Italian Men’s Wear Does a Power Edit

Concision — that was the word to come to mind after eight surprising days in this men’s wear capital, and in Florence. Did some unseen force take a blue pencil to all the slack narratives, rehashed inspirations, derivative references that prevailed in recent seasons? Suddenly everything seemed crisp and focused, like early Hemingway after he’d learned how to do Gertrude Stein.

Designers laboring for decades on narratives as schticky as the plot of an airport novel (we see you, Dolce & Gabbana) discovered urgency and a fresh approach in a tight edit. It must be freeing not to rewrite the same paragraph every season, even if the exigencies of an increasingly industrialized luxury goods market demand that designers repeat themselves.

What to do? You could follow the lead of Pier Paolo Piccioli at Valentino, showing his first men’s wear collection in three years. The grouping of 56 looks was finely proportioned, but you’d expect as much from this fastidious designer. Shorts were worn under boxy jackets. Floppy collared shirts were paired with skinny ties. Guayabera-style shirts were embellished with paillette blossoms. There were ghostly boiler suits and drifty overcoats.

Not coincidentally, the significant design gesture was the designer’s decision to emblazon some of the apparel and many accessories with text. The words he employed were drawn from Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 novel “A Little Life,” a best seller replete with self-harm, childhood trauma, emotional mortification and rape. (Ms. Yanagihara is the editor in chief of T Magazine.) For undisclosed reasons, Mr. Piccioli bypassed the more Gothic elements of the fiction and settled on a phrase that renewed him and made him feel buoyant: “We are so old we have become young again.”

Decontextualized and printed on jeans, outerwear and leather briefcases, the words could have easily tilted toward gimmickry, the stuff of refrigerator magnets. Instead you felt that the idea legitimately moved Mr. Piccioli, who wrote on his Instagram after the show that he longed to restore “the enchant and the eyes I had when I was dreaming to make this job.” In a sense, the Valentino collection was a type of disclosure bordering on confession. Design and not red carpet stunts or global commercial domination is where Mr. Piccioli’s story started. He’d like to return to that.

Probably the whole industry would. “Now, in this time, we have to inject fantasy, ideas,” Miuccia Prada said immediately after her show on Sunday. It was not clear what made this time different from any other, unless perhaps the looming threat of artificial intelligence. By turns fantastical and pragmatic, the Prada collection was rich as always in her brand of intellectualized play. To begin with, there was a set made from industrial steel-plate floor panels, onto which from the ceiling oozed some substance resembling oobleck.

Between the curtains of slime paraded pretty robots dressed in tailored jackets with outsize shoulders, high-waisted shorts or ballooning trousers. The hourglass silhouettes called to mind Constructivist dolls. Ms. Prada and Raf Simons, her co-creative director, cited as one reference point the exaggeratedly manly proportions of men’s suiting from the 1940s. Yet it was hardly necessary to go back that far. You could find those same proportions in nearly any Claude Montana men’s wear collection of the late 1980s.

What the two designers added was a riff on those pneumatic period shapes, layering them with brightly colored utility vests, alternating the shorts with roomy jeans of a sort worn by the teenage speed freaks in Larry Clark’s classic photobook “Tulsa,” or else turning out commercially irresistible fringed floral shirts that would make anyone the hit of the Kiwanis bowling league.

If that makes the Prada show seem frivolous, it emphatically was not. Like most other designers here, Ms. Prada is uncommonly focused on upholding the legitimacy, if not primacy, of Italian design. People like the wildly underrated Walter Chiapponi at Tod’s do so by producing coolly subdued collections that all but eliminate ornament.

Rather than pile on styling tricks, Mr. Chiapponi studiously whittled away at things extraneous to classic men’s wear staples like windbreakers, chore coats, baseball jackets, trousers with inverted pleats and fingertip-length car coats until you could mistake the offerings for J.C. Penney basics. But of course that would be impossible because, in the manner of goods for the stealth-wealth set, the clothes were made of whisper-light woolens, finespun cotton, materials like doeskin or paper-thin suede.

It is a cardinal rule of conservation that, by the time a species is designated as endangered, it is probably too late for salvation. Almost the same can be said of skilled craftspeople, and that knowledge surely played a part in Silvia Venturini Fendi’s decision to hold her show at a brand-new Fendi factory in Bagno a Ripoli, a Tuscan hamlet 30 minutes outside Florence.

Beforehand, the roughly 400 guests who had been bused or driven into the countryside were invited to wander a fully staffed factory as workers in white coats pantomimed slicing pristine calf-hide with a laser machine, piecing and stitching peekaboo bags.

“The idea of transparency in all aspects of our work is important,” Ms. Fendi said in an interview. “People want to verify the sources of what they’re buying — the who, the what, the where.” Presumably, at $3,000 for a classic Baguette, they already know the why.

Artisans, even those trained in advanced technology, are in scarce supply in Italy — or anywhere else, for that matter. Publicly celebrating them, as Ms. Fendi did by bringing out her entire team after the show, is as much pragmatic as considerate. They are, after all, the unsung forces behind her vision of what could be called intersectional men’s wear: sophisticated shirt aprons or net vests naturally dyed with the nettles that grow wild on the Tuscan hillsides; designs inspired by topstitched worker’s aprons or tool belts repurposed as miniskirts and worn over trousers; clog slingbacks; articulated handbags created in collaboration with the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma.

Ms. Fendi’s luxury is hardly the quiet kind. Neither are the designs produced for Ralph Lauren’s Purple Label collection. Returning to show in Milan, after a four-year hiatus, the Lauren design team set up their presentation at Mr. Lauren’s private palazzo, where guests like Chris Pine and Damson Idris ogled a rare Jaguar XK120 parked in the forecourt, sipped Champagne (or sparkling water, in Mr. Pine’s case) and drifted among the potted palms.

Although the collection was divided into three passages, each squarely designed within Mr. Lauren’s Gatsby idiom (a tailored denim suit was the outlier), one rewarding passage was the roomful of formal clothes in the raucous hues of a macaw.

Nontraditional evening wear is the fastest growing category in Mr. Lauren’s Purple Label line, according to a spokesman. Given that the brand recently opened a 4,000-square-foot store along the luxury goods rialto of Miami’s Design District, it’s conceivable that all those dinner jackets in emerald green or canary; cerise trousers surprinted with vivid foliage; and double-breasted tangerine dinner jackets with wide peaked lapels are pitched toward that segment of the population of moneyed South Americans that has not yet decamped from South Florida for Madrid.

The two shows that closed Milan’s fashion week were Giorgio Armani and Zegna. Each had as its core thesis revision and simplification. At Zegna, Alessandro Sartori, who trained in tailoring and bases everything on classical sartorial precepts, has gradually pared his style down to a kind of taut inevitability. Like a Raymond Carver story, his clothing has a clockwork geometry and logic. Unembellished to the point of plainness, it renders undetectable the complex processes of harvesting, weaving and fusing that go into its manufacture.

Mr. Armani is far from a minimalist, yet his style is typically under adaptation, what he termed “a constant process of writing and rewriting.” Since 1975, Mr. Armani has steadily rung changes on a style he all but invented, with the result that he has things down to their essentials: unconstructed sports jackets that read as shirts, handsome field coats and cargo pants, blouse-y trousers and deeply cut vests worn over bare chests to create an effect of masculine décolletage.

On not a few occasions, Mr. Armani has been aimless, drifty or has fallen into the trap of sentimentalizing his own back pages. Somehow that is no longer the case. Finally, at 88, he has grown so old he has become young again.

Team US Webstories

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