New energy at Versace, Ralph Lauren and Emporio Armani

Designer Donatella Versace greets the audience at the end of the show for fashion house Versace during the Men's Spring/Summer 2018 fashion shows in Milan, on June 17, 2017.
Designer Donatella Versace greets the audience at the end of the show for fashion house Versace during the Men's Spring/Summer 2018 fashion shows in Milan, on June 17, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

MILAN (NYTIMES) - Often as fascinating as what designers show on the runways here is doping out the business plays behind the fashion. Take the case of Versace.

In a backstage interview before presenting her lively and assured menswear collection for spring 2018, Donatella Versace noted that she had chosen to stage the show not in one of the theatres she has used in recent years, but rather in the family's 18th-century palazzo in central Milan. It was a homecoming as pragmatic as it was symbolic.

Next month is the 20th anniversary of Gianni Versace's murder on the steps of Casa Casuarina, his mansion in Miami Beach. Though the survival into the 21st century of a label he founded in the early 1980s is nothing short of miraculous, business miracles are not accidental. Three years ago, Versace took on a 150 million euro (S$232.5 million) capital investment from the Blackstone Group, a U.S. private equity firm that also acquired an additional 60 million euros of the fashion company's stock.

At the time, billionaire investor Stephen Schwarzman noted that Versace had helped "make Versace one of the few global, luxury fashion brands," global being the operative word. It's not hard to figure out what the key asset in the deal was, because among the designs she sent onto the runway were high-end sweatshirts emblazoned with her name.

"I've been thinking about how much fashion has changed," Versace said backstage at the show Saturday, noting that when her brother died the internet as we know it barely existed. A designer's role in those days was instructing consumers on what to wear. Now it is the other way around. "We work backward," she said. "It's the millennials who decide what's going to happen." If people seemingly born with a smartphone in hand cannot be expected to know the label's history, Versace and her talented menswear designer, Ashley Fletcher, can gently help them along.

Thus, while the menswear that the two showed was mostly generationally generic (athletic shoes, T-shirts, shorts, jean jackets, duck-billed ball caps, bombers and hoodies) and could have been produced by many designers, the wonderfully opulent and vulgar archival prints spliced onto the clothes spelled Versace as clearly as any logo.

"We just want people to enjoy life," Versace said of a show defined by pops of goofball colours like bassinet pink, baby blue and the gold of a lamé tracksuit.

Alessandro Sartori, the Ermenegildo Zegna designer, also had fun on his mind going into his latest collection, as he explained in a preview before his show Friday - that and the joy of using colour to "create emotion." He did not add, though he might as well have, that the trippy tangerine gravel he used to fill a colonnaded courtyard of a state university, housed in a Renaissance architectural treasure in Milan, had a different goal, one now as crucial to what designers do as any other element. It was Instagram-ready.

"Sometimes, you go to a show and the lighting is wrong for an iPhone," Will Welch, editor of GQ Style, said during another designer's presentation. "And you think, 'You just shouldn't have had this show.'" After a seriously misjudged effort marking his return last season to the creative helm of Zegna, Sartori scaled back, settled down and returned to the tailoring and technical know-how that are his strengths.

Advanced fabric research is a speciality at Zegna, a textile industry leader. And while in a preview, Sartori earnestly emphasised the mechanical wizardry required to produce needle-punched patterns in a leather blouson jacket, micro-Nubuck for a pair of tailored jogging pants and silk for a blazer so gossamer it could probably be pulled through a ring, the show itself was chill.

And that was a good thing. On a group of models cast for their youth and varied ethnic backgrounds, the designer presented easy, drifty suits and printed silk summer coats in colours like matte white, antique rose, freesia, water blue and geranium. He also showed a covetable panelled jacket that resembled a zillionaire version of something a character from George Lucas' 1970s classic American Graffiti might have worn to Mel's Drive-In.

Anomalies like that are particularly welcome in this banking and industrial capital, a city hardly known for a laid-back attitude. As admiring as one is of the Milanese and their sartorial traditions, it helps when an American like Ralph Lauren shows them how to loosen up.

True, in some senses the Bronx-born designer's presentation at his company's Liberty-style palazzo was standard-issue Ralph Lauren, with design elements drawn from various team sports, from the fabric research that too often seems to lead him to a Peruvian blanket and from his company's opulent archive. Yet, even at 77, Lauren can deliver a jolt of surprise, which he did Saturday by showing a handsome lightweight black linen safari jacket - patch pockets, epaulettes, the whole Papa Hemingway shebang - re-imagined as a jaunty set of evening clothes.

Oddly, it was the formal wear that struck the most assured note in an Emporio Armani collection representative of Giorgio Armani's continuing design dialogue with Japan. There was much to admire, although mostly abstractly, about a show whose sleek suits were largely overshadowed by groupings of curious skirt-trousers, ankle-length culottes in trademark Armani ink blue, and silk jackets patterned with Edo period cranes in flight.

Yet it was in evening clothes used to open the show - a tuxedo spliced with a kimono - that Armani demonstrated how, even at almost 83, he retains his mastery.