In Milan, Nonstop Laughs

In Milan, Nonstop Laughs


Published : September 28, 2006_The New York Times

WHAT exactly is an Old Petra Pompeii sandal?” a magazine editor asked before the Bottega Veneta show on Tuesday. She was consulting the detailed descriptions that fashion houses often provide before a show.

“And when did Pompeii become part of Petra?” she went on to inquire, her question a valid one in any other setting (the ruins of ancient Petra are in Jordan, quite a hike from Mount Vesuvius) but one that is doomed here in the land of bianco magnolia crinkled plissé.

On this side of the looking glass, a designer may assert, as the Bottega Veneta designer Tomas Maier did, that the inspiration for his deceptively low-key collection was a particular pure red that “itself is never seen.” Starting with invisible red, Mr. Maier ventured into a palette of such fantastical dimensions that it may give those responsible for diagramming the spectrum at Pantone a conniption.

There was cherry-tinged ebano. There was deep prugna. (Shallow prugna is so sad.) There was a color called lush Treviso. There was Rosy Petra, a name suggestive of Jordanian drag queens on karaoke night. There was a hue that the notes called blush of poudre. I am not making any of this up.

If one can keep from falling out of one’s seat laughing, Milan can feel like a fascinating place to be, come fashion season. Milan itself is the least seductive of Italian cities. Flat, commercial, drab —except for La Scala, Leonardo’s “Last Supper” and the Duomo, that oddly scaled, cake-icing cathedral, with its dripped sand-castle spires crowned by a gilded and much revered figure of the Madonna — the place is a downer.

Even the electrified streetcars fail to inject a note of anachronistic romance, as in pre-Katrina New Orleans. Here they resemble shuttles to limbo, a place the Vatican would never have written out of existence if the papal seat were to be relocated (as almost happened in the fifth century) from Rome to Milan.

Yet against the decidedly unsexy backdrop of Italy’s banking capital, fashion continues to assert its own tough and often intoxicating vitality. Sometimes this occurs through the force of sheer nuttiness. At Rifat Ozbek’s show for Pollini, for instance, the points of reference, Mr. Ozbek explained, included tikis, Polynesian feather crowns, the National Geographic Channel, an Iznik tile of a palm frond from Turkey that “looked just like an old Hawaiian print,” the Fauves, tattoos, something Mr. Ozbek called Samoan Op Art and also organic Bakelite and origami. (At a certain point one just has to lay down the pen.)

And sometimes the seductive aspect of fashion is expressed in revelations designers can hardly keep themselves from making.

Miuccia Prada, for instance, has had a lot to say over time about femininity. But her not-so-secret compulsion is heads and feet. As fervently as Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons has experimented with contorting the silhouetted torso, incorporating into her clothes shapes the eye sees but does not always register as distinct (her infamous hump collection was at least partly based on the outlines of people wearing backpacks and baby carriers), Ms. Prada has been drawn to the extremities.

Monster boots, wood clogs, stilettos, helmets, headbands and, this season, turbans that somehow managed to summon up Pee-wee Herman’s Jambi the Genie, Lana Turner and E. T. all serve Ms. Prada’s apparent fascination with an anchored or precariously mobile body at the top of which perches a volume seemingly devised to accommodate a brain as outsize as her own.

Christopher Bailey, the boyishly handsome designer at Burberry, clings hard to adolescence, no matter whether designing clothes for women or for men. Mr. Bailey seems caught in some version of a state that a 1980’s pop-psych book dubbed the Peter Pan Syndrome, devising clothes for children who find themselves not altogether willingly cast in adult roles.

He’s really good at it, so good that models at Burberry shows often seem as if they could keep walking right off the runway and onto a half-pipe, our era’s version of the nursery.

Other designers, like Dolce & Gabbana, may venture into unknown territory only on rare occasions. But one has to credit them at least with knowing what Robert Polet, the chief executive of Gucci Group, calls their consumers’ DNA.

It is often remarked of Mr. Polet that his background was in frozen food marketing (he came to Gucci from Unilever, where he ran 40 companies with revenues of $7.8 billion), as though this were some kind of punch line looking for a joke. It is certainly true that the shiny sexpot styles at Gucci and the ostentatiously low-key (and scarily expensive) designs at Bottega Veneta are a long way from tubs of vanilla fudge swirl. But the same precepts are in play whether marketing a “bauletto” bag of soft washed crocodile hide or ice cream.

“What’s essential is to have a true knowledge of the brand and of the consumer DNA,” Mr. Polet said before the Bottega Veneta show on Tuesday. Tunneling down into consumer tiers has become an increasingly important strategy, it seems, as luxury-goods makers seek ways to grab and hold on to consumers bored with label culture and grown comfortably promiscuous in an iTune age.

Nobody, as Anna Wintour, the Vogue editor, told me, “wants to be inundated.” She added: “There is so much out there. What we need is fewer things, better edited.”

That Ms. Wintour’s observations echo the wisdom that marketing visionaries like John Seely Brown, the former chief scientist at Xerox, have been preaching for years is hardly surprising. At Gucci Group, Mr. Polet suggested, the position of a creative director like Mr. Maier has evolved from the heyday of Tom Ford at Gucci. As good as Mr. Ford was at showing off his manly décolletage and playing the corporate mascot, his greater skill was unquestionably as a marketer.

Mr. Ford understood the fashion realities that demonstrate how quaint and anachronistic is the fable of, say, “Project Runway.” For all its soap-operatic charm, that cable television hit would be a lot more instructive to budding designers if it showed them how to ditch the pincushion (handwork: now there’s a way to get rich!) and bone up on shifting global markets.

“Don’t forget that a lot of collections and products are experimental,” Mr. Polet said. “The challenge for us is to bring out products that are experimental” and thus seemingly novel or fresh or modern, to use a favorite fashion term.

“Experimental, but understandable,” he said. Blush of poudre, as it happens, is pale rose tint. It is an old-fashioned, muted color, pretty although nowhere near so comforting as black ink on a bottom line.