During Milan Fashion Week last September, a headline-provoking image of an anorexic model’s naked 4st 12lb (31kg) frame was stretched provocatively (and distressingly) across numerous billboards. The label involved issued a statement saying that it had deliberately chosen her to bring home the distorted body messages transmitted by fashion. Measured by the column inches gained, the shock tactic was highly effective, though in advertising the message is always undermined to an extent by the motive – especially in Italy, where paying lip service comes more easily than paying taxes.
Maybe that’s why, despite officially banning – along with Madrid Fashion Week – models with a body mass index (BMI) below 18, nothing has really changed on the catwalks here. There are still shows by established designers featuring cadaverous bodies that would no longer be tolerated in London – although, ironically, the latter has not adopted the ban (as The Times reflected in a leading article last week). Instead, the British Fashion Council has put into place several regulations which – and here I disagree with last week’s criticism – are ultimately more thoughtful and practicable than a headline-grabbing and arbitrary clampdown on BMIs, including enforcing an age limit (no girls under 16), policing backstage areas for drugs (zero tolerance) and establishing a models’ union.
The headline image this week may well prove to be the one shown above, from an exhibition of Richard Avedon’s work that has just opened in Milan, sponsored by Versace. In days of yore, Avedon’s collaboration with the supermodels for Versace’s ads became as much a part of the wallpaper of the 1990s as Oasis and Blur were the soundtrack. But there are no supermodels now, only (mainly) anonymous Eastern Europeans who, besides being built differently from the supers (who were thin but not emaciated), exude a kind of dislocated isolation as opposed to the supers’ imperious sexiness. The Eastern Europeans are less prone to diva behaviour and more likely to accept lower pay and inferior working conditions. As for using men as footstools and sofas, what would be the point? They wouldn’t be able to weigh them down, nor be convincing as women in charge.
Two weeks into the shows and you’d assume, reasonably, that we’d have identified the season’s It trends among the audience. For the industry these are the key trends (it’s easy to reel off a list of catwalk developments for next winter, but often these are a bit theoretical).
The audience’s peccadillos, on the other hand, provide a snapshot of what’s being adopted here and now, and since almost no one ever wears anything to a show without serious consideration, these are the trends that professional cool-finders monitor and decode (ie, pass on to clients, having exchanged vast cool-finder fees first, obviously). Hence the hordes of Japanese photographers. They don’t even try to get accreditation – they’re busy capturing details, from Alexa Chung’s laddered tights (look out for the couture version next winter) to Anna Wintour’s notebook.
But something weird is going on. No one bag is monopolising the arms of the fashion pack. There isn’t even a uniform size, though refuse sacks appear to be on the wane. Shoes, then? Sorry – not much enlightenment here either. Admittedly, the platform sole still dominates. But it could be attached to a boot, a shoe-boot, a robotic Balenciaga-esque sandal . . . Other big trends not spotted on the audience: full skirts, dresses, chiffon or jumpsuits. In fact, the only universal evolution is the higher waist, but even this comes with a multiple choice – skinny jean or flared.
Maybe it’s just too cold even for fashion editors to wear chiffon – but cold never used to be a consideration when showing off a spring wardrobe. So maybe something is going on. Certainly, the main imperative has been to dress warm. When Keira Knightley shoved a cosy jacket over her Valentino at the Baftas, she was actually being prescient. And back in Milan, parkas are cropping up on those who once frolicked in cocktail dresses. Michael Kors called this Limo Dressing, denoting wealth and a waiting chauffeur. But Limo Dressing is being replaced by Statement Layering: piling on thin jumpers. As for bare legs, they’ve been replaced by 80-denier woollen tights or, for the 1980s groupie, sheer black stockings, seen among others, at Missoni, left. In the face of global warming, maybe the ultimate luxury is dressing for the cold.
If nothing else, loitering on wind-blown pavements waiting to get into various shows teaches you a thing or two about dressing warm. Result: the Times fashion team has discovered that the nonpareil of cosy but sleek dressing is the Ice Breaker. Designed in New Zealand, the home of the hardy, it was conceived originally for sports use. But since it comes in lots of colours (neutrals as well as fashion shades) in 100 per cent merino wool, lets your skin breathe (handy under the bright lights of the front row) and looks like a normal jumper, we think it passes muster as a chic buy with honours. Especially since fashion can be an extreme sport too. From £35 (http://www.icebreaker.com/)