 70s feel, updated for a generation that likes its clothes to hug the body. And a harlequin trouser suit was so well constructed it provoked a spontaneous round of applause.

P: Ann Demeulemeester's collection had trouser suits with a sensual edge executed via draped fronts and askew fastenings. They featured vents at the back of the arms, revealing a bunch of feathers. More bold red feathers added a sexy undertone.

Stella McCartney also hinted at sex but not with her clothes (her soundtrack featured a parody of the infamous Tiger Woods voicemail). It was all about clean tailoring, including a linear grey cashmere jacket with a notched lapel and striped shifts and tops. I loved her modern take on sportswear including tailored sweats and quilted jackets with detachable hoods and drawstrings. Short cocktail dresses came with long trains - either in fuchsia silk or decorated with large sequins and an organza overlay. I'd love to see these on the red carpet.

Valentino designers Pier Paolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri also had some show-stoppers in the form of a signature red dress with cascades of ruffles in contrasting nude. For the most part the collection focused on Val's signature ruffles, which were given a modern architectural spin across the asymmetric collar of a long-sleeved dress, or mixed in with lace on a sheer long-sleeved cocktail dress. I loved the ruffled cropped leather jackets, which looked as light as a feather. The studded pointy-toe flats reiterated the house's new modern look.

M: Alberta Ferretti was the queen of ruffles here. Soft and simple romanticism done with impeccable taste was the byword for her collection but it was sometimes so impeccable that the B word, which must never be used in a fashion review (it rhymes with snoring), slipped into the mind for a few seconds.

But then all was well again with two classic Ferretti pieces that said high-tone glamour was back. Its signature here was big sleeves and collars, plus a delightful evening dress in grey, bisected above and below the waist by two narrow bands of a velvet silk with a pleated skirt that swung with the precision of a metronome.

P: I don't like using the B word, either, but Yohji Yamamoto's presentation seemed to go by at a snail's pace. And sub-zero temperatures didn't help. It featured mainly black and navy (no surprises there) with Yamamoto's signature loose masculine shirts and pleated maxi skirts. He played with double-breasted jackets - one came with a skirted bottom, another as a sleeveless dress coat. The strapless dresses were more up to speed with pleated panels or a buttoned bodice that looked like it was being peeled off the chest.

There was definitely no nodding off at Miu Miu, where purple foam seats and a mirrored catwalk had editors on high alert (don't forget to close your legs). Prada went for a kitschy retro vibe but the erotic undercurrents kept it interesting. The show opened with a series of high-collared, mini dresses with stiff hems decorated with mirrored flower embellishments. Skirts got shorter, as she sent out pinafores featuring cut-outs, or an embellished band across the breasts. Dresses in lilac and orange with scalloped pockets and bows around the necks screamed Twiggy. The 80s music was fun and energising.

M: Blumarine helped us get over the chronic lack of caffeine with a jolt of James Brown funk to help wash down a procession of girls in zebra prints. There was also an abundance of fringing, a theme that had been seen on at least three other runways. Here it was an extremely body-conscious silhouette, especially in the croc-print leather pieces. And zips everywhere. One wonders, has the zip become the last resort of the creatively exhausted designer?

P: Those left behind at Maison Martin Margiela following the departure of MM himself really had to get creative after last season's disastrous show. In this collection, they focused on one of Margiela's stronger suits - masculine tailoring and construction - and experimented with jackets and trousers. What appeared to be a regular coat in the front had exaggerated flat sleeves from the sides. Ditto for a pair of trousers that were actually a pair of tights at the back. The gimmicky stuff was a bit too OTT for me but leave those tricks behind and it was a step in the right direction. Was masculine tailoring a strong trend in Milan?

M: Yes, especially at Bottega Veneta, Ferragamo and Armani. There was also a smidgeon of it at Ferre. When you keep people waiting for an hour before letting them take their seats you had better have a stellar show to offer. Ferr? did not. The theme in the first half was the fabric smorgasbord with every garment mixing in two or three types of material, most frequently leather, fur and wool. It's hard to get these elements to work well and the look was not helped by the belts with buckles the size of a laptop. There was an undeniably luxurious feel to everything and one interesting excursion into what the Italians call 'Orientalism' in the form of a gold coat and dress ensemble that resembled the uniform of a terracotta solider from the officer class. I did like the black leather dresses that will look wonderful on anybody who has legs like a giraffe. These pieces had the aggression of a femme de guerre and I was even prepared to forgive the web weave in the leather that looked like something straight out of the Bottega Veneta playbook. I often found myself yearning for something truly feminine and sensuous. Would I have had better luck with that in Paris?

