Prada plays with feminine stereotypes on the runway at Milan

“I wanted to be nasty. I’m fed up with everything.”

So said Miuccia Prada after her emphatic spring/summer show, which looked at the debate over women’s roles without flinching.

“I know it’s a political discourse,” said Mrs Prada, “but I wanted to say what I could through clothes.”

It’s rare, if not unheard of, these days for a big global brand to take a stance on any issue; worried about inadvertently offending potential consumers and losing a lucrative revenue source, they waffle, avoiding commitment. Hemlines are high – or they are low. Trousers are tight – but they can also be wide. Coats are light as air – except when they are fur. Shoes are sky high – and completely flat. And so on.

This is, of course, not a problem endemic to fashion, as the past few weeks in Washington and Westminster have shown, and given that fashion’s job is to reflect reality, perhaps the something-for-everyone nature of many collections should not be a surprise.

Giorgio Armani described the situation fairly succinctly when he summed up his Emporio Armani show as “poised between realism and abstraction” as well as “nature” and “high technology” – which translated as wide pleated trousers cropped at the ankle, or pulled legging slim with ribbed elastic finishes, and a multitude of jackets: cropped satin trenches; loose men's numbers; double-breasted quasi-military looks, and so on.

Models came two at a time, prints mimicked pastel tropicana and monochrome computer coding, and evening offered both baby doll dresses and conservative trouser suiting – either way covered in sparkling crystals. Such optionality is theoretically good for a shopper, but it’s not necessarily helpful when it comes to moving sensibilities forward; it lacks a sense of commitment. It’s safe, which has its own drawbacks. As many brands seem to, finally, understand.

At least at Antonio Marras, for example, there was no question what the clothes stood for: the evolution from naive craft to couture (and back). Quoting Ovid, the designer sent out a host of rococo fabrics – lace and brocade and duchesse satin and patent and tapestry, sometimes featuring oversize prints of roses and butterflies, sometimes collaged on to rough linen and sewn on with obvious stitching – in classic shapes, from the pencil skirt exploding in a ruffle at the hem to the trapeze coat and the strapless cocktail dress.

It was a high-calorie mix that demanded a fairly strong stomach, but it had an identifiable taste, as did Etro, where Veronica Etro went back to the brand’s roots via an all-print all-the-time series of Ottoman Empire-meets-Indo-China halter dresses, easy cargo trousers, metallic vests and relaxed blouses.

“I had some solids, but I took them out,” she admitted backstage. “They broke up the rhythm.” Pointing at a small paisley print, she announced, “that’s my new black.” There will undoubtedly be those who favour literalism over such aesthetic poetic licence and reject the contention, but even then, there’s a value to actually provoking a reaction.

And it underscores just why the Prada show, which stood as a repudiation of milquetoast fashion, was so resoundingly successful. In front of five enormous murals, alternately cartoonish and surreal, commissioned from five young muralists and street artists – El Mac, Mesa, Gabriel Specter, Stinkfish, Jeanne Detallante and Pierre Mornet – all specifically tasked by Prada to “paint women’s faces and bodies, though strangely, they avoided the body,” Mrs Prada sent out a stomping parade of mixed-up feminine stereotypes and by transforming them, owned them.

There were burlesque references to woman-as-sex-object in sequinned and pailletted bra tops, sometimes on their own, sometimes worn over straight, woman-as-executive coats, sometimes matched with schoolgirl pleated skirts or street girl ribbed athletic sweaters and leg warmers.

There were giant faces lifted from the murals and placed off-centre on garments, staring out in challenge (it’s a difficult look, literally and on the body, but highly commercial when transferred to a bag), and there were strapless bustier-topped dresses dripping in encrustation.

There was fur and colour and a bit of visual overload, and among it all were little oases of undecorated calm. None of this was especially new – these are all shapes and references Prada has done before – but by layering them one atop the other the designer created a convincing argument about the fluidity of female identity, and drew a line of continuity through her own work, often held up as an example of fashion’s constant obsession with change. Here was proof that, though the look may veer between extremes, the idea can stay the same.

And she did it, Mrs Prada said later, because, as a woman, “if you shout loud enough, sometimes it can force people to pay attention.” Certainly, with this collection, whether you wanted to wear all the clothes or not was beside the point; it was hard to look away.

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