In an era of little sensory contact, Italian designers at Milan Fashion Week double down on tactile pleasure

Can fashion be a form of self-care?

The New York Times March 06, 2021 11:15:01 IST
In an era of little sensory contact, Italian designers at Milan Fashion Week double down on tactile pleasure

Fall 2021 designs from (L-R) Etro; Marni; Ferragamo. Via The New York Times

Handshakes, hugs, pats on the back, even air kisses that just brush the cheek — these basic modes of human interaction have been put on hold in the pandemic, replaced with the pallid substitutes of elbow bumps, 6-feet-away waves and glimpses of loved ones through glass. We hunger for physical interaction, the feel of skin on skin — what in fashion is often referred to as “the touch of the hand.”

Such sensory contacts are few and far between these days, which perhaps explains why in Milan this season Italian designers have doubled down on tactile pleasure. Clothes may be a poor replacement for a full-body embrace, but they lie next to the skin and, in their sheer materiality, provide a semblance of comfort; of sinking into sensation.

“I didn’t want to make something that was just for the screen,” Francesco Risso, creative director of Marni, said on a Zoom call (the current equivalent of the backstage post-show interview), before talking about his desire to “lean into intimacy.”

That can sound like designer gobbledygook, but then Risso opened his door to the world, inviting a ragtag group of (COVID-tested) creative friends/musicians/artists/models over to his house to cook up breakfast, lunch and dinner, among other adventures. All the while they were being filmed wearing his new collection, of course, which was just as crafty and weirdly homemade as the menu.

Sneaker soup, anyone? A table as a runway?

OK, what about a puffer coat turned into a cape-like poncho so big it swallowed the torso whole, blooming feathers at the neck, or a shirtdress with a spill of paint down the front and a spew of ruffles at the knee? Faux furs dyed black, then scraped away and solarized and redyed so that fabrics themselves became like layers of excavation, blackness giving way to something altogether lighter? Crocheted tracksuits? Mylar blankets turned into evening gowns so crunchy you could practically hear them move?

It was like DIY chic on steroids. You wanted to feel it to believe it.

Perhaps because many Italian brands, like Marni, began life as textile or leathergoods manufacturers, segueing into design as the opportunity arose, they have often seemed to focus more on the fabrications of a garment than challenging the vernacular of silhouette or style. In the before times, that could mean that the resulting collections seemed safe or stodgy (or just plain boring), but in the context of the moment, the focus on the physical gives them a relevance that echoes even through the cold light of the computer.

This is turning into a season of swaddling clothes; of adult snugglies and softness; of clothes so squishy they are like a portable form of self-care. At Tod’s, sheepskin hats and bags cozied up to fuzzy blanket coats and buttery leather bombers. At Etro, patchwork brocades rubbed up against collegiate knits and boho paisleys. And at Giorgio Armani, deep-pile iridescent velvets and swishy draped silk pants suddenly looked an awful lot like pajamas deluxe.

Even at Salvatore Ferragamo, where Paul Andrew used virtual reality to transport his runway to the Starship Enterprise (who hasn’t, at some point in the last 10 months, wished they were in some other dimension?), sci-fi motorcycle leathers were quilted, and nubby knits exuded long tendrils of fringe.

If the oily PVC ponchos and sheer chain mail seemed ... well, alien to the brand, they jarred less than Dolce & Gabbana’s trip down a neon and corset-paved memory lane of 1990s music-video style. Among the power shoulders, crystal minis and leopard prints, though, there were some duvet-size techno puffers and ostrich feather chubbies practically made for nesting.

You know you’re at a tipping point when Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino, one of the great colorists of fashion, coming off a triumph in lime green (Cynthia Erivo’s dress) and hollandaise yellow (Dan Levy’s suit) on the Golden Globes red carpet, produces a collection almost entirely in … black and white.

Filmed live, with a musical soloist and an audience of none, the show was held in the Piccolo Teatro in Milan. Valentino normally has its catwalk events in Paris, but Piccioli, grounded in Italy by the pandemic, had decided to make a point of place. Before being renovated and re-christened as a theater, the building, Piccioli said, had been a place where anti-fascists were tortured, and in its transformation it had come to represent freedom and humanity starting again.

“I wanted to do something minimal in shape but deep in dimension,” he said of the collection, which featured capes and cropped trousers, ultrashort skirts and rounded, oversize tops that looked like turtle shells — exacting, simple forms that on second look contained multitudes.

Chunky sweaters were cable-knit and dusted in gold; flippy skirts were pebbled for texture and crisp white shirts patched with lace. Things were never quite as they seemed, so what looked like fishnet turned out to be oversize mesh knit, a jacquard plaid was actually strips of fabric sewn together, and crochet dresses were formed from individual floral appliqués.

You just had to lean close, and then closer, to see.

Vanessa Friedman c.2021 The New York Times Company

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