Behind the bright lights at Milan Fashion Week

Clare Dight doesn’t do fashion week – usually – but when Royal Jet puts on a special flight to Milan, it’s impossible to say no, darling. Now she knows why Anna Wintour is always in shades.

Bravissimo. Topping a long list of memorable moments at Milan Fashion Week is the sight of Anna Wintour in her trademark dark glasses sitting front row and centre at Dolce & Gabbana's spring/summer 2015 show. What I didn't expect is to understand why the famously frosty editor of the American Vogue puts on her sunglasses – but, as soon as the bright lights of the catwalk come on (and, boy, are they bright), it's clear that her look is as much a defence against visual overload as it is a snooty style statement.

Wintour is sitting opposite me alongside a gallery of old-guard fashion faces, including Anna Dello Russo from Vogue Japan, the International Herald Tribune fashion editor Suzy Menkes and the British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman, as well as Linda Evangelista and Eva Herzigová, models who put the word "super" into their job title in the late 1980s. Ringing in the new: Kendall Jenner, one of the Kardashian clan, is modelling on the runway and being papped outside.

“Opposite” is somewhat of an exaggeration. I’m actually eight rows back. On the back row to be precise, but still, I’ve made it past the door to enjoy the kind of access to Milan’s Fashion Week that money cannot usually buy. That Royal Jet, the Abu-Dhabi-based private jet operator, has managed to convince some of Italy’s top fashion brands to put my name on the guest list as part of its new US$41,000 (Dh150,595), five-night Milan Fashion Week Tour, speaks of the importance of tapping into the wealthy Middle East market.

I have a clutch of tickets in my possession, all as different as the personalities of the designers that issued them: Versace’s is a small gold brick embossed with its Medusa’s head logo; Giorgio Armani’s is all restraint in a cream linen sleeve; Dolce & Gabbana’s is flamenco red with a chiffon cover and flamboyant black script inside; Roberto Cavalli’s is a glossy riot of clashing colours; and Etro’s is fringed, with a golden paisley print just like its spring/summer 2015 ready-to-wear collection.

Sunday’s Dolce & Gabbana show is my final appointment with this other world. It’s my fifth catwalk show and I’m beginning to be able to read the scene. The photography pack are squeezed like penguins on a rock at one end of the catwalk, long lenses at the ready; a parade of celebs filters in to shouts of “Eva!”, “Linda!” and dutifully pose, wearing the right label; bright-white spotlights illuminate the audience, who mill around without much urgency, air-kissing and chatting like family at a wedding; television cameras float silently overhead on robotic arms; people slowly, slowly make their way to their seats. Odd seat numbers are on one side and even numbers on the other, leading to some confusion.

Up in the gods, I’m sitting among wealthy private clients and the women are dressed to the nines in Dolce & Gabbana – in outfits worth tens of thousands of dirhams. Key editors, local dignitaries and major buyers take their seats in the front rows; the arrival of some, like Wintour, signals that the show may be able to start... and so it goes on, and the minutes tick past the official start time, until, finally, there’s a signal that everyone, without fail, must sit and be quick about it. At Dolce & Gabbana, the opera music fades as two men sweep the carpet on either side of the red ­catwalk.

There’s a moment of hushed excitement before the lights come up, music erupts from the speakers and the models come out, an identikit, 50-strong army marching at the rate of about one footstep per second. There are no twirls for the cameras, no smiles and absolutely no individual flair. All have hair, fixed with red flowers senorita-style and red lipstick to match the theatrical red backdrop. The show starts 35 minutes late and lasts approximately 10 minutes.

Yes, 10 minutes – blink and you’re in danger of missing it. Looking down from my vantage point, the first few rows are a picture of concentration, lines of heads turn slowly as if perfectly choreographed. All too soon, the models form a pack, walking en masse from one end of the catwalk to the other and back, briefly forming a backdrop for the Italian fashion royalty of Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana to come out and wave, as if embarrassed, to the cheering audience. Their appearance is fleeting, lasting seconds, and then it’s all over. The audience dashes for the door and on to the next show – Wintour is helped through the crush by minders in grey silk suits – and the debris of tickets is all that remains.