P: Not at John Galliano, where 'nomads' braved against the 'elements' (that being silver glitter shooting off the sides of the catwalk) in brocade mixed with astrakhan, mini skirts layered over harem pants and folksy Russian dresses. Just the type of clothes I'd choose to wear while crossing the Gobi.

They could learn something from Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy, who was inspired by scuba gear and skiing. Under his tailored jackets, Fair Isle patterns appeared on body-hugging tunics and bodysuits, while neoprene was reworked into partially unzipped skirts and trousers (being caught with your pants undone has never looked so chic). This was all punctuated with sheer lace, plumes of feathers and pops of red. It was sizzling.

M: Few people have ever called Moschino sophisticated, at least not with a straight face. We should have known what to expect when the invites came in the form of the iconic Moschino hoop earring, rendered in cardboard and roughly the size of a toilet seat. Surprise surprise, it was a homage to the house's 80s heritage. The gold earring motif was everywhere, including one jacket that had so many - in the form of a fringe - it looked like it could be used for hanging shower curtains. Just to emphasise the idea that these are clothes for girls who like to have fun, there were red frilly bodices worn over blouses and a giant ruff collar rendered as a skirt. The stetson hats and flamboyant fringes hammered home the point that this was high fashion reduced to a cowboy's yelp. Yee-ha!

P: I wanted to yelp when I saw Jean Paul Gaultier's collection. Not content with scandalising the French, he took his mission global this season by injecting his signature trench coats, suits and conical bras with way too much international flavour. As with cuisine, fusion in fashion can become nothing more than a cross-cultural mess. There were trenches lined with cheongsam fabric, flamenco-inspired roses on peasant skirts, colourful Mexican embroideries on jackets, fur babushkas and more. It was like a fancy-dress party at the United Nations.

Stuart Vevers obviously knows better than to take editors on a bad trip. We found ourselves making a return to his favourite cosy Parisian cafe for the Loewe presentation, which was inspired by clothes made for Ava Gardner found in the archives. There was plenty of 40s glamour, although he gave the house's separates a modern edge, as seen in the leather overlaid with thick white lace, cropped jackets, tuxedo dress and chunky waffle knits. The fur neck scarves and polka-dot tights were fun but chic.

M: Fellow Brit Christopher Kane also raided the archives at Versus. The collection took its starting point from an old Bruce Weber series of advertisements for the label. Kane used the campaign's palette to create young, flirty dresses in shades of light blue, red and green. The silhouette was profoundly slim and will suit girls who have athletic bodies and don't mind showing a lot of skin. Not that the collection was tarty, far from it. There was an innocence to the pieces that suggested a ballerina more than a pole dancer and Kane even managed to make some of the Versus dominatrix themes look pretty.

P: Pretty is not a word I would use to describe Rei Kawakubo's collection at Comme des Garcons. What to think of all that quilted padding and extra bulk on the side of the hips, stomach, back and bust? Puffed bits on black dress coats resembled muscles and later spiralled around the midriff like intestines. Tartan dresses and separates were literally bursting at the seams, with foam spilling out from large holes. Was this a feminist Kawakubo commenting on the distortion of the female form? Slimming and sexy it was not but it brought the size debate back to the floor.

M: It was delightful to see Milan shrug off those dark clouds of last year with a more confident perspective. Fashion is at its most captivating when brands feel confident and give designers the freedom they need to experiment. And it was great to see Prada push her intellectual approach to design another step forward. I am looking forward to seeing what she does next spring.

P: Similarly Philo at C?line is leading the pack in Paris. The minimalist look she started last season really filtered through into all the collections this time round. And it's refreshing to see wearable clothes that aren't just boring and safe. I also love this new womanly silhouette - finally breasts are back! But the real test will come when the clothes arrive in stores in September. Only time will tell.