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Reflections on craft and form at Milan Fashion Week

Rachel Weinberg

I keep thinking about Miuccia Prada’s remark to Nicole Phelps at the end of her summer runway show: “I got tired of talking about ideas—let’s talk about clothes.” The word ‘ideas’ in this instance refers to the muses behind a collection, or the stimuli that inform specific design choices. 'Clothes', on the other hand, refers to the textures, forms, material and structures that together create the collection. Reading her remark was epiphanic. It stopped me in my mid-morning tracks, made me pull off to the side of the dining room table, sit and consider where our need to interpret art, music and fashion comes from. More so, where our need to pry for inspiration and decipher meaning derives.

In the 1960s, when the French bourgeoisie would sit and peruse Cristobal Balenciaga’s collections, were they contemplating the point of the shirt collar, the circumference of the brimmed hat, or the rigidity of the hemline that rendered these garments elegant? If we challenged ourselves to truly see the clothes in this year’s Prada collection, what would we discover? Texture, undoubtedly. Especially in the wisplike organza that draped the models’ slender figures and the clusters of crystal embellished on certain pencil skirts and dresses. We would encounter tailoring in the structured blazers and straight black and navy suit pants. We would observe movement in the delicate tassel skirts that swayed and swung beneath the models’ knees. Delving even further, beyond these revelations, we uncover craftsmanship. Craftsmanship, I later learned, is an activity that demands skill. Note the word ‘skill’ here; it implies precision, dexterity and expertise, qualities akin to those of a fashion house that has prevailed for 110 years.

Describing Prada’s clothing is a rather arduous endeavour. It necessitates an abundance of nouns, adjectives and verbs, intricately woven and sewn together, much like a garment itself. Mentally, it requires acute attention. The descriptions necessitate a particular level of concentration that only a few can truly achieve. This awareness is nowhere more apparent than in Holland Cotter’s analysis of Agnes Martin's 1998 painting Untiled #5 when he writes, “View her paintings from several feet away, and their surfaces—whitish, pinkish, garish, brownish—look hazily blank, as if they needed a dusting or a buffing. Move closer, and complicated, eye tricking, self-erasing textures come in and out of focus.” And when we do draw nearer to Prada’s collection, what do we perceive? The sheen of the patent brogue and the glimmer of the models’ coral-tinted eye shadow, the evenly spaced scratches in the floral prints, and the inextricable pull of the silk or cotton headpiece. Only when we observe in this manner can we really begin to suggest implications.

Gucci’s Summer 2024 collection provides another suitable opportunity to exercise this kind of ‘looking’. Within the fifty-five looks, there is a set of identifiable characteristics: proportion, colour and shape. The former plays a significant role: boxy blazers are paired with miniature shorts and skirts, deep V-necks are paired with high slits, and oversized bags are slung over models’ tender shoulders. Colour, then, includes bright greens, blues and reds used to contrast the prevailing neutral tones. The red appears deeper than usual, exuding a richer, more seductive presence. The hue finds its place in leather blazers and bras, cotton clasped mini dresses, creepers and handbags. It even extended beyond the fashion show at the company’s Milanese headquarters, dignifying the city’s resplendent streets.

Amidst these traceable elements, a point of difference becomes apparent. Unlike previous collections, which were eccentric, playful and whimsical, filled with Alessandro Michele’s humour and wit, here, in this collection, the tide appears to have changed course. This redirection is not only justifiable, but predictable. It mirrors the change brought about by Gucci’s new designer, Sabato De Sarno, who was recruited from Valentino with the mission to strengthen “the house’s fashion authority while capitalising on its rich heritage.” With simplicity and fervour, these clothes are deliberately different from the ones shown in previous seasons. They clear Gucci’s decks and pave the way for its well-adored ship to set sail and discover new sights and unexplored seas.

If Gucci’s ship were to anchor itself, it might choose Bottega Veneta’s cross-cultural island, where leather takes the place of nylon and autumnal coats surpass sarongs. The seventy-two looks in this summer collection emanate pure opulence. Still, the silhouettes maintain modesty and structure, featuring dropped shoulders on the blazers, bubbled hems on the skirts and square toes on the shoes. Like Gucci, one can identify the interplay of proportion and size: the oversized braided leather bags enrich form-fitting tank tops, while tassels, both thin and thick, cascade over the models’ bodies like a trickling fountain. The artist’s hand is palpable. This artist, I might add, is Matthieu Blazy. This show, I might mention, is his second for the 57-year-old house. Blazy, too, appears to be redefining the codes, writing a new story in the process.

So, what happens when we are promoted to look beyond mere form and identify symbols? How do we interpret such signs when we turn our gaze towards brands like The Attico, for example? Here, these signs become apparent in the sequinned sheer body suits, which elongate and confine the wearer. They manifest in the futuristic chrome trousers and slashed camisoles, as well as in the sensuous, ruched cotton dresses and playfully fluffed outerwear. In this collection, the modern Italian woman is in full view. Actually, I stand corrected. All women are in view, especially those who are eager to captivate and entice. Perhaps this is the designers’, Giorgia Tordini and Gilda Ambrosio’s, intention: to clothe cunning, confident women who can’t step outside without going unnoticed, without remaining unseen.

In Rave Review’s summer collection, the symbols take on a somewhat subtler tone. They reside within the tartan fabrics, patchwork hoodies and dresses, knee-high stringy socks and printed tank tops. Craftsmanship is perceived with a different nuance here as well. There appears to be a stronger sense of experimentation. This is evident in the layering of textiles such as lace, cotton and tinsel-cum-wool, as well as the collage of neutral and monochromatic tones. The garments themselves are a blend of eras and influences: grunge, Scotland, club, romance, punk, Sweden. They are assembled in this manner because they were upcycled by the designers, Livia Shuck and Josephine Bergqvist. Every inch of thread and patch of material bears the history of another well-lived life. And so, all the forms we observe indeed carry significance: they reflect the designers’ thoughts towards sustainability, recycling, consumption, collaboration and creativity. The curated bits and found bobs represent the Swedish label’s embedded codes.

In examining form and symbolism on the one hand and craftsmanship on the other, it is appropriate to stress a fundamental and essential point. Within this kind of visual exploration, the need to decipher meaning or establish direct links between designers, interests, culture, and history becomes less significant. In many respects, this analytical approach aligns with an Italian sensibility. Even Italian historian and philosopher Umberto Eco wrote in Foucault’s Pendulum, “I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.” Rather than fixating on clues and becoming consumed by the pursuit of truth’s elusive keys, our focus should be on observation. In the realm of art, we should examine the lines and curves that hint at form. In music, we should listen to the rhythm and pitch to decipher the mood. And in fashion, our attention should be solely directed, as Miuccia Prada advised, towards the clothes.

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SEE ISSUE #06 HERE. The theme for this issue, Revelations, delves into the unfiltered aspects of life. It’s an appreciation and exploration of raw beauty, where authenticity reigns supreme; the unconventional is not just accepted but celebrated. In a world of manufactured perfection, this issue chooses to validate our quirks and idiosyncrasies. After all, they are what make us inimitable.

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