Milan Fashion Week: runway report 3

“Of course I thought about it,” said Miuccia Prada backstage after her show. “How could you not? But then I thought: there’s no real way to deal with it, except by just doing your job. As good a job as possible.”

“It” was the situation in Italy, which is pretty much the only topic of conversation these days in Milan, even runwayside, and “doing your job” translates, effectively, into “making clothes people want to buy”, and hence pumping money into the economy.

It’s as good a conclusion as any for how a product-oriented industry can address a political situation, yet it can prove elusive in fashion, especially during the shows, when the commercial (what sells) can be either subsumed by the conceptual (what gets people taking pictures), or become the motor that drives designers to the safest common denominator (what worked once, or 10 times, before).

“As good a job as possible,” however, turned out to be among the best Prada shows in a long time: both commercial and provocative, it glorified and subverted many clichés of femininity, all at the same time. In the world where the economic conditions could produce “the End of Men”, it celebrated the complications, and ambivalence surrounding the ascent of women.

Not that Mrs Prada said that, exactly. What she said was that she was thinking about “raw elegance” and “impossibilities: the impossibility of being really romantic in contemporary society; how you have to control your feelings all the time”. And that she wanted to take the high, low, and vice versa; the sporty, chic. Movies came into it somehow, too (there was a video backdrop and a Hitchock sort of an air).

All of which can sound a bit like fashion hooey, except it made perfect sense in the melting pot context of her clothes, which exuded a sense of frustration with the demand, as well as the desire, to be beautiful. After all, no matter how much you want to look good, there is so much else to do of a morning.

So a 1950s silhouette – curvy, belted at the waist, with a just-below-the-knee skirt – was deconstructed and slightly destroyed: the top undone just enough to fall off one shoulder, revealing a grey jumper underneath, and a straight skirt on one side combined with a longer, A-line version on the other to create an unsettling asymmetry. Neat suit jackets had thick, brightly coloured ribbing through the waist, belted or not, and extravagant fur cuffs; evening versions came half jet-embroidered, half nubby tweed; and gingham mixed with bright red and blue leather and glinting metallics. It was grown-up and alluring and easy to wear, in pretty much any permutation

By contrast, at Moschino designer Rosella Jardini seemed to have resorted to option number three: the kitschiest elements of sartorial youth cliché, including such stale tropes as Scotland, the 1960s, the wild west, and gender-bending. Still, that’s potentially fine as a starting point – as long as these ingredients then get transformed, modernised, or otherwise reinterpreted in a designer’s mind, and atelier. In this case, unfortunately, that did not happen.

From tartan three-piece suits and mini-kilts, to red riding jacket-coats with velvet riding hats, drop-waisted white-collared Jolie Madame dresses, fringed suede coats and trousers embroidered with roses, and pinstriped flannels (with bow ties, natch), it was bereft of substance; or the reflexive addition of such typical Moschino one-liners as gold-embroidered hearts with an M inside, signature.

If you want to drive people into stores you have to give them something that doesn’t look drained of ideas. Even if that’s an accurate reflection of what you consider the paucity of thought outside.

At least at Etro, Veronica Etro pushed the boundaries of past into the present, and considered the evolution of women’s roles (and the clothes to match). Interestingly – echoes of Prada – she said she had been struck by the reality that life now was “not about pretty, not about romance, but about being strong. Women have to be part warrior, and maybe part biker, but they also carry within them the memory of the past.”

What this meant was combining traditional print references (cathedral vaults, tapestries, 19th-century ceramics) with overlaid digitised geometrics and motorcycle detailing on trousers and jackets, as well as lots of big zips. It was more successful in theory than in practice – one caviar-beaded evening dress with acid yellow “spires” looked more animal print-gone-awry; some of the combinations were simply too complicated – but pared down to colour-blocked trousers under a sleeveless coat with contrasting knit, or a simple sheath with zips running up the sleeves, it had forward momentum. Here was someone trying, very actively, to do her job.

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