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Max Mara -- RESORT 2023

It was 8:34 in the gardens of Lisbon’s Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation this evening when the colorful parakeets that had been watching from the treetops suddenly stirred, shrieking into the sky. They had sensed the beginnings of a gust of Atlantic wind that ruffled the carefully set plumage of the curated pandemonium of parakeets watching below—a company including local clients and luminaries, Claire Danes, Lee Ji-ah, Lara Worthington, and influencers aplenty, plus a few drab pigeon writers. Most of all, this gust threw the full pleated taffeta skirt of a deep green shirtdress dramatically into the air around the runway as its model descended towards us, as if instead of walking she was dancing to the longing fado of the singer Carminho, who had just walked this Max Mara resort runway a few looks before.

The house’s designer, Ian Griffiths, was touring this museum last year when he spotted a portrait of the poet and activist Natália Correia, a largely faded name (even domestically) who in the mid-20th century was at the center of Lisbon society. Her Anthology of Erotic and Satirical Portuguese Poetry was considered beyond the moral pale by the authoritarian (and of course male) “authorities” of her time. She also founded Bar Botequim, an intellectual salon and watering hole through which drifted names including Eugene Ionesco, Henry Miller, and Amalia Rodrigues, the Callas of fado.

“She always rejected the title of muse,” said Griffiths, who was also inspired by her then (and in certain countries also now) refusal to be marginalized and controlled. “There is something very voluptuous and sensual—although never ribald—about her language and attitude to love and passion. She was extremely luxurious, on her own terms.”

In dress, Correia favored shapes of the time, pencil skirts and wiggle dresses. By combining this mental image with the unapologetic passion and emotion of fado, Griffiths found his formula—one that was energized and vivified by the participation of Carminho. As well as providing the soundtrack and wearing the collection’s cipher garment, a black wiggle dress that channeled the spirit of Correia, Carminho had also performed at an opening dinner the night before. It was fork-droppingly beautiful, and demanded instant playlist inclusion.

Very simplistically, the collection was divided into three sections. The first was rooted in the house language of Max Mara—so we saw teddy coats, some cutely cut to gilets, the famous cashmere coat in a shortened version, great sensual tailoring, and those narrow but not constricting skirt shapes. Fishnets and cashmere hems trimmed with lines of pleating added that push-pull of repression and expression, or acceptance and repentance, that so dictates the swing of passion’s pendulum in a catholic context.

Another layer to the mood music came via pieces decorated with imagery drawn from artisans expert in Lenços de namorados do Minho, also known—Griffiths shared—as “handkerchiefs of love”: squares of linen with hand-stitched love symbols. The crescendo though was the section of which that thrown-to-the-winds shirtdress was a part: long skirts accompanied by matching knitwear patched with beaded sea-creature brooches, plus dresses in various cuts and beautiful block colorways in deep intense shades. Proud, powerful, sensual—but never ribald—they were finely harmonized with Max Mara’s core identity and community, and also finely attuned to the context of the place and time.

And there was one last twist in this excellent resort show: For the first time in the company’s 40-something year runway history, a man walked the show. This history-maker, Martim Morais, wore the camel coat that is the house’s defining grail—its Birkin—that Griffiths said he had decided publicly to acknowledge is not only such to women. He added that the puntino stitched wrap coat, “was always a cultural phenomenon because it gave women what had always been seen as an emblem of male authority, a camel coat. And for years men have been choosing to buy it too.” He added that nothing about Morais’s example was different to those produced as “womenswear.”

During the finale Morais came out in a finely cut pair of pants and green sweater that looked rather excellent too. Sadly, the line continues that Max Mara has no plans to make “menswear.” Yet that doesn’t mean men let the winds of broader societal change guide them to a house that has always set its own admirable tempo, never loudly but deeply.

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