At milan fashion week, show-goers wear masks but seem incapable of social distancing. fans and street-style photographers cluster outside show venues. at max maras show, a well-known italian stylist crossed the catwalk and plopped herself, maskless, on the bench i had been assigned, to get a better view of the models streaming across the cobbled courtyard of the accademia di brera. there is a crush to exit venues; over loudspeakers, security staff warn guests then plead with them to walk out one row at a time. it is futile.

There is perhaps a false sense of security. italys covid-19 cases, though rising, are much lower than elsewhere in europe, hovering around 1,500 new infections a day.

There are very few international attendees at fashion week. when italy announced two days before the shows began that all french visitors would need to take a covid-19 test before entering, most editors cancelled their flights. the americans arent here. nor are the chinese. two of kerings biggest brands, gucci and bottega veneta, are absent from the schedule.

Yet many houses have ploughed ahead with shows, seating audiences between a 10th and a third their normal size a metre apart. ferragamo chief executive micaela le divelec lemmi said: [it is] important to signal that things need to slowly return to normal. ian griffiths, the debonair englishman who has led design at max mara for the past decade, said it was important for italy.

On thursday, he sent out models in soft, luxurious and utilitarian garments for the wfh era: sweatshirts with blouson sleeves in the brands signature beige, a jumpsuit with an elastic waist and cuffs (also beige), cashmere wrap coats with slit sleeves, and ankle-length skirts with apron-pocket fronts. a simple, neutral palette left the eye free to linger on the details.

Many people wont be going back to the office five days a week, or to parties and dinners, griffiths said. his collection was designed for women who are now working primarily from home and will want something special for those two days in the office, he said. it becomes like an event in itself.

Hugo boss designer ingo wilts approached his spring/summer collection with a similar pragmatism. the german label is a destination for the traditional business suit, which has been steadily losing traction in the west (and has yet to take off meaningfully in china, if it ever will). the company is making a decisive move towards casualisation, the accompanying notes said, and the catwalk was heavy with hoodies, drawstring pants in technical fabrics and bomber jackets with ruched sleeves or covered in floral embroidery. it was pure, clean, luxe. it didnt push the fashion dial forward, but as a means of signalling bosss new(ish) direction, it worked.

The covid-19 crisis has taken its toll on italian fashion. analysts at bain estimate the personal luxury goods sector will see sales fall by a third this year. executives here speak gloomily of the appetite for luxury in north america and europe; with lockdown restrictions tightening in much of europe, the second-half rebound they were banking on is feeling increasingly precarious.

That has put more commercial pressure on designers, who are in the difficult position of trying to imagine what kind of lives their western customers will be living in four to six months, when these collections will land in stores, while appealing to young shoppers in china, who are driving the sectors growth. palettes have been conservative and surprisingly consistent there has been a lot of white, beige, caramel and a pale blue that fendi called sky, boss called blue and alberta ferretti didnt name. logos have been supersized.

That was the case at prada and at tods, where designer walter chiapponi, who joined the label from bottega veneta last year, blew up the letter t, working it in leather and stamping it on the pockets of casual cotton jackets and on leather bags.

His collection, which included mens and womens, was rich in texture and in its combination of colours: caramel, navy and lavender; ecru and pink against aquamarine. it was a nice break from all the beige. every shoe style was new, and ran the gamut from the traditional (loafers, a kitten mule) to the adventurous (a foamy knit ballerina trainer that tied at the ankles).

Carlo alberto beretta, the former chief executive of bottega veneta who joined tods as general manager a year and a half ago, said chiapponi is drawing an entirely new shopper to the brand. about half of its customers are first-time buyers, and they are younger, he said. he spoke positively of the brands performance in china and korea, but observed that the us market remained difficult. he, like many other executives in italy, is closely following the upcoming presidential election.

Stefano gabbana and domenico dolce have a way of soldiering through uncertainty. they never stopped staging physical fashion shows during the covid-19 crisis, hosting a catwalk event for their mens collection in milan in july, and for their extravagant alta moda and alta sartoria lines in florence in early september.

Their show on wednesday evening was a shock to the senses. patchwork was the theme, carried, in true dolce fashion, to the nth degree: it covered the walls, the carpet, the masks handed out to guests, and every last stitch of clothing.

The designers, who took their bow in masks after the show, said they wanted to celebrate sicilian craftsmanship and sicilys multicultural heritage. for a brand that has not always embraced cultural diversity its online debacle in china in 2018 still weighs heavily on its image and bottom line it was a nice thing to see. it suggested a bit of soul-searching.

But there was no paring back. dolce showed 98 looks a number that would have passed without comment in a normal season, but looked excessive amid a climate crisis and a pandemic. it could have used more focus.

Milan is dominated by big-name brands. few new names have emerged from the city in the new millennium; something the camera nazionale della moda, italian fashions governing body, has acknowledged is an issue.

Six-year-old sunnei, founded by designers loris messina and simone rizzo, is one of the rare young brands to rise to the surface. the company announced it had sold a minority stake for 6m to vanguards, a new fashion group founded by nanushka chief executive peter baldaszti, the day before its show, which was held in literally inside a drained-out pool on thursday evening.

It was easy to see the labels appeal, with its clean shapes and inventive proportions. i especially liked a long, butter-coloured tunic layered over a skirt gathered at the knee and hemmed at the ankle. at the prada press conference following raf simons and miuccia pradas debut as co-creative directors, simons said it was up to young designers to introduce truly new ideas to fashion. lets hope theres more to come here.