Milan’s Autumn/Winter 2021 menswear week, which concluded on Tuesday, was very, very different to that of a year ago. Back then, a schedule of three busy days of shows and presentations had swollen to four, accommodating the return of Gucci, intended to be a permanent fixture.
This Milan menswear season was entirely digital, and could have been consumed in an afternoon. There were only a handful of shows: Prada, Fendi and Ermenegildo Zegna being the biggest, each generating turnover in excess of €1bn. There was also Etro, Tod’s and the youngish Milanese brand MSGM. Giorgio Armani — a linchpin of Milan menswear — was notably absent. He is planning to combine his menswear and womenswear collections for both his mainline and Emporio collections in February.
Missing too were designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, who have persisted in hosting physical catwalk shows throughout the pandemic. They were forced to cancel their planned presentation due to government guidance; they are currently reworking their show into a digital format to be shown later this month.
Sometimes hardship can bring out the best in fashion designers. In contrast to last June’s menswear collections, where there was a feeling of uncertainty and a thrashing about for direction, the Autumn/Winter 2021 collections have been more mature, knowing. They reflect an industry more certain of its place and its continuation — namely that, despite store closures and often radically altered daily routines, it seems people are still interested in clothes, and want to buy them.
But what do people want now? That was the fundamental question designers — good designers, at least — were tackling. For Silvia Venturini Fendi, the answer was snug, dressing gown-inspired coats, some padded to duvet proportions in soft colours. “It has a therapeutic attitude,” Venturini commented. “Clothes that make you feel good.” The ultimate in feel-good in the UK is, perhaps, The Great British Bake Off, and Fendi, in an unusual pairing, collaborated with one of its stars: the comedian and musician Noel Fielding. He made swirly-whirly scribbles in multicolours that were translated to shearlings, worn by models who toted tiny, jokey iterations of Fendi luggage.
It was the quietest moments in the Fendi collections that worked best: gentle colours, cuddly volumes, the lack of hardware and zips on garments, the dominance of knitwear. Knit trousers, incidentally, are fashion’s luxurious take on jogging bottoms — some designers have pushed them to extremes. Fendi offered ribbed dungarees, and Venturini Fendi used the word “audacious”. Quite.
Alessandro Sartori’s Zegna collection wasn’t audacious, really. It was muted, quiet, filled with sloppy, loose clothes, wide trousers, things that relaxed and sagged a little around the body. It was fantastic. It was shown by a film Sartori and his team began devising over the summer, even as the situation in Europe began improving. “We felt a show would not be the right thing,” Sartori said via Zoom. “Unfortunately, we were right.” But what he felt was right for clothes was bang-on: adaptable, sports-influenced, with a dominance of jersey. Sartori called this “a new media” and used it everywhere, for soft tailoring, trousers, sweaters, and turtlenecks. The real change was wrought in the jackets: kimono-sleeved, without canvas, padding or fusing, they seem a shadow of their former selves. Blocked in varied hues of single colours — camels, grey-half-blue, a wonderful sage green — they had a feel of pyjamas.
Sartori wasn’t just imagining what clients wanted but had actually listened to them. Zegna — like most luxury brands — has been communicating with clients via videoconferencing software. What is the outcome? Succinct, precise. “Business wear has become Zoomwear. Customers want multifunctional clothes. Knits not shirts, light not heavy.” Sartori has never seemed an arrogant designer, but one that enjoys pleasing — and dressing — people. This does both.
The co-creative directors of Prada, Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons, were also reacting to that stimuli in their first joint menswear show. Intimacy, tactility, a need for touch and feeling — and the fact this all has to be expressed digitally. So their collection walked through chambers devised by the architect Rem Koolhaas (a long-term collaborator), created from strokeable materials such as marble and faux fur. The collection itself was also intended to excite the senses and celebrate the physical. Each look was based on a jacquard knit bodysuit, delineating the slender bodies of their models like a second skin. On top were clothes that, often, abstracted away: cocoon coats, curved bomber jackets in lustred leather, padded parkas. “I am always interested in the idea of protection,” Simons said. The models wore leather gloves, with zippered pockets attached like little handbags. “They’re playful, like toys,” said Miuccia Prada. Last year she was obsessed with tools — this time, toys.
But there was no playing or toying with this collection. It was a progressive, emphatic statement — connecting with looks both Prada and Simons have proposed before — an attenuated, streamlined silhouette, contrasting hyper-fit with unfit. A comment on lockdown physiques? I’m being facetious. They commented that the process of creating this menswear collection was “rich”, and it shows. The offering was a compelling take on a masculine wardrobe: knitwear for home lounging, lots of coats — jacquard-lined anoraks, bouclé tailored overcoats in oddly appealing shoes of lemon yellow, lilac and pale blue — for when we can finally emerge. And while some of it seemed extreme, there was a core of eminently desirable product that felt not only attuned to this time, but — cleverly — relevant for any time.
Follow @financialtimesfashion on Instagram to find out about our latest stories first
Listen to our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen