A question hovering over the fashion industry for months is whether by bringing Raf Simons on as co-creative director, Miuccia Prada could advance the story of Prada. The question goes far beyond the fortunes of Prada, which, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, saw revenue declines for a number of years. It matters to the industry as a whole. Because there are fewer and fewer proposals on runways that stir the collective imagination — the way, say, that the early Celine collections of Phoebe Philo, or Prada herself once could. Designers now tend to lean on a clever show production and not the actual clothes to generate excitement. And without clothes that kindle real desire, what’s the point? We might just as well have an industry of celebrities “designing” stuff.
The quick answer to the question is yes: Prada and Simons, in their debut today, did advance the story. The first clue of a fresh approach was the set — a square room curtained in buttery yellow with matching plush carpet, and several black cameras and monitors suspended from the ceiling like chandeliers. They provided ornament as well as function. The room, in fact, suggested a couture salon but without nostalgia. Rather than pretending we were all in the room, the cameras were a matter-of-fact nod to the fact that we were all watching this on screens. Since this was their first outing as a double act, and since millions of people were probably tuned in at 2 p.m. Milan time, Prada and Simons were wise to skip a live show before a partial and masked audience. But the simple set up (by the firm OMA/AMO) is significant for another reason: it breaks the pattern of years of Prada shows with conceptual backdrops. That method had started to seem formulaic. So this is a brand-new chapter.
The collection was about uniforms — that was obvious from the outset, from the repeated use of plain shell tops with matching trousers and sling-back, kitten-heel shoes, and the many versions of airy coats clutched at the front by the models, or wraps in all kinds of fabrics, including taffeta and regenerated nylon. What I loved most about the collection was the sense of community that Simons and Prada imparted — the community of fashion, past and present.
They did this in a number of ways. One way was to reconnect with their own work — for example, the retro prints that Prada first launched in 1996 and which introduced a new generation to the notion of “ugly chic.” The print was now realized as a full, below-the-knee skirt worn with a matching anorak printed with words like “mirage” and “echo! echo!” in black. The words harken to Simons’s design history that his fans will recognize. Indeed, the person who helped with the text, Peter de Potter, is a longtime collaborator. He also manipulated the triangular Prada logo that appears on backpacks and leather goods. Mostly the results were abstract, but sometimes the blown-up logo appeared at the neck of a shell — a minimalist substitute for jewelry (and perhaps an allusion to Prada herself and her love of antique jewels). The logo also inspired fabulous open triangle gold earrings.
I felt that Prada and Simons were talking to the audiences that have followed them individually for years, in a language they probably alone understand — like a treasure hunt for the true fans. The full skirts worn with thick, tucked-in sweaters seemed a reference to Prada’s personal style. The jersey turtleneck tops layered under the sweater are a favorite Simons’s effect. The pops of rich color from the sling-backs made me think of his first successful collections as a women’s designer, at Jil Sander, around 2006–07. The couture gestures — done best with the wrap, semi-sporty coats — unite the interest of both designers in craft. They also have a shared history using flowers in subversive ways. This time it was an exploding red floral print on white that could be read as blood splatters. (Shades of Simons’s work for Calvin Klein, specifically.)
But the conversation also went beyond them. I wondered if the jersey and wooly tops with random holes was a nod to a pioneering punk collection (1982) by Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons.
Very few collections manage to speak directly to the hard-core enthusiasts and at the same time stoke a desire in a new fashion uniform. Clearly, Prada and Simons recognized that the second aim was paramount. It was refreshing to see the simple shell tops with the straight trousers (a version in black with a matching clutch coat would make a great evening look; timeless, too) and the feminine, easy silhouette of the full skirts.
As Prada said in a Q&A session with Simons that followed the digital presentation, “We hope that you can enjoy and see maybe the clothes better, which is a very important point for the two of us.” And given the strangeness of this time, it helped that the clothes had a human scale and feeling. The collection really sets the bar high for the rest of industry. No small thing.