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Aisling O'Connor: MIlan did its best to insulate us from economic ill winds and went for Italian excess

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Gao Yuanyuan attends the Dolce & Gabbana Fall 2012 show in Milan

Gao Yuanyuan attends the Dolce & Gabbana Fall 2012 show in Milan

Velvet, silks and brocade - Gucci in the Medici boudoir

Velvet, silks and brocade - Gucci in the Medici boudoir

Versace's gothic knights ready to march east

Versace's gothic knights ready to march east

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Gao Yuanyuan attends the Dolce & Gabbana Fall 2012 show in Milan

FOLLOWING retro-interpreted cosmopolitan chic in New York and the fascinating pot-luck of modern print, artistry and heritage that was London, Milan opened its heavy UNESCO protected doors to the fashion media last week.



The New York Times dubbed Milan’s offerings for fall ‘Ugly Beauty’. The collections were sober and sombre but not always at once. In an ever shrinking economy Milan may look like it’s in mourning, but even a grieving Italian widow is chic in black lace, carrying a mean leather handbag.



Italian design houses perpetuated the current economic mood in their dim-lit presentations with moody offerings for Fall 2012 but something interesting picked up the small shards of light. Where many industries pare back to bare bones in recession, Italian fashion turns to dark, romantic escapism and looks east for salvation.



Though dark colours and a good smattering of black dominated the palette, there was an abundance of skilled craftsmanship.. In a return to centuries-old artisan fabric, leather and tailoring techniques, Milan collectively looked muted from a distance but was rich and textured on closer inspection.



Fendi and MaxMara showed black fur and tailoring; Dolce & Gabanna lavished embroidery and tapestry on their subjects; Gucci was a dark boudoir of alluring velvet and silks; Versace offered gothic brocade; Prada’s prints oddly called to mind ‘70s carpets and wallpaper, making garish upholstery and interior decorating somehow glamorous and desirable. Let’s not forget a week-long parade of exquisite bags and shoes.



So what was the point of all this muted exuberance? There must be a customer for all this. Of course there is. Right there in the front rows at the shows were Chinese celebrities, and the Italian connection to the east, Vogue Japan editor-at-large and creative director, Anna Dello Russo.



Along with her contemporaries, Donatella Versace, she of Hollywood red carpets, and acid brights, eye-catching prints and signature stud-work, presented an army of centurions in gothic brocade armour to march out east and claim a chunk of Chinese luxury-lust territory.



The Chinese luxury goods market accounted for 27% of the global pie in 2009 and is estimated to grow to US$14.6 billion by 2014. In a retail market dominated by French brands Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Chanel, there is indeed a fondness for Italian designer goods, with Gucci handbags, Prada shoes and Giorgio Armani womenswear top three in their categories.



By increasing market share in a thriving retail sector in the east, Italy stands to benefit greatly from the economic ripple effect of secured fashion industry jobs. Add to this the bonus of the potential longer pay-off with a younger Chinese demographic at 18 – 40, compared to the over 40s European market. In capturing a younger audience the Italians can cultivate longevity and stronger brand bond - good for jobs, good for growth.



Presenting China’s fashion, movie and pop glitterati in the front row is a cute ploy to gain exposure to a young, celebrity-hungry population. Milan wasn’t the first to do so. In London Burberry hosted and dressed Chinese singers Jolin Tsai, Seohyun, Yoona and Tiffany in their front row. Actresses and Chanel ambassadors to China Yao Chen and Zhou Xun are expected to join national superstar Fan Bingbing on the runway sidelines in Paris this week.



Visualising idols in these far-away fashion capital fuels Chinese retail wanderlust. In January The Sunday Times reported in 'KERCHING! The Chinese Are Coming' that the Chinese are travelling to Europe solely to buy designer bags and other accessories. Part of the reason is the 30% difference in prices between Shanghai and London stores but they are wary of the Chinese black market in fakes and trust the European stores to stock 'real' product.



Italy stands to gain on many fronts from expansion off European soil: employment, tourism and tax revenue. The country was the world's 7th largest exporter in 2009. Luxury vehicles, yachts, food & wine and indeed fashion leave the country in droves. Let’s just hope the Chinese economy continues to thrive and the Italians don’t add people to their list of exports, like Ireland.



In seeking insulation from the cold, hard realities of the Euro-zone debt crisis, Milan Fashion Week did what Italy does best, excess. Their display of their luxury legacy was two-faced with a reigned in mood - simultaneously giving a sad, puppy-dog face to Europe, all the while luring the Chinese customer with all the trappings of a modern day Medici.



Aisling tweets @ashinyoconnor