Italy is in the throes of transition, with new prime minister, Matteo Renzi (who, at 39 years and 42 days old when assuming office, is the youngest leader the country has ever had), unveiling a seemingly more modern government in Rome.

Further north, you could say modernisation was on the cards at Milan’s Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana (the National Chamber for Italian Fashion), with Briton Jane Reeve having recently been appointed its chief executive. Milan was out to prove that not only was “Made in Italy” still a cultural and industry phenomenon but that the nation remained an exciting hotbed of ideas.

The powerhouses banded together at Milan Fashion Week to push the Italian agenda, although room was made for new international designers, such as Shanghai-based Uma Wang.

One person unhappy with the Camera Nazionale’s calendar was Giorgio Armani, who called it “unprofessional” when American Vogue editor Anna Wintour skipped his show, on the last day of proceedings, to fly to Paris, for the French capital’s own fashion week. She missed Armani’s classic tailoring, loosened up in flannel and many shades of grey (an exercise in light and shadow) and punctuated with fresh lime green.

At the autumn-winter 2014 shows, a return to visible luxury topped the agenda. Sportmax, Marni and Roberto Cavalli all followed suit. Opulence, lavish embellishments and craft-heavy, artisanal fabrics were front and 22 centre. Blumarine, for example, produced gold lamé, embroidery and big fur trims for the less-than-shy rich girl.

Colours were generally earthy and dark, with Silk Road tones at Etro and warm 1970s palettes coming to the fore at Missoni, MaxMara and Fendi, in burnt oranges, rusts and mossy browns. Fresh pastels made an outing at Jil Sander and Gucci. And the painterly, artsy print trend from last spring continued to find traction in Milan for autumn.

A major focus was on textures and contrasts, with lots of crafty fabrications that would be difficult to imitate in the mass market.

Tomas Maier’s quiet elegance and commitment to technique at Bottega Veneta was a case in point. The new midi-dress was championed in Milan, with graphic zigzags, abstract arty patterns and painstaking, swirling millefeuille pleats – all classic, cool and wearable.

Also touting quality and elegance was a brand offering symbolic hope of Milan’s revival: Tod’s, the proudly Italian luxury house known for classic shoes and bags. This was only the second season for designer Alessandra Facchinetti but Tod’s, which proposes an “Italian set” lifestyle, had already become one of the most relevant shows on the fashion calendar.

Huge fur coats, chunky fur shrugs, linings and trims were everywhere, playing on the textural-contrast theme, surely much to the chagrin of animal-rights activists.

Peter Dundas, at Emilio Pucci, was one of those who got in on the trend, with beaver, lambswool, calf and 3-D detailing all vying for our attention. The theme was “savage chic” with Navajo inspirations, on what was cryptically described as a “quasi-primitive, luxury-kissed landscape”.

Veronica Etro’s treatment of ethnic inspirations, meanwhile, came from the Silk Road, with lurex, velvets and tapestry prints layered to a beautiful, easy effect.

Consuelo Castiglioni, at Marni, came out with some of the best designs of the season and paired gorgeous tribal feathered plume skirts with humble polo necks. Meanwhile, MaxMara made the most of masculine tailoring by layering traditional British country fabrics such as tweed, herringbone and quilting. The half-matt, half-vinyl contrasting tuxedos were especially cool.

Fendi, a house founded on fur, used plenty of dark shades, enlivened by bristles along a shoulder, hip or sleeve. “Made in Italy” was printed all over the walls of the show venue to hammer the point home (although not in Italian). Video drones buzzed overhead, bringing a bit of technological futurism to the catwalk. Karl Lagerfeld and Silvia Fendi sent down big fur coats and hoods but we loved the abstract painted block prints, athletic mesh details and round-shouldered shapes more.

Cavalli proved his love of theatrics with a giant ring-of-fire catwalk; was anyone else thinking Dante’s second circle of hell? Out of the flames came fierce, forward girls draped in fur shrugs, trouser suits and sexy flapper dresses.

Another kind of vamp reigned at Prada. Miuccia Prada, arguably the queen of Italian fashion, threw out a sinister twist with her collection.

Pale models with severe centre-parted hair wore 70s prints and chunky sheepskin coats in aggressively clashing colours. These were thrown over thin, sheer gowns in a collection inspired by the German avant garde.

Dolce & Gabbana was again a law unto itself. Models emerged from an enchanted, fairy-tale forest in tunic dresses and capes but glammed up with gem-encrusted hoods, gloves and shoes inspired by the folky and the medieval.

The 60s belonged to Italy in film as well as fashion. The decade of La Dolce Vita was tapped by Versace, Gucci and even Hogan. Versace’s models had brassy buttons down the front of skirts and dresses, big backcombed hair, glossy make-up with a cat-eye flick. Donatella Versace did bias-cut dresses in fresh colours while Gucci’s Frida Giannini explored pretty pastels: pinks, powder blues, minty greens. Gucci’s A-line skirts and dresses hit above the knee, as they did at Versace, whereas most other labels opted for more conservative hemlines.

There is a painful awareness among the denizens of high fashion that those trading in the fast, mass type are hot on their heels. With the digital dissemination of shows around the globe occurring in seconds and manufacturers getting faster and better at copying ideas as well as techniques, a backlash against easily copied designs has emerged.

Digital printing and laser cutting of leathers, which seemed so futuristic just a few years ago, are now commonplace on the high street. It’s no wonder, then, that Milan returned to the more artisanal – and its biggest selling point, Italian craft. But trust young American Jeremy Scott to buck the trend. For his debut at Moschino, he revelled in ironic, “cheap and cheerful” imitations, featuring hard-core gold-buckled leathers, camp faded denims and plenty of pop culture: SpongeBob SquarePants (weird, I know), candy wrapper and cereal box finale dresses, and … McDonald’s.

Like the food, this fashion came fast, and with lashings of attitude.