Four days earlier, at my show debut courtesy of Etro, I’d been perched on a tiny, paisley-printed silk cushion, a good few inches too small for my frame but seemingly perfectly in proportion with most of the size-6 audience who were busy “swapping” cushions before all the seats on the benches were taken. “You can’t steal someone else’s cushion,” I begin to admonish my neighbour. “Relax,” she says, “this is Milan. I like this one more.” Etro’s show starts with a “ssh”, before The Doors’ Riders on the Storm launches the fleet of stalking clotheshorses and a collection of Navajo-inspired designs. After the show, Linda Fargo, known as the eyes of Bergdorf Goodman department store in New York, is happy to pose for a photograph. What did she think of the show? “So beautiful,” she says graciously. She’s wearing a Tamara Mellon black fringed-leather skirt that is both perfectly in keeping with the Etro vibe and also perfectly on-trend for autumn.

Needless to say, I’m not on trend for anything, having packed in about 20 minutes with the “help” of two small children who seem to have removed key items from my already slim selection of clothes that may or may not go together (mainly the latter). I’ve also made the mistake of packing French labels for Italian fashion week, so today I’ve opted for an anonymous, quirky look with a denim shirt, silver skirt and designer silk scarf that says, at best: “I’m not from round here.”

It’s a poor excuse, but I quickly realise that no one is looking at me. Why? Outside every venue, there’s a scrum of photographers and a crowd of people all celeb spotting and competing to be photographed in wacky – sorry – striking outfits. Most are not there to see the show but be part of the sideshow outside on the pavement. There’s a Wyclef Jean lookalike, someone with a jewellery-strewn woollen balaclava over her face, countless billionaire girlfriends with long bare legs and rubber lips, and models, hanging out post-show for their lift to the next catwalk. There’s an element of carnival and it’s not hard to see why catwalk commentators who see five or six shows a day opt for a wardrobe of immaculately cut but quiet clothes. Not for them a 20-minute anxiety attack over a non-matching handbag. The handbag won, by the way.

If Dolce & Gabbana’s show provides energy and spectacle, the atmosphere before Giorgio Armani’s show is one of well-mannered but suppressed excitement. Giorgio Armani is the show around which all of fashion week revolves, or rather his two shows, such are his Milanese fashion credentials. A short film by Paolo Sorrentino entitled Sabbia (Sand), starring the 80-year-old designer Armani’s dog, opens the show, projecting myriad images of sandy beaches and inviting sea blues onto the back wall. The clothes that follow to bursts of spontaneous applause feature sheer fabrics in muted colours printed with patterns of rippled sand and wisps of sequinned tops and dresses that somehow evoke delicate sea spray. I discard labels like “conservative” that are often used to disparage Armani’s work and from the comfort of my theatre-style chair (finally, something with arms and a generous seat pad), I appreciate the enormous skill involved.

The crowd in and outside each show is as different as the looks on the catwalks. Roberto Cavalli and Versace attract a flashier following. I’m late to Cavalli – the knock-on effect of Giorgio Armani’s inevitably late start – and I face the dilemma of having to try to work out where I’m meant to be seated when hundreds of tailored backsides are obscuring the numbers. With seconds to spare, I eject the protesting impostors from the third row to enjoy an unusual cocktail of body-conscious glamour, crocodile skin and soft, almost pretty lace.

At Versace, where Heidi Klum defies her age in a short black dress and thigh boots, the vibe is almost sci-fi. Klum is bathed in a peculiar golden glow, while the rest of us turn an envious green under the unforgiving spotlights. It takes me a little while to determine that Klum’s halo comes courtesy of a television camera and not her own natural radiance. The catwalk is Perspex, lit from below with blazing white light with zigzags of colour to complement the blaze of microcrystal-embellished mini dresses that’s about to appear; the walls and floor are lined with white felt and the atmosphere is decidedly chilly.

Standing behind me, a 50-something Englishwoman is staunchly unimpressed: “I hope I don’t get ill from this,” she moans. A little girl wisely ignores her neighbours’ complaints. She’s about 14 years old and radiates excitement. How will she remember this moment, I wonder? Completely at ease, legs crossed on my narrow Perspex chair, I feel like turning around to her tight-lipped friend and saying: “Relax. This is ­Milan, you know.”

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