In shorts, life goes on

The menswear collections in Milan could have been a sober affair but attendees instead found subtle solidarity.

With the euro in freefall and the EU a-tremble, one might have expected the menswear collections to play out a slightly sombre tune. But instead, Milan's designers seemed to be fiddling as Rome burns. Of course, in the fairy lights of fashion, that is not necessarily a bad thing.

At Burberry, for instance, designer Christopher Bailey sent out one of his strongest collections of late, ditching his rather ponderous odes to the handcrafted (Reykjavik, anyone?) in favour of a ballsy line-up of fluorescent feature pieces. It started with a hint of reflective foil on a shirt or coat collar before quickly shifting into a full-body colour-field of shiny mauve shirts, fuchsia trenches and silvery sage overcoats.

Sure, these were eye candy for the fickle fashion pack, and behind them stood a sturdy range of sensible tweed jackets and single-pleated pants. But as a signal that the good times were not quite over, they worked.

At Gucci, Frida Giannini insisted on the centrality of the suit to a man's wardrobe. But she was thinking not so much of Wall Street as of easy street. In pea green, mustard, sunflower, tomato (and I choose the edible palette not lightly), Frida's boys were obviously out to a very long lunch. Most probably on someone's yacht anchored just off Positano.

Whether worn under tailored jackets or softly structured cardigans, the trouser cut barely varied: a slim-hipped tapered leg ending in a pert turned-up cuff. Perfect for weekend wear, sockless, with a classic tan Gucci loafer. Or even blue, to offset the slightly suspect seriousness of a black double-breasted suit.

Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana moored their boat on - go on, guess! - Sicily. No surprises there, since the pair so often pay homage to their home turf. But in all the years I've been covering the shows I don't think I've ever seen them genuflect quite so humbly. The boat they moored was not a mega-yacht, but a simple fisherman's craft. The boys they sent out were not gigolos, but ragazzi bravi, honest boys, mama's boys. Fisher boys. You could imagine them wading into the sea at the Feast of the Virgin, reverent. On the Milanese catwalk, they ambled out wearing shorts hoisted high, the excess fabric cinched in with weathered leather belts.

Trousers, too, looked as though they were originally worn by someone else - their too-large waists and too-short legs evoking a larger, rounder uncle or godfather. Their printed blouses (there is no other word) looked as if they'd been cut on a kitchen table, from aunty's cotton sundress. Round-collared, billowing, with non-cuffed, three-quarter sleeves, they appeared straight out of a McCalls pattern book.

For a second there, it felt as though Miuccia Prada was out to redesign the uniforms for McDonald's (hey, if Christian Lacroix can do Air France and Martin Grant, Qantas …). With that ever-so-slight percentage of spandex that is a signature of the label's menswear fabrics, the flat palette of beige, burgundy, sage, ink- and sky-blue worked into loose-cut, V-fronted shirts and tracksuit-style trousers did have a bit of the Big Macs about them.

But then, once the eye adjusted, what came into focus was a very smart discourse on getting back to basics.

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Of course, Prada has gone down this path before, with its iconic Prada Sport line. But this time, it's not about active wear per se, but a wardrobe proposition of essentials. And who can resist a go-slimmer stripe on the leg inseam?

Donatella Versace resists very little. Actually, scratch that: Donatella Versace loves very little on her men. OK, so the show revolved around the relaunch of the brand's swimwear and underwear lines, but only la Donna would dream of dressing her Heraclean honchos up as gladiators, complete with bejewelled weightlifter belts and shiny silk satin, barely there kimonos. Angels fear to tread.

Amid all this frou-frou and falbala, one lone voice rang out in the night. It had Jil Sander's unmistakable, Heidi-esque lilt. Sander's been on and off the Milan fashion calendar these past years - having sold a majority share of her eponymous house to Prada in 1999. In 2000 she quit, citing irresolvable differences with Miuccia's husband and Prada chief executive Patrizio Bertelli. She returned in May 2003, only to storm out again in November 2004.

Since Prada sold the brand on, it is now safe for Sander to come home, and that is a very good thing for Milan Fashion Week.

Because no matter how much the winds of economy, culture or style blow first one way, then the next, Sander is one designer who clings firmly to the mast of her convictions. Tacked to it is a simple trinity: luxurious fabrics, reductive cuts, minimal ornamentation. For this ''inaugural'' menswear collection, she showcased a series of sleeveless, long double-breasted jackets over voluminous knee-length shorts, simple white shirts buttoned to the neck. All in deep navy blue. Sleek city suiting had a pedagogical edge, and electric-blue anoraks hinted at the sports team playing away. Goal!

Now, a word or two about shorts. Of course, in Australia, shorts are a legitimate urban wardrobe item not to be questioned. In Europe, however, shorts have always been for weekend wear. In the country. While cloistered with family and close friends. And declared slightly risque.

So, to say that shorts were out in force for spring-summer may chime as obvious here, but their omnipresence in Milan suggests a quiet revolution. Billowing just below-knee at Jil Sander. Hitched high at Dolce&Gabbana. Short and tight or long and loose at Emporio Armani. Pleated, belted, block colour or printed and - most curiously - teamed with a double-breasted jacket and dress shoes, the rise of the short in such temperate climes is a sure sign of a shift in the zeitgeist. Or a desire to spend less money on fabric. No matter how much colour one uses in Milan, Rome is burning, after all.

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