Designers are proving that florals can be fierce and sweetness can be tough, says Harriet Walker
The grande dames of Milan are a bundle of contradictions: feminine and fragrant, but happy to push you down a spiral staircase if it means getting to the front row more quickly. It was this sort of woman that the Italian designers seemed to have in mind at the shows last week: delicate but tough.
"It was about the impossibilities of women," said Miuccia Prada, of a collection that featured minimal and sporty separates in cotton and satin, emblazoned with appliquéd daisies and dandelions. "The flower is a symbol of the poetic life of women, and the huge struggle that we have. It was about making sweetness hard."
This was especially apparent in Prada's final phase of pieces -- wrapped-satin stole tops and tunics, in a palette of oyster, pale pink and pistachio green, finished with Japanese-style obi belts and samurai sleeves, as well as enormously stacked floral platforms that were worn with zipped metallic tabi socks. Space-age clean lines mixed with girlish hues: it was womanliness, but not as we knew it.
What the Milan shows had in common was a feeling that clothing can be feminine without detracting from how seriously the wearer is taken.
Nowhere was this message clearer than at Gucci, where Frida Giannini offered sleek and plain tunics and trousers, and column and shift dresses in a variety of blocked, bright hues.
Tomas Maier, too, at Bottega Veneta, developed the theme, pondering the ways in which womenswear can be at once floral and fierce. The answer here came in nostalgically printed silk tea dresses, with strong, padded shoulders and angular necklines, covered in panels of contrast prints and subtle seams of studs.
Other designers blended this feeling for femininity into their label's established modes. Jil Sander's first collection under her own name for eight years clarified the point. Precisely cut and minimal tailoring was given fluidity with ingenious darts, planes and oversized patch pockets, while circle skirts were proof enough that the couture aesthetic of the house had not been entirely overhauled. A palette of rust, midnight blue and bright, coral orange was hardly traditional in its prettiness, but set against stark white shirts and casual jersey, the shades were proof of designers working to give the feminine a new sense of strength.
"I wanted everything to feel light and fresh," Consuelo Castiglioni, of Marni, said. "This collection is all about a new and very clear elegance."
Karl Lagerfeld, at Fendi, looked to modernism with graphic shapes that were printed on to silk and crepe separates. Lagerfeld called the peach, mustard and dove-grey hues "violent pastels", which summed up the clash of modern and meek.
"Women can change," Donatella Versace said. "The collection was fluid -- I wanted to show the tough and the fragile side." She did this by quite literally mixing masculine and feminine wardrobes, with lingerie lace and delicate black broderie detailing on mannish blazers.
Similarly, the more youthful collection of dresses at her Versus label married delicate pink silk with interlocking plastic chains.
The masculine elements were still skimpy, but the Versace customer is no shrinking violet: cutaway silk minidresses, goddess gowns embellished with tinsel-like fronds and tie-dye pieces were suitably rock 'n' roll for their usual base.
This is what the new season take on womanliness boils down to. In trying times, designers need to find out what will sell. There are fewer women now buying fabulous one-offs -- instead, they look for pieces that will continue to work for several years. And that means making informed choices about versatile clothing.
Then of course, there was Dolce & Gabbana, for whom femininity is all sun-roasted fecundity and Sicilian sensuality. The label's collection was an ode to the glamour of their homeland.
While other designers are trying to ally their aesthetics to the worlds of their customers, Dolce & Gabbana conversely invite you to step wholly into theirs.
For showmanship and opulent craft, there are few to rival them. The fact is, there is an audience for this sort of luxury -- corsets and bustier dresses, retro beachwear -- and she is all woman.