When Antonio Berardi, a designer renowned for artfully corsetted and spliced frocks that revive the eighties 'resultwear' label, opens his show with a sombre black wool trench coat, it makes you sit up and pay attention - not only to Berardi's show, but to the mood of the season as a whole. Granted, the trench was artfully proportioned, slim-cut and appeared to be worn over nothing bar sheer black stockings and slippery patent stilletos, but a stripped-back statement it was nevertheless.
The vast majority of Berardi's Autumn/Winter 2010 show followed the same theme, with black dominating in organza, lace and velvet. Nevertheless, Berardi's black was never boring - he's evidently been glancing at the archives of Yves Saint Laurent, as he tricked out all the master's seductive old tricks that still retain their power to titillate and captivate. In fact, nix that: it takes more than a glance to get things this right, with the perfect frisson of sexual subversion in prim-but-perverted pussy-bow blouses rendered in featherlight chiffon and lace, a Le Smoking tuxedo jacket reinterepeted as buttock-skimming minidress, and a transparent organza counterpart to that opening coat. Shades of Helmut Newton could be discerned in wrap-around wool suiting, the skirt winking apart to reveal lace-topped stockings. These were also on display under a thick fur chubby, alongside the faintest slither of acid-green silk charmeuse. We're talking seven millimetres of silk here, max - but its absence would have made all the difference. It was easy to get lost in these kind of details, so subtle were Berardi's seductive games this season. His corsetry was toned down to topstitched boned and bombased panels in pin-narrow dresses, occasionally jutting backwards into sharp details, as in the neat little bustle on a grey tweed suit. The stripping-back of exteraneous detail this season has exposed some of the kinks in other designers' tecnhique, but there were no such issues with Berardi. And when he did send out a couple of elaborately-pieced brocade bustier dresses and a finale of ruby velvet sheaths, the spare precision of those earlier exits allowed us to appreciate their richness even more.
Yet, for all the technical know-how, Saint Laurent homage and indeed dazzling polish of this collection (it's the chicest thing we've seen this week, hands down), there was something unintentionally disquieting about Antonio Berardi's vision. Maybe it was those shoes - six inch heels on a court with a paper-thin sole, Christian Louboutin at his sex-shop cruellest. Shoes, in short, to be worn lying down. Likewise those severe, uncompromising silhouettes which did nothing less than shackle the models in arrow-narrow pencil skirts, waists cinched by whalebone, breasts pricked by chantilly-lace veiling. Elegant although it may have been, the teetering geisha-gait progress of his models, movement hobbled to tiny baby-steps, was uncomfortable to watch. For all the beauty of Berardi's collection, it was most decidedly a vision of woman as inanimate sexual object, a toy, created by a man for a man. It's difficult not to question the validity of that.