What makes modern fashion? It's a slippery question and one every designer should be asking themselves. After all, fashion has a duty to be a testament to its own times - however difficult that may be to believe, given designers' propensity to run into the past, dredge up decades piecemeal and recycle them on the catwalk.
Not so Raf Simons, a resolute modernist amongst fashion's rose-tinted nostalgists. While the rest of Milan glances back to the sixties and the nineties (coincidentally, both boom-times for Milanese fashion's fortunes) Simons looks to the future. Well, kind of. This time, the future came with a lot of white - blocked into the catwalk and the opening looks, icy and antiseptic reworkings of lab technicians' garb in semi-transparent voile. They looked a little like a parade of naughty nurses in slit-ankle patent boots - but forget the sex. As a vision of a frigid future fantastic, they were a little old hat. Their mean, pinched-in silhouettes were a portent of Simon's shapes to come. He's explored an obsession with volume, now it was back to body-con, in dresses prettily sheathing the body to mid-calf contrasting with shorts suits in checks and ginghams exposing leg. Simons collaborated with the Picasso estate to create intarsia sweaters scrolled with the Cubist grand-pere's greatest hits - sometimes, Simons turned Cubist too, carving chunks out of the chests of his dreses and jackets and abstracting giant cotton bows into a loop of fabric at the nape of dresses.
Cinematic references were unintentional, but perhaps unavoidable. Those classic fifties shapes in crisp cottons and bright ginghams and paisleys seemed a Technicolor Hollywood vision of Europe, Audrey Hepburn's Roman Holiday, the whitewashed curves of Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly Last Summer, and the glacial froideur of Grace Kelly evoked in the trio of billowing white wedding dresses that closed the show. Yes, you read that right - wedding dresses. Raf has been riffing on the mid-century haute-er than haute likes of Balenciaga and Givenchy for three seasons now, it was only a matter of time before he closed a show with that ultra-trad couture flourish.
That was part of my problem with this show - tradition. Or rather retro. From veiled pillbox atop lacquered chignon to polished court-shoe, this show felt like a period rehash, with no injection of Simons' sexy, urban urgency. Picasso was shocking sixty years ago, today his lithographs decorate dentists' waiting-rooms without raising an eyebrow. Likewise, a few carved-out chunks, a bit of fluoro and some misplaced dress-clips are just window-dressing, they don't mark fashion revolution. Just because a designer is a Modernist, it doesn't mean everything he designs is necessarily modern - and it felt like pretentious over-intellectualisation to try and read something new into these very, very old clothes. That's not to say women won't wear them. Buyers were grinning as they exited the show, confident of an easy sell on these pretty, simple cotton dresses that scream summer holiday. But is that really what we want (read: need) from one of fashion's foremost forward-thinkers? For Jil Sander acolytes who like to play goody two-shoes with the label's legacy, there's the Navy line to pluck elegant yet unchallenging garments from. But from Raf Simons, 'just clothes' just isn't good enough.