The Radical Conviction of Conservative Clothes

Rethinking the camel coat at MaxMara’s Lisbon Resort show.

max mara lisbon resort show
Courtesy of MaxMara.

Lately, I’ve had a craving for clothes that are not necessarily nostalgic, but what you might call old-fashioned. I don’t mean in their shape or materials, but their approach: clothing specialized for the kind of life I have (like the Claire McCardell-inspired dresses from Tory Burch’s Spring 2022 collection, which are in a super light silk that manages to look fresh all day, and have a lightly flared skirts that’s great for getting in and out of Ubers and bolting up and down subway stairs), or that lend me some much needed dignity in this dog-eat-dog-and-while-we're-at-it-let's-eat-cats-too world world, like the discriminating precision of MaxMara’s famous camel hair coat. What I mean is: clothes made by a designer who knows how to get out of the way of the clothes, and let them, and the woman wearing them, do their thing.

Earlier this week, MaxMara staged their Resort 2023 show in Lisbon, Portugal, which gave an occasion to examine this idea more closely. MaxMara is fundamentally a conservative brand, focusing on a core palette of beiges and camels, fine cashmeres and wools, and uncompromisingly elegant trousers and jackets and dresses. But it may be, unexpectedly, a great time for conservative fashion. When the world is haywire, fashion can reflect it, but just as powerful is clothing that knows how to lend civility and comfort. We think of comfort as sweatpants and track jackets, but it is also cashmere and civility; and pragmatism, which is to say clothes that perform the difficult task of simply being beautiful and correct, can give a person the courage to face the day.

That is why brands like The Row and Armani have become particularly popular among millennials and even Zoomers, I think—one of the signature influencer uniforms is an oversized blazer and blousy trousers. Even fast fashion brands are knocking off vintage Giorgio and the MaxMara signatures! Twenty-somethings may wear these boxy suits over a bra top, but it’s still much more Northern Italian cool than couture decadent. MaxMara has never collaborated with Supreme, or done a risque campaign about not being your mother’s MaxMara, and they dress celebrities I’d describe as “classical,” like Claire Danes and Ashley Park. What may seem traditional also seems admirably dedicated nowadays.

MaxMara creative director Ian Griffith’s approach to this Resort season shows just how this formula works. You could never mistake the brand for slow fashion; its sheer size, as a business than makes over a billion dollars a year in revenue, and its participation in the traveling circus of resort shows like this one, mean it's thoroughly part of the fashion system. Instead, Griffiths explained to me, he finds a source of inspiration and allows it to influence the codes. It’s a very light touch, which, again, at a time when fashion itself is too fashionable, chasing its own tail of trends, is something to study. At Lisbon’s Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, where the show was staged, Griffiths came across a portrait of forgotten activist and intellectual Natália Correia (whose collection of erotic poetry was seized by the authorities), and allowed her flirtatious skirts and binding little black dresses to steer the first third of the collection, with tight pencil skirts with jaunty pleated peekaboo hems and tops and dresses with plunging portrait necklines.

Also in the mix was Portuguese singer Carminho, known as one of the queens of fado, the country’s aching, melancholic signature musical genre; she performed at dinner the night before, and then walked in the show in one of those tight dresses. It’s interesting to see a designer do strength with a tight black dress; they often signal power with a padded or constructed shoulder. But the model Jill Kortleve wore an off-the-shoulder version, and looked sensually steely.

What may seem traditional also seems admirably dedicated nowadays.

Of course, MaxMara’s signature is something with a shoulder: the camel hair and teddy bear coats, which were cut like mid century short-sleeved kimono jackets, and, awesomely, festooned with rhinestone seahorses. The coat is probably the garment that represents this sense of fashion conservatism at its best: it at once protects you and brags about you.

Most sublime, though, might have been the last dozen or so looks—a parade of shirtdresses, apron dresses and strapless dresses, with a fantastic blouse sprinkled in, in jewel tones of such intensity that the emotional effect exceeded the dresses’ simplicity. It was a reminder that color, fabric, and sound, when done right, are enough to stir you. The models’ path took them down a concrete walkway in the garden and then across a series of concrete blocks in a small pond, the accordion pleats of their satin dresses blowing in the early summer wind. There was no big message—but the elegance of design without ego, or design that’s really about the person intended to wear it, is a message unto itself.

This story has been updated.

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