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Italian Designers Are Still Big on Conspicuous Luxury

At Milan Fashion Week, many Italian designers declared war on austerity in favor of overtly luxe looks.

Proportionately speaking, Milan, as with Paris, is largely a showcase for luxury fashion. While New York and London have a healthy dose of contemporary and "affordable luxury" brands -- think Milly, Rebecca Taylor, Tory Burch, Orla Kiely, Topshop Unique, etc. -- the clothes shown at Milan Fashion Week are largely for the very wealthiest of global consumers.

And so it's interesting to see so many designers simultaneously grapple with the idea of luxury, and what constitutes good (and decent) luxury at a time when unemployment is still high in much of Europe and Italy's own economy is still in recession. During the financial crisis of 2007 to 2008 and the global recession that followed, we saw a move away from more overt displays of luxury -- logos, for example, and until recently, fur. In its place has risen a preference for quieter, more restrained fashion as exemplified by Alexander Wang and Joseph Altuzarra in New York, Stella McCartney and Victoria Beckham in London, and Celine and Rochas in Paris. (China's crackdown on corruption has helped further that desire for less conspicuous luxury goods.)

But Milan does not deal, for the most part, in subtlety: This is the home of Dolce & Gabbana, Fendi, Gucci, Versace, the labels whose names immediately conjure up ideas of high fashion and sex. In its show notes on Saturday, Sportmax declared war on years of "austerity and frugality" in favor of "overpowering" extravagance, showing ultra luxurious python trenches and skirts in rich black, brown and red. Fendi, with its over-large fur hoods, Blumarine, with its gold-on-black satin coats and dresses, Versace, with its vivid silk gowns and gold medallions and most of all, Dolce & Gabbana, with its glittering, bejeweled, fairytale-inspired collection -- some 100 looks in all -- sang the same message.

That's not to say every designer's collection was ostentatious: Max Mara, Jil Sander, Missoni and Salvatore Ferragamo have always stood out in Milan's lineup for their quieter, but still no less luxe, treatments of wool, fur, silk and leather. And Gucci, in a seeming bid to become more commercial against declining sales, once again introduced a more conservative, classically cut collection for fall/winter 2014.

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But that first set of designers may be on to something -- a deep hankering for the pre-recession days of easy money and its conspicuous display. It wasn't just Milan that was heavy on the fur this season, after all: New York and London were, too. As Lubov Azria said backstage before the BCBGMaxazria show, "[Fur] just feels right." Those glittering coats at No 21 and bejeweled cowls at Dolce & Gabbana? Those are feeling right, too.