In Italy the designers Dolce&Gabbana are for gross women

In Italy nobody drives in the slow lane, colloquially called the lane of shame. So it’s somewhat of a mystery why the Italian fashion industry, one of the primary engines of the Italian economy, continues to putter along year after year doing 50 while China, Eastern Europe, India and — aesthetically if not economically — even France go whizzing past.

In terms of volume of production, Italy remains a force, one illustration of this being the sheer scope of the seasonal fashion weeks here. No fewer than 228 runway shows are noted in Milan’s official seven-day calendar; a free fashion handout thicker than a “Bleak House” paperback lists 61 solidly packed pages of showrooms that are open to buyers and the press.

Yet to be honest, there are no more than a handful of shows that anyone cares about or that the ever-expanding posse of international press and buyers has come to Milan eager to see.

At this point there is Bottega Veneta. There is Jil Sander. There is Prada. There is Gucci. (Maybe also Marni.) Two of these are designed by Italians (the others are designed by a German and a Belgian, respectively), and at this point Miuccia Prada is as ambivalent about national identity as one can be and still qualify for a passport. Beginning last year, Ms. Prada made even clearer the shakiness of her allegiance to what’s termed the Italian fashion system when she packed up her Miu Miu show and started staging it in Paris.

What happened? Designers like Armani, whose brands are now global behemoths, once also dominated the aesthetic side of the fashion business. Why does Italy seem like it was run off the road?

“Italy has a big, big problem, which is that there is no generational change,” said Ennio Capasa, the designer of Costume National, a respected but largely commercial label that is, in typical eccentric fashion, commemorating its 21st anniversary this year. “Designwise, factorywise, in terms of the bureaucracy, we’re behind.”

It is not just, as many suggest, that Italy, long renowned for its textiles, its handcrafts and its high aesthetic standards, has lost large hunks of its manufacturing market to Eastern Europe, China and India. Plenty of people here will tell you that the China experiment has not necessarily worked out. Cheap foreign copies of Italian luxury goods are fine, but not fine enough, apparently, to satisfy the trained eyes and high expectations of people spoiled by the access they’ve always had to the best artisans around, workers whose skills have been transmitted across centuries.

You don’t hear the word used explicitly, but the quality missing from fashion here now is what Italians refer to as raffinatezza, or refinement. This is not a small detail in a country historically defined almost entirely by its visual culture. What has replaced it in part is the tackiness and vulgarity of which America once claimed the dominant market share. American pop culture at this point is largely vapid and formless. What is Paris Hilton but a cloud of pastel ectoplasm, its molecules barely sticky enough to hold form?

Italian pop culture produces its own manifestations, one being the careers of the designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, whose status as media deities owes less to their design skills than to their genius for tapping into a youth culture just as dumb as its American counterpart but visually definable in terms of hardness, or what’s called here durezza.

Let other designers make clothes that look chic or classy. Dolce & Gabbana seems satisfied to have built a nearly $1 billion privately owned company on the sartorial wisdom of the ragazzi, the street kids, dressing a generation that, as is often reported, reads perhaps a book a year and watches more television daily (240 minutes on average) than almost any other similar population in Europe.

It was the filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini who first pronounced doom on Italy’s aesthetic and moral standards based on the decadence he saw emanating from the boob tube. But that was eons before the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi created his mediagarchy, before Domenico and Stefano became television regulars, before the country’s biggest porn star, Rocco Siffredi, became a snack foods huckster featured in commercials for Amica potato chips whose tag line uses a double entrendre that is slang for a part of the female anatomy.

Like most eggheads of the period, Pasolini decried the vulgarization of culture by the ubiquitous new medium. Yet in Pasolini’s day, Italy could still be said to have a vital literary, artistic and cinematic scene to counter the television’s evil rays. Even the applied forms like fashion then embodied an image of Italy as a holdout of refined tradition and Italians as the guardians and arbiters of patrician ways.

That this fantasy has not altogether faded can be seen in the press obsession with Lapo Elkann, reprobate grandson of Gianni Agnelli, the former Fiat chief. Despite repeated drug binges, stints in rehab, his overdose in the apartment of a middle-aged transvestite, Mr. Elkann is invariably seen as a paragon of elegance. Mostly this is because he wears his grandfather’s clothes.

There is a particularly Italian message in the fact that, no matter what kind of antics Mr. Elkann gets up to, his inherited hand-me-downs possess the magical power to restore him to moral rectitude.

It’s this raffinatezza that seems to have gone, either leaving the country or ignored by designers whose idea of fashion is a leopard-print frock for a trollop-slash-starlet or the 99th iteration of whiskered jeans.

“I’m not sure it will ever come back,” Mr. Capasa of Costume National said, referring to the refinement of Italian fashion and the sense of Italy as a generator of style and innovative ideas. “At the top level of power, there are just a few brands left,” and, he added, very little space left for either traditional labels or new blood.

“They have to embrace the future,” Anna Wintour, the Vogue editor, said at the Armani show on Monday, referring to the Camera Nazionale, the trade group that regulates the Italian fashion industry. Slow to promote novelty or young designers, the group has been accused of being old-fashioned, resistant, entrenched.

“There are wonderful, talented people here, but it’s always the same names,” Ms. Wintour said. “Where is the support? Where is the sponsorship? You have to embrace the future of fashion and look for the next generation.”

And if that doesn’t happen, it is no stretch to imagine a day when the fast-lane folks who run global fashion will decide to skip the Milan exit in their haste to find the next great place.