MILAN, Italy When the fashion cops start pulling designers over and asking them to walk a straight line, it is clear that sobriety is in style. This is Safety Season in Milan, and, as it happens, that was the name of a band whose music underscored Calvin Klein's show, perhaps the most coherent presentation yet from that label's designer, Italo Zucchelli, and one that signified Milan's prevalent mood.
The fashion business is infrequently inclined to consensus building. Yet something like collective agreement took hold the week of Jan. 16, as designers fell in line with an unspoken effort to restore credibility to this city as a producer of men's wear and to bring back the status lost to Paris when Hedi Slimane was hired to design Dior Homme.
Very little in the last five years has had as much impact on how men dress as Slimane's taut suits and "blood-spattered" Richard Hell-style shirts. And by men, one is not just referring to scrawny 20-year-olds mysteriously able to fork over $2,000 for a Dior suit. It is clear a label is succeeding when it can rate editorial coverage in 032c, the hipster magazine from Berlin, and also outfit Richard D. Parsons, the chief executive of Time Warner, and the senior partners at Deutsche Bank in New York, as Dior Homme does.
Milan hasn't come close to registering that kind of effect for a while. Yet if the restraint and smart styling on display lately is a gauge, the city seems close to reclaiming its cool.
The models cast for Zucchelli's fall 2006 collection for Calvin Klein looked vaguely like operatives for one of those Cold War syndicates from which James Bond was always saving humankind. This is intended as praise.
Inadvertently perhaps, Zucchelli's faintly boxy jackets, often double-breasted and just grazing the top of the buttocks, and his lean trousers lopped at ankle height seemed precisely the sort of things to outfit MI6 operatives in the remake of "Casino Royale" and also to lend them a semblance of the suaveness that no actor since Sean Connery has put across on screen.
Even the label's signature palette of shale grays, jades and hibiscus blues holdovers from the days when Klein himself was designing had a tonal sophistication geared for cinema.
Alexander McQueen, a Gucci Group designer, brought out Korean-inspired kimonos, Jack the Ripper costumes, Fair Isle sweaters with skull motifs, suits reminiscent of Mick Jagger in "Performance" and trousers apparently inspired by Romany wanderers.
As always with this designer, who cut his teeth on Savile Row, the suits were sophisticated, well detailed and ingenious, even when they had waistbands that landed at nipple latitude.
Set starkly against the week's more arrant silliness was the assured restraint of Raf Simons in his design debut for Jil Sander. Ringing changes on the narrow silhouette now in favor, Simons presented clothing that was linear and boxy, indisputably sexy and at the same time as utilitarian and strict as uniforms for a modern-day spook.
Real spooks probably do their surveillance from behind a computer bank wearing fuzzy slippers and coffee-stained sweats. But any spy worth his iris scan would be proud to sport one of Simons' stiff leather jackets with a bonded wool two-button suit the color of a cement overcoat. And the art dealers who form a firm client base for the label will undoubtedly find delight in the sweaters with necklines that when worn over a white shirt evoke the shape of a Robert Gober urinal.
In similar style designers who are as unalike as Christopher Bailey at Burberry, Alessandro Dell'Acqua and Jasper Conran presented shows that showcased almost ostentatious restraint.
Bailey has traded in his familiar Crayola palette for hues that bring to mind the lees from a cask of aged port. There were blessedly few signs of the label's oppressive bland tartan and a fair amount of the high-low styling games so nimbly played by Bailey's competitor Miuccia Prada. In Bailey's hands the game took the form of complicated quilted fabrics rendered as a double-belted trench and paired with his version of a tuxedo worn with a geeky knit cap and winkle-picker brogues.
Dell'Acqua and Conran also offered slick, well-detailed shows close to monochromatic (unless ink on gray on smoke counts as a color combination) and suits cut so appealingly narrow that the models looked like strokes from a Sufi manuscript.
One of the not-so-subtle messages of the week was that being fashionable requires pushing back from the table when the dessert trolley rolls around. Bellows pleats and expandable waistlines may have made Dockers a $1 billion brand in under 20 years, but those styles were invented for a baby boomer generation whose next destination on the sartorial train may involve the Depends aisle at Duane Reade.
Younger men have adapted to the lessons that have been a fashionable woman's burden since Eve. Whether it takes Pilates, 1,000 daily situps or a surgeon's cannula, a narrow waist is the fashionable sine qua non. Giorgio Armani is so keen on the point that he posed for an Italian news magazine wearing only gym shorts and sneakers. The preternaturally lean Armani is 70 plus.
Armani continues to assert his belief that men are sexier when slightly languorous and have an identifiable waist. It is a curiosity of Armani's success that his clothes, though priced for and marketed to men in the professions, remain insistently feminine and soft.
His show, titled "Velvet Man," featured voluminous trousers, frock coats and plush fabrics in gem tones, uniformly paired with velvet pumps. If the designs look less likely to suit the boardroom than the boudoir, one cannot dispute, based on the volume of his business, that he must have insights into men's sartorial comfort zones.
The opposite may be true of Miuccia Prada, who toys not just with sexual norms but also with anatomy. Few designers outside of Japan have so consistently warped the masculine silhouette as Ms. Prada did at both Prada and Miu Miu.
For her Prada show she dropped crotches, tightened and belted pants legs, made jackets tubular, added gauntlets and topped her models' heads with fur motorcycle helmets, which gave them the cranial volume of giant bugs. She asserted that her ambition was to invoke the heroic dreams of men and boys, which was credible in a Fantastic Four kind of way.
At Miu Miu, Prada, guided by the stylist Olivier Rizzo, summoned another pop-cultural fantasy, the new wave 1980s, as imagined by some melancholy Japanese kid hanging out on Harajuku bridge. All the referents one typically finds at this poseurs' crossroads were on full display: studded boots, layered sweaters and jackets, checked blazers buttoned crazily high and worn straitjacket tight, even trousers with stirrup straps. It was Yohji Yamamoto for people too junior to recall that designer before he became the Sneaker King.
If the vision was not to every taste, at least it was consistent and complete. In an odd way the same could be said of both Roberto Cavalli and Valentino, two designers whose names are rarely mentioned in the same breath.
For exuberant vulgarity nobody tops Roberto Cavalli, and that is his charm. Retailers and editors love to slag Cavalli's clothes as flashy, underdesigned and overornamented, and of course they are. What makes them appealing is their lack of pretense at class. Cavalli conjures wealth in the soap operatic manner of a fashion Aaron Spelling. Bosomy zillionaires (Victoria Beckham in this case) mince about in dresses with feathered bodices and gilt leather sandals. Their crotch-stuffed lovers wear laced ruffle shirts and butter-leather jeans.
When Valentino Garavani quits the planet, his destination is jet-set heaven. The aviation equipment is private, and the carrier is Valentino Airlines. Inside an old Milanese palace Garavani installed a pretend airport lounge as imagined by someone who never whiled away the hours clocking delays on the departures board while snacking on sad pretzel mix.Comment on this story
The lighting was soothing. There were comfy leather banquettes. The ambient music made a preflight Ambien unnecessary. As a celestial voice intoned news of arrivals, travel archetypes (the old, the young, the straight, the gay, the rock 'n' roll and the canine) disembarked and sashayed off Valentino's ark of the air.
As we all must, Valentino Airlines passengers pushed luggage carts, but they did so in suits of crisp elegance or coats of crocodile. Who can say, really, what the show's commercial value was? Who, in a certain sense, cares? For a few delirious moments on a chill Milanese afternoon it was a delight to be a passenger on Garavani's flight of fantasy, wherever it was bound.