MILAN – What are we really looking at when we look at a fashion show?
Images of runway collections are universally available online. Live streams can make it feel as if you’re in the room. But what are we really seeing? How are we supposed to evaluate what we’re seeing?
Runway shows have gotten heavy with ideas. Designers will name-drop art, commerce, capitalism, politics, obscure historic figures – you name it – backstage, and it is usually impossible to make the connection between a designer’s stated inspirations and what you see in the clothes. TikTok teaches us to look at fashion shows for styling ideas or source material for dupes (the extremely online term for cheap knockoffs). We are encouraged to scour through looks for red-carpet contenders. Or we look to runways to give us the next “trend” – which is really just a shorthand these days for “Can you believe some people are actually wearing this?”
And as the ideas have gotten bigger, the clothes have gotten cheaper. They are viscose or polyester or mysteriously “recycled,” flimsily carrying the weight of these outsize ideas that fail to translate in the real world, or even on a store mannequin or celebrity. Many collections, especially so far this fashion season, feel like pointless parades of stuff, engineered as neutral or inoffensive merch for the brands’ marketing departments. You just look at it and think, “Who wants this, and why?” And you feel nothing.
For as popular as fashion shows seem to be these days, looking at a runway show and taking away a message seems like a lost art.
Along comes Prada.
A Prada show is always an antidote to the established notions of beauty and even the purpose of fashion. (Though there is always something to assuage the status quo – here, it was the presence of Kylie Jenner in a black turtleneck and chandelier miniskirt.) Backstage on Thursday, after their Spring 2024 Milan Fashion Week show, Miuccia Prada (known in the biz as Mrs. Prada) and her co-creative director Raf Simons talked about clothes and clothes alone. There are “too many ideas, [instead of] talking about clothes,” Mrs. Prada, who has a PhD in political science and a world-class grasp of contemporary art and is the fashion world’s intellectual heroine, mused backstage. “Let’s talk about clothes. Because it seems sometimes clothes are neglected. But that is our job. It’s what we do.”
These are clothes meant to be admired as beautiful garments rather than spinning some tale: a gorgeous floating organza cocktail dress, barn jackets over fringed skirts, dresses and skirts embellished with a 1920s-ish spray of sequins, great leather. Simple fashion pleasures: a casual jacket over a fancy dress, a wool suit that does a little something extra (the oversize jacket tucked into high-waisted trousers seemed like something Adrian Greenberg might design for one of his screwball heroines), sparkly clothes and fringe designed to dazzle a dinner companion beneath candlelight. They aren’t about politics, feminism, consumer culture, the environment, the designers, whatever. (Though a Freudian analyst may beg to differ.) They are instead meant to be beautiful and interesting things to wear.
The news release was not the usual fashion show meander of clunky terms and philosophies, but just a list of the looks. (“4. Suit in wool.”) And in real fabrics – wool, cotton, leather, organza.
Simons also spoke backstage about focusing on technique, on the making of the clothes, of the care and process of applying the spangles to velvets and leather. (That is a carry-over from their fall 2024 collection, whose white shoes with origami details and wedding-meets-nurse style dresses and skirts have been the uniform of showgoers this season). It was clothing made without the deafening noise of marketing. The results: beautifully embellished, unusual but not freakish, desirable to a woman richly in touch with her inner fantasy world.
The show accentuated a fundamental reason fashion shows exist, and what we are supposed to gather from all these cues: the music, styling, shapes and movement, coming together to stir an emotional response. It’s the admiration of something lovely you haven’t seen before, watching it float down the runway, and negotiating where you see yourself in the slightly alien fantasy before you. Maybe it is a little perverse or even disturbing – the show’s soundtrack featured the prelude from “Vertigo,” the Hitchcock masterpiece about imitation and surrendering yourself to the fantasies of others – but you are somehow called to see if you can find yourself there. (Actually, “Vertigo” is a fascinating allegory for the mechanics of fashion.)
A great fashion designer is both seductress and agitator – could you? Would you? Go on – it looks crazy, but do it anyway! How can you resist?!
Fashion people love Prada because it makes you think – Mrs. Prada takes familiar or classic clothing tropes and reveals ideas about the world that you can turn endlessly over in your head. (What can be said? Even the most devoted garmento is a little paranoid that they aren’t taken seriously because they don’t deserve to be.) But this show was a testament to the triumph of the emotional over the intellectual. One dress, called “Haze,” was repeated eight times in different colors, with ribbonlike swaths of organza and gazar that floated over the air as models walked – a funny clash with streams of slime that poured down the middle of the runway. There was really nothing to think about during this show except how funny and eerie the goo was, how lovely that dress looked going by over and over and over. Poetic, pretty and strange. Nothing more or less. A pretty dress is as simple and old a pleasure as fresh-cut grass or a cold drink. But of course, simple pleasures are the hardest to achieve.
And it was a haughty prank on the overtrumped conceits of luxury brands. Everything these days seems to be a luxury brand – begging you to buy something cheap (yet somehow overpriced?) based on the fumes of something you’re told is far out of your reach. Instead, Simons and Mrs. Prada’s collection seemed to contend, what if you just made clothes out of actual fabrics that were really nice, and that people wanted?
The simplicity of the idea is almost humorous. Isn’t this what big European luxury houses are supposed to do? But many have lost their way. Here are two designers willing to rise to the occasion of making things that actually warrant their price tag. Or at the very least, stir desire in people. As one showgoer said to another on the way out: “That was mega shoppable.”