This Way to the Pandemic Exit


MILAN — Sometimes it’s the random adjacencies that make you savor life. You can’t exactly call it coincidence — or even entirely unexpected — that one moment during fashion week you find yourself sitting at Zegna corporate headquarters viewing a men’s wear show from a venerable house that went public, and abruptly ditched its trademark suiting for a monkishly modular wardrobe, and the next (well, two hours afterward) are being barraged by a welter of images at a Dsquared show epitomizing the kitchen-sink school of fashion styling.

In just over a mile as the crow flies, you have traversed an aesthetic universe.

So joyfully and absurdly maximalist was the return of Dean and Dan Caten, the twin Dsquared designers, to live shows after two years of pandemic privation that the fashion direction was “This way to the pandemic exit.”

Before the show, the designers took to the stage in hoodies and addressed a small, vaccinated and obligatorily masked, crowd.

“We welcome each and every one of you here today, because today for us is a big deal,” they said. “For us, this is a big step forward — we’re alive, we’re excited and it feels good to be back.” The feeling was infectious, and it was mutual.

The Catens make such a specialty of pile-ons that it is as though their frontal cortexes were hyperlinked to Pinterest. Hippie hiker was one vague theme of a show that ran to, say, punk tartans, Incan woolen flap hats, quilted nylon leggings, long johns, figured sweaters, sequined shorts, dangling novelty doodads and woolen ponchos. That was all in one outfit.

Back before Rihanna became a cultural monument and mogul, it was the Caten twins who imported her to Milan to sing “Umbrella” at one of their shows. It is typical of them to want to bring the party; they are ready to do it again, and aren’t we all?

At the Zegna show, the mood was less buoyant during a week when the label’s stock price dipped below its December initial public offering price on the New York Stock Exchange. “You’re either in luxury leisure wear now or accessories now, or that’s it,” Ermenegildo Zegna, the company’s chief executive, said to me before the show.

Unlike labels with business models essentially built on selling fanny packs and key chains, Zegna offers real high-quality apparel. The label’s artistic director Alessandro Sartori’s ongoing dilemma is to find a new format for the suit. The traditional ones that business people like Mr. Zegna himself once wore reflexively (“I have 50 hanging in my closet,’’ he said) now tend to look like costumes for figures in waxwork dioramas.

Hence the modular system Mr. Sartori designed of multiuse pieces: oversize trousers, some variant of a chore coat, pullover anoraks with funnel necks, parkas and trapeze-shaped caban jackets. The palette was as somber as the silhouette: olive drab, slate gray, off-white and a muted eggplant. The styling, by Julie Ragolia, was pared down to Jil Sander-era monasticism. The hybrid presentation itself blended a moody video shot at an ecological preserve Zegna owns in the Italian mountains and in-studio, followed by a small live presentation.

Lots of the eco-preserve footage — models throwing logs on a fire, circling each other quizzically, trudging in the snow — was shot using the drones that have become a ubiquitous cinematographic gimmick. The live segment involved models clomping out in robotic ranks while Mr. Sartori took to the microphone to explain how the clothes were devised using the latest fabric technology and in a spirit of transparency and sustainability that points the way to a future beyond greenwashing. It was credible. It was responsible. It was admirable and, in general, handsome. Viewing it felt like being stuck in a graduate seminar.

A little fun is called for, people. Two years of being deafened by a drumbeat of grim tidings have left us all longing for some of the fantasy fashion exists in part to stimulate. There is zero likelihood that this observer will suddenly be transformed into a carefree Italian playboy with rolled cuffs and low-slung corduroys the hue of what Brunello Cucinelli, at his presentation, called “washed sugar paper.” (What is that, exactly? If you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it.) Still, it’s a vicarious thrill to enter Mr. Cucinelli’s zillionaire dreamscape.

Like those of his idol, Ralph Lauren, Mr. Cucinelli’s own origins are humble. (Mr. Lauren’s father was a house painter in the Bronx; Mr. Cucinelli’s father, still alive at 99, was an Umbrian farmer.) Each parlayed his own class aspirations into companies worth billions. Each in his capitalist heart is a prophet of hope. Maybe at an outlet mall like Woodbury Common somebody like me may one day luck into a marked-down blazer from Mr. Cucinelli’s chic and carefree collection — modular in its own way and entirely removed from anything resembling the current glum reality — tuck a linen handkerchief in the breast pocket and feel ready to saunter onto an imaginary yacht moored outside the Piazzetta in Capri.

Sure, it’s a comic-strip dream. But these are cartoon times.