Resuscitating the Suit

Posted January 17, 2018 6:42 p.m. EST

MILAN — Despite its reputation for being predictable, safe, conservative, sometimes boring — the Philadelphia of fashion — Milan still has the power to surprise. Especially during a time when the clothing industry in general is scrambling to adjust to the new exigencies of a fragmented marketplace, the continued decline of bricks-and-mortar retailing and the insuperable challenges of pinning down the fickle tastes of that generational behemoth called the Millennial, it is worth tuning in to the fashion frequencies transmitted from this northern industrial city.

Giorgio Armani showed suits, for instance, proper suits and not just once but twice, first at Emporio Armani and then at the Giorgio Armani show. Those shows bracketed an intensely compressed 72-hour period that now constitutes men’s fashion week here.

Showing a suit at a menswear presentation may not seem like a radical proposition until you remember that the suit has become the Uncle Bernie of fashion, a corpse propped up in the back seat of the convertible and driven around town. Armani seemed this week to be making a bet that there is life left in a uniform that, in its constituent parts, has managed to last at least 300 years.

Given that Armani is one of the few designers who can claim credit for having changed the direction of fashion with his soft and sexy unconstructed suits of the 1980s (a rarer accomplishment than you may think), it is always worth paying attention to him.

That he chose, in the middle of shows chockablock with perhaps overfamiliar design elements — velvet trousers, asymmetrical zippers, cropped knit sports jackets, woven or stamped patterns resembling Hokusai clouds, palettes restricted to muted grays, deep blues and black — to present nattily tailored double-breasted suits in six buttons (Emporio Armani) and eight buttons (Giorgio Armani) suggests a belief that the long-term legacy of casual Fridays may, perversely, turn out to be formal Fridays.

The suit is dead. Long live the suit.

Other designers here took trips down memory lane. The most pleasurable to see was Miuccia Prada, who recast the black Pocone nylon on which she first made her reputation in the 1980s as big, boxy and covetable outerwear. In those long-ago days, carrying a sleek Prada backpack was a surefire tell that the wearer was in the know. Editors actually fought over the bags, which were not, truth to tell, all that much to look at.

Yet the contrast between their minimalist industrial austerity (they were made from lining fabric) and the opulence and ornamentation that characterized so much design in the Reagan years signaled the arrival of an intriguing talent, and of a designer whose intelligence has shone like a beacon ever since in a field in which brain power is not exactly in abundant supply.

Donatella Versace also kept her eye on the rearview mirror, mentally rummaging through the motifs of a design house created in the ‘80s by her brother, looking for elements to recast for a social media age. It made sense because in many ways Versace was the quintessential Instagram label avant la lettre.

Here, she invoked the whole canonical Versace shebang as if intentionally for an iPhone cascade. There were neo-Roman “Amore e Psiche” and “Sipario” housewares prints. There was the garishly gilded Leonard’s of Great Neck palette. There was, as always, exuberant styling, pairing kilts with thigh-high boots, adding caterpillar fringe to hoodies, sticking on logo pins, deploying Versace tartans and adding interlocking chains to the soles of a new molded sneaker introduced for an audience that notably included hip-hop artist Tauheed Epps.

Epps is better known as 2 Chainz or Tity Boi, and that he was one of the few celebrities to be spotted here this season suggests either steep reductions in designer budgets or a certain level of fame fatigue. True, there were obligatory Hadid and Jenner sightings on the runway of Dsquared, where Bella Hadid opened and Kendall Jenner closed a show that had a rhinestone-cowboy theme that felt somehow halfhearted, lacking the crazed exuberance of the wonderfully gaudy stuff once devised for country music greats like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Gene Autry (and Elvis and Cher) by the inimitable Nudie Cohn.

And Jenner was there in spirit as a guest of honor at a large Tod’s dinner held at the traditional Milanese restaurant il Baretto al Baglioni to celebrate her having been named, along with the Italian ballet star (and principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre) Roberto Bolle, a new face of the label.

In truth, the flesh-and-blood Jenner declined to grace the dinner with her attendance, though she had briefly ventured into the mosh pit of a press preview at the Villa Necchi Campiglio, the magnificent modernist villa where Tod’s is privileged to stage its presentations. Perhaps, as one American editor somewhat cynically suggested, Jenner’s fee scale for appearances does not include lifting a fork.

Or maybe she just doesn’t care for baked sea bass with artichokes or cannot afford the calories in il Baretto’s famous, and famously fattening, saffron risotto, a large plate of which Bolle devoured with gusto.

“I danced last night, so I’m hungry,” said Bolle, who, the evening before, had starred onstage at La Scala in “La Dame aux Camelias.”

“There’s a lot of lifting,” he said.

The week here concluded with a different sort of lifting, as the models at the delightful Fendi show grabbed luggage off a baggage carousel specially constructed for a witty set resembling an airport arrivals hall.

Like others in Milan, designer Silvia Venturini Fendi seemed mentally to be straddling two zones, both looking back at the storied heritage of her family company — founded in the 1920s in Rome to sell umbrellas and luggage — for design elements as traditional as a parasol hat and forward to futuristic technology that allows her now to create fur and rubber garments bonded with no need for stitching.

The past is the future, Fendi said backstage before the show. And, just as it is undoubtedly true that in few other places besides Italy do successive eras remain in such active dialogue, in few other pursuits outside fashion is temporality so intrinsic to the creative process.

Consider Rocco Iannone’s debut show for Pal Zileri, a respectable midrange Italian label acquired some years back by Mayhoola for Investments with the intention of making it a player on a par with the other companies (Balmain, Valentino) run by an investment arm of the royal family of Qatar. After the departure last year of Mauro Ravizza Krieger, the creative director of Pal Zileri, Mayhoola recruited Iannone, 33, from the ranks of Giorgio Armani’s design team, where he had worked for the last decade, most recently as senior menswear designer.

What he brought to his new job, along with the design chops evident in the exquisitely tailored coats he showed, was a sense, as some press notes made clear, of the “cyclical nature of history” in fashion and just about everything else.

Perhaps the ecclesiastical atmospherics Iannone conjured up were a mite lugubrious for a debut. Velvet drapes and kneeling pillows, shafts of white hyacinth and censers wafting clouds of heady frankincense felt like a lot to absorb on a Monday morning.

Yet, for all that, a bit of unintentional leavening did occur.

Placed on each cushioned seat at the show was a pack of cards depicting portraits of male ancients, each associated with some trait characteristic of a true gentleman. It could be that something was lost in translating to English the Italian legends accompanying cards for Precision, Kindness, Gravitas and other traits. Or else this observer had not drunk enough coffee that day.

“Ci Sono, dunque” (“I am here, therefore I am”), read one card marked Awareness. On another, signifying Nonchalance, were printed the words “Mi dimentico, mentre lo faccio,” which was translated as “I forget about it while I’m doing it.” Come to think of it, that one did make a certain kind of sense. Sometimes I forget about it while I’m doing it, too.