MILAN — Who is this guy?
That question underlies everything to do with men’s wear. Designers have to clothe him in imagination. Retailers have to gin up strategies to attract this consumer, who may not yet exist. Observers of the men’s wear shows in London, Milan and Paris and — come July — in New York are often left to puzzle out messages to him as structurally essential to the clothes on the runway as zippers and seams.
Some designers have an advantage. Donatella Versace is one. Despite the many vagaries undergone by the label she heads, she has a rich heritage, a vast archive and a solid backstory to rely on. Even her surname is threaded through the cultural imagination. So when Ms. Versace invites guests to a show in the garden of her family’s palazzo here, tented and hung to its full height with weightless curtains made from paneled scarves printed in patterns from the label’s past, she has already conducted a viewer into a familiar atmosphere.
An evocation of her own back pages gives her breathing room to modernize a Versace guy without turning him into a sad grab-bag of retro references. From the first look — shown on the Versace stalwart Scott Barnhill — Ms. Versace seemed particularly assured of a vision organized around dualities.
She paired the rigid structure of, say, a stiff black motorcycle jacket with sweatpants; showed suit jackets over dresslike tunics (a recent theme for her); put short-sleeve over long-sleeve shirts and, using few prints and a restricted palette, lent her clothes a low-key ease that belied their luxurious fabrications. In the process, she laid down a new baseline for the Versace guy, a prosperous millennial probably too young to remember the label’s founder yet still at home in his world.
When he joined Bottega Veneta, Tomas Maier had the tougher task of inventing a consumer, something he has accomplished season after season in a methodical way. He started by reworking the parameters of luxury, first stripping away ostentatious signifiers of wealth, then revising notions of what work wear might mean for men who spend more time on jets than in an office or at a desk.
Building on the ethos of a brand that boasted in its early advertising of being for those whose own initials were enough, he foresaw the demise of kitschy labels-and-logos flash and devised a singular way of dressing for an ever-younger and ever-growing population of the globalized, highly mobile rich.
Drawing his references from beach bums, surfers, dancers — and men of all kinds from the impecunious creative classes — he came up with collections like his latest, in which hoodies, boat-neck sweaters with purposely crude whip stitching, and rumpled jackets quilted like matelassé were shown over snug equestrian-style breeches that button at the calf, or else the high-waist bell-bottoms that seem to have migrated into the Bottega Veneta offering from Mr. Maier’s separate and eponymous collection. He also showed tourist sandals worn over heavy socks. If Mr. Maier never did another thing in life, he could claim credit for legitimizing the German tourist look.
Without reading the notes for one of Mr. Maier’s shows, a viewer would be hard-pressed to guess at the luxe materials he deploys: wool and mohair blends, quilted silks, lambskin corduroy-effect suedes so feather light they look like a T-shirt you’ve washed a thousand times. Just as a colorist less gifted wouldn’t go near the off-kilter chromatic mixtures that are a Maier signature, a less skilled craftsman would never risk the pretention of straining for what Andy Warhol called “the poor-rich look.” Somehow in his hands it all looks plausible, offhand — almost easy.
“There is lots of easiness in the clothes,” Stefano Pilati said backstage after a fine Ermenegildo Zegna show, where this designer demonstrated again why his mind is among the few in fashion it rewards you to track.
Zegna is foremost a fabric powerhouse, as Mr. Pilati pointed out. Thus most design starts with technical innovation, and Mr. Pilati’s show was full of it. Most interesting was a selection of coats woven in patterns inspired by Madras cloth with bleeding dyes — “I was 18; it was summer, and we were all given a Madras jacket to wear,” he said. “I didn’t want to use the fabric in any way that read as ethnic or preppy” — and white suits nearly as transparent as voile.
Volume play is a regular feature of Mr. Pilati’s designs, often the sexiest part of what he does, and here he toyed with full shapes that concealed the body as well as taut but revealing ones. “Using these very light fabrics pushed me to think about the inside of clothes,” the designer said. His use of such fabrics pushed a viewer to think about how it was not until after the guild system came into place in the late Middle Ages that clothes were anything but a means of covering the human form. Fashion, as we now understand it, likely began with humanism.
Mr. Pilati is a latter-day humanist. The half-linings he used for the nearly see-through tailored suits not only prevented them from becoming peekaboo stunts but glorified the body underneath. The diaphanous quality and absence of color evoked the sensuality of summer in a way few other collections thus far have. “As banal as it sounds, transparency works as an element of sexiness a bit differently from what we normally consider sexy in tailoring,” Mr. Pilati said, and this viewer sees no reason to dispute the claim.
Some people saw sexiness, perversion, allusions to dark places and kinky practices in Rodolfo Paglialunga’s second men’s wear show for Jil Sander. Yet if cropped suits, utility pockets randomly placed and plastic name tag sleeves are the new signifiers of sex, the time may have come for a vow of chastity.
It is too soon in his tenure at this storied label for Mr. Paglialunga to be offering a place-holder collection, one that leaned on repetitious shapes, goofy materials (one’s thoughts do not automatically go to springtime at the sight of a stiff canvas coat) and a parachute nylon that, while relatively weightless, looked suffocating when contrasted with Mr. Pilati’s airy suits.
While the consumer base for Jil Sander in the latest iteration of this beleaguered label remains to be solidified, that is clearly not the case at labels like Emporio Armani, Neil Barrett or Costume National. Each stayed safely within idioms recognizable to anyone who has even passing familiarity with their designs.
Ennio Capasa spoke before his Costume National show of mashing-up references that he has mined for decades, including rock musicians, speed sports like motocross and Americana, filtered through a deeply Italian sensibility. Hence, a photograph on his mood board of Elvis Presley in a Plains Indian war bonnet was supposed to represent a Native American influence. Oh, well. In the end, the clothes — a pony skin biker jacket, a royal blue trench over elephant bellbottoms — were less suited to someone like the King than another sort of rock idol, maybe Jamie Hince of The Kills.
For a monochrome, theme-and-variation show Neil Barrett ran through a repertoire of bomber jackets, sweatshirts, jogging pants and athletic wear that, as he said not long ago, “I can do with my eyes closed.” As with many other designers here, he deployed complex fabrication processes to achieve effects so deceptively simple they’re barely detectable, confident that his customer will be excited to know that his Jackie Gleason bus driver jacket is made from eco-leather bonded with Lyocell.
Giorgio Armani did not become one of the richest men in Italy by ignoring his customer base. Though his latest Emporio Armani collection had an East meets West theme, the casting of four Asian models to open the show underscored the reality that for the foreseeable future, business growth will occur in China, Malaysia, Indonesia and South Korea, not the European Union.
Classic Armani elements were all in place, most notably the cardigan style jacket he all but invented, the muted color schemes he tends to favor and his general avoidance of pattern. One exception — deep blue jacquard suits with scatterings of paisleys embroidered in loose patterns — was cool enough to seem post-geographic.