“Immigration, famine, pessimism”: Prada puts on an of-the-moment men’s show in Milan while Gucci stays playful

Layers on layers.
Layers on layers.
Image: AP Photo/Luca Bruno
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A fashion show is an opportunity to make a statement. The clothes may keep talking well beyond their brief jaunt down the catwalk, but when all eyes are focused on what’s coming down the runway, that’s the moment when designers have their best opportunity to communicate, to the largest audience possible, why their clothes matter, if they do at all.

At the Milan men’s shows, Jan. 15 to Jan. 19, two of the biggest names in Italian fashion, Prada and Gucci, presented their fall 2016 collections, and their statements couldn’t have been more different. Both offered up a bit of fantasy, in the sense that these are still luxury brands that thrive on creating worlds their customers will want to buy into. But while Prada’s version was all about contending with the real world, Gucci’s felt like a retreat from it, into a hermetic bubble.

At Prada, Miuccia Prada offered up a presentation that’s widely being praised as her best men’s show in years. The clothes, which offered numerous smart, wearable pieces, came layered with ideas. There were nautical overtones in the sailor hats and handsome peacoats, but also a sense of distress evoked by dangling shirt cuffs, wholly detached coat collars, and fabrics that were washed and patched as if from wear and travel. The subtle suggestion was of migration and turmoil, from which it wasn’t hard to leap to thoughts of the refugee crisis in Europe, one critic noted.

Models wear creations for Prada men's Fall-Winter 2016-2017 collection, part of Milan Fashion Week, unveiled in Milan, Italy, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016.
Immigration, famine, assassination, pessimism.
Image: AP Photo/Luca Bruno

The famously intelligent Prada, who has a PhD in political science, would never be so obtuse as to make that the main backdrop for a show of expensive clothes. But it was evident she was reflecting on current events. “Immigration, famine, assassination, pessimism,” she listed off to Vogue. The setting was a town square, where everyone might interact and exchange ideas, and references to Che Guevara and Sigmund Freud appeared in prints by artist Christophe Chemin. It was beautiful clothing made in response to thinking about the world.

At Gucci, on the other hand, creative director Alessandro Michele continues to present clothes hinting he’d like nothing more than to hide in the attic of the world’s richest, most eccentric grandparents and play dress up in their stuff. The fabrics were sumptuous, often elaborately patterned or embroidered, and arranged haphazardly into whimsical outfits. As his become his signature, the clothes didn’t pay much attention to sartorial norms about gender identity, and the colors and cuts were overtly ’70s.

The show notes quoted Mikhail Bakunin, a 19th-century Russian anarchist, but the most prominent figure in the show was Snoopy, who appeared on a shirt. Michele likened Snoopy to a philosopher, but he also said the cartoon was nostalgic for him, and that was probably more the point.

Models wear creations for for Gucci men's Fall-Winter 2016-2017 collection, part of the Milan Fashion Week, unveiled in Milan, Italy, Monday, Jan. 18, 2016.
Snoopy, the great philosopher.
Image: AP Photo/Antonio Calanni

“The most important thing is the way you let the people dream about something,” he told the Financial Times (paywall) backstage before the show. “Not what is real, what is fake, I mean fashion is all fake.”

Creativity can come from different sources, and what will ultimately keep either brand alive is sales. Prada has struggled recently, while Gucci appears to be entering an upswing thanks to Michele’s idiosyncratic vision. In Milan, neither Prada’s nor Michele’s approach was inherently superior, though in this instance Prada’s show reached higher and achieved more.