"It's not a time to be ostentatious with clothes," said Tomas Maier backstage at Bottega Veneta, fingering an artfully faded-out floral-sprigged print on a tea-stained cotton shirtdress. "But our customer has never been like that. And it's not about seasonal dressing anymore—that's gone. People like clothes they can collect and wear for years." Maier's alertness to the sensitivities of our troubled times is part of an emerging picture in Milan. His version of downbeat luxury in muted browns—caramel through dark saffron, copper, and chestnut—is actually no less expensive in the execution of amazing fabric treatments and handcrafted leathers than it's ever been. But intuitive designers cannot help but figure collective anxieties in their work, and something in this collection—albeit at the highest-flown level of sophistication—speaks of the need to hold on to permanent values, to lie low and even, maybe, stay home.

That is something of a turnaround for a label aimed at the outgoing high achievers of the world. It wasn't so obvious at the outset, when Maier's minimal leather pinafores, olive-drab jumpsuits, and over-the-head mushroom dresses looked like a quieter version of business as usual. But the second half of the show held the surprise: shirtwaisters and dirndls in fabrics inspired by frayed curtains, antique wallpaper, and furnishings that roused a fleeting but distinct sense of the American prairie, threadbare times, and the colors of the dust bowl.