At Milan Design Week, a Symbiosis Between Design and Fashion

Despite the annual event’s more compact footprint, sartorial influence reverberated widely. Our editor recounts one of the week’s prevailing trends.

Interpretations of the Dior Medallion Chair during Milan Design Week. Photography by Alessandro Garofalo

The influence that fashion brands wield within Milan’s cultural sphere is well-documented; their symbiosis with the city’s bustling design industry, less so. That dynamic became much clearer during this year’s Milan Design Week, where sartorial sensibilities seemed to steer Fuorisalone—the citywide events that take place outside of Salone del Mobile—far more than usual. Perhaps the impact was more widely felt due to the delayed fair’s compact footprint, but many of this year’s most highly anticipated events came courtesy of fashion houses. Whether they enlisted designers to reimagine brand staples or gave them carte blanche to dream up pieces inspired by seminal fashion figures, what we saw in Milan proves the lines between the two industries continue to blur in ways both welcome and unexpected.

Perhaps the most grandiose statement came from Dior, which enlisted 17 world-class artists and designers to reimagine one of the French label’s iconic emblems: the Medallion Chair. A symbol of the Louis XVI style Christian Dior selected to adorn his then-fledgling house on Avenue Montaigne in the mid-1940s, the Medallion Chair long seated guests at his fashion shows in “sober, simple, and above all classic and Parisian” décor, as he recounted in his memoirs. The newly refurbished Palazzo Citterio welcomed fairgoers to its basement’s cavernous depths to learn how renowned talents like Pierre Yovanovitch, India Mahdavi, and Dimorestudio would reinterpret the object of desire’s stately build and elliptical backrest. 

Ambitious concepts abounded. Nendo’s Oki Sato unveiled an illusory piece in which a Medallion silhouette was carved within a razor-thin sheet of pink tempered glass. The Korean artist Hang Jin, meanwhile, formed a modern-day Medallion from subtly deformed pipes produced by sand casting that drew inspiration from Dior’s theatrical runway shows. “The Medallion Chair epitomizes the brand in many ways as a symbol of elegance—a timeless piece that defies passing trends,” Yovanovitch says. His two chairs incorporate textured steel, Vermont fabric, and a touch of humor: “I reconsidered this piece as a duo, as if the Medallion Chair had been split in half. Like a real-life couple, these two objects resemble each other intrinsically, but their personalities differ.” 

Hermès Maison set design by Hervé Sauvage
Studio Mumbai’s Sillage armchair for Hermès Maison

Hermés Maison may not have scattered its new offerings within a life-size labyrinth this year, but the French label presented its penchant for craft within an imaginative set design by Hervé Sauvage. Situated within five towering hand-painted fabric structures with sand underfoot were an array of textural objects “designed to be touched.” Among the standouts were Studio Mumbai’s wooden Sillage armchair sheathed in cellulose microfibers made in Puglia, the birthplace of papier mâché. Though traditional in look and feel, the piece balances ancestral know-how and modern handicraft embodied in its meticulously hand-painted lines.

Showstopping theatrics aside, collaboration was the name of the game for Valextra, Tod’s, and Versace, which all opted for slightly more subtle displays that still put the expert design and craftsmanship behind their wares front-and-center. To present its new Chiaroscuro handbag capsule collection in the best possible light, Valextra enlisted none other than British design maestro and next-door neighbor Tom Dixon. Nodding to the collection’s name, which means to contrast light and shade, he illuminated the Italian leather brand’s crisp John Pawson–designed flagship with a series of LED sculptures fittingly called “Black Light.” Designed in collaboration with Austrian contract lighting specialist Prolicht and reminiscent of circuit boards, the fixtures range in scale from freestanding totems to dramatic chandeliers and honor Milanese design greats Gio Ponti, Ettore Sottsass, and Achille Castiglioni.

Willie Cole for Tod’s

Tod’s, meanwhile, enlisted American artist Willie Cole to create three pieces using leftover leathers, semi-finished products, and salvaged materials from the Italian brand’s production line. Though Cole’s five-decade career has encompassed transforming discarded domestic materials such as irons, hairdryers, and bicycle parts into Surrealist sculptures that landed in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the commission still proved a learning experience: “It never occurred to me that shoes were made by hand,” he says. 

Cole teamed up with Tod’s artisans to use leftover uppers of the brand’s signature driving shoes to fashion a chair, sofa, and sculpture, proving that design and sustainability can go hand-in-hand. “I’m very aware of pollution, especially litter, and I think about minimizing the amount of waste and excess in the world,” Cole says. “Through my art, I try to communicate that as an educational tool to anybody who sees my work.” It also kicked off the launch of Tod’s new Mosaic series of handbags, which employs a heritage patchwork technique originating from Italian women who hand-crafted grocery bags made from production scraps. 

Versace embraced its Italian lineage by teaming up with Roberto Palomba and Ludovica Serafini, two of the country’s foremost interior and product designers, who brought a sense of understated elegance to the home collection’s relaunch. The ensuing furniture line feels far more pared-down than what one may expect from a label known for flashy prints and retina-widening pops of color, but familiar motifs of Medusa, Barocco, and Trésor de la Mer are woven into the details and impart a sense of three-dimensionality to each piece. Tone-on-tone engravings, screen printing, textile treatments, and pleating lend further panache to the Aeternitas love bed, styles from the Goddess line, and the Stiletto collection.

Urania chair by Pietro Franceschini for Galerie Philia

The influence of Rick Owens is felt far and wide throughout fashion, but how has he shaped the rising vanguard of furniture designers? Galerie Philia unpacked this question by juxtaposing his own furniture with up-and-coming talents like Morghen Studio and Agustina Bottoni, who cite the rule-breaking fashion doyen as a major influence. Perhaps most aligned with Owens’ vision is Pietro Franceschini’s Urania chair, a slightly off-kilter marble piece that’s robot-sculpted in Carrara from a single block of Breccia di Capraia marble into refined sinuous shapes. Uncompromising yet playful, the chair feels akin to what Owens might deliver if asked to respond to the neotenic trend. 

Another unexpected revelation came from the Galleria d’Arte Milano in the Villa Reale, where Bulgari tapped Makoto Azuma, Vincent van Duysen, Daan Roosegaarde, and Ann Veronica Janssens to create pavilions around the theme of “Metamorphosis.” Azuma, whom Surface has billed as Tokyo’s most daring florist, reinterpreted the Garden of Eden through a towering brass tree sprouting fruits and flowers that change in form, color, and fragrance as time passes. The lush flora offers a breathtaking contrast to Leopoldo Pollock’s exquisite architecture, which dates back to the late 18th century as the house of the earl Lodovico Barbiano de Belgioioso, vivid frescoes, and paintings by Picasso, Van Gogh, and Cézanne.

At this point, we’re used to overwrought partnerships that often fail to track, but Bulgari’s installation felt pitch perfect. Azuma’s pavilion, in particular, was a breath of fresh air—a welcome oasis during an otherwise deeply hectic week. Though we’re all probably still recovering from our risotto and negroni coma, reminiscing on the moment of peace felt within that slice of serenity has us eagerly awaiting what else designers (and yes, fashion brands) have up their sleeves when Milan Design Week comes back into full swing in April.

“Garden of Eden” by Makoto Azuma for Bulgari’s “Metamorphosis” exhibition at Galleria d’Arte Moderna Milano. Photography by Ryan Waddoups
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