Milan Fashion Week 2020: A Public Perspective On A Private World

A macro-look at Milan as host amidst a flurry of pressures from within and without the high fashion world.

Milan Fashion Week 2020
Gallery reflections – Milan” by Lorenzoclick, edited and licensed under CC BY 2.0

A macro-look at Milan as host amidst a flurry of pressures from within and without the high fashion world

Similar to the much-celebrated annual Design Week the city hosts every spring, ahead of these events Milan’s built landscape transforms in ways subtly noticeable to unwitting passerby. A new sculpture of a lego-like disembodied hand appears near the mouth of the Duomo pedestrian area; luxury sports cars are unloaded by truck on fashionable Corso Venezia; impromptu photo shoots spring up around unassuming storefronts and street crossings. Perhaps the weather itself was the biggest celebrant of last week, as unseasonably mild days embraced the flocks of tourists vying for gelato photo ops and influencer poses around iconic sights. So come mid-February 2020, and we have the normal throng of international visitors, but dress is more savvy, and storefronts more shiny.

Democratizing access to fashion

Is the layperson’s understanding of Fashion Week then to be a greater concentration of allegedly beautiful people inhabiting a city, drawn by its cultural product? While A-list shows and events remain invite-only to industry insiders, a handful of “accessible yet exclusive” events are also promoted by a spin-off Milan Fashion Club. Themed aperitivi, pop-up stores, and private showrooms in various neighborhoods around the city provide a stage to emerging designers in an effort to “democratize access to fashion.”

Although sponsored by the municipality of Milan and a handful of recognizable companies, the scope of MFC’s reach seems to overlap with a recreational version of the professional fashion following. The official Fashion Week page can funnel you to MFC if you search, but the menu of events falls short of hitting mainstream marketing channels. Once arriving at MFC’s own site, many of the events are limited due to space or special interest, although the goals could warrant a wider reach. 

Social responsibility + branding

In line with the themes of sustainability and diversity embraced by the 2020 show, MFC invited emerging designers from countries spanning Norway to Spain and Turkey, to join domestic designers in showcasing socially-conscious projects and increasing their own brand recognition. The trifecta of associative branding on a smaller scale: loyalty, influence, revenue. 

We could say that with great branding comes great responsibility, as Gucci double Gs sewn onto a T-shirt mean more than just quality fabric, and winged Armani logos communicate more than superior styling. Just as we wouldn’t be likely to purchase a luxury handbag without any exterior evidence of its brand, association is what both consumers and designers chase after. Designers are carving out their piece of culture with every creation, and Fashion Week 2020 saw it: Gender equality makes a statement as Versace shows menswear and womenswear collections together, Prada aims for zero-impact as more than 90% of the men’s 2020 collection uses sustainable fabrics, and plus-size models walk for Fendi for the first time. Jeanswear brand Diesel stages an upcycling promotion outside of its store, while a protest outside of Zara denounces fast fashion’s impact on the planet and the patriarchy’s irresponsible failure to change. 

Dedicated to sustainability, and hosting moments of political and social change momentum, the escalation of the public health nightmare of coronavirus overwhelmingly took center stage as the weekend wound down. The early statement of solidarity with Chinese designers unable to attend turned into a last-minute scramble of already-attending designers to show or not to show, and the financial and political ramifications of those decisions. 

This week Milan is known more to the world as the regional nexus of the coronavirus Italian outbreak than the leading producer of luxury fashion houses. The much-anticipated Milan Design Week has already been postponed from April to June. In trying to understand the extent to which fashion-design-luxury goods shape Milan’s identity and that of its residents, the arrival of the global contagion and the emptying of the financial capital’s busiest districts seem to reconfirm that no identity is untouchable. 

A city on a global stage will have its every step and misstep scrutinized, and so goes the perennial widening of a window of opportunity to submit a message, a cause, a concern to gain public traction and response. Regular residents watch these exclusive shows on their own doorstep to listen for messages that they might align with or reference in holding power responsible for its promises. Sustainability and diversity, but also international solidarity were tested in a heightened frenzy of activity that will continue to play out in breaking news, op-eds, memes, and hopefully fashion weeks of the future.

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