We fashion hobbyists face a continual struggle to justify to ourselves and others the time, consideration, and, of course, money we devote to what might seem a frivolous pursuit. Occasionally a moment of genius will capture the broader cultural consciousness – the 2018 Alexander McQueen documentary and its sensitive reverence for the runway experience comes to mind. However to most people, most of the time, luxury fashion is an egregious parade of elitism designed by shallow, out-of-touch narcissists for other shallow, out-of-touch narcissists. The clothes themselves come across more likely to induce sniggers than admiration.
The difficulty lies in the fact that they’re quite frequently correct. Earlier this month the case for fashion as a meaningful endeavour suffered another, particularly galling knockback when Prada revealed the advertising campaign for their Spring/Summer 2021 women’s collection. The collection itself, debuted back in September, was the first from their new all-star directive duo of Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons. Many found it did not live up to the enormous anticipation which preceded it, but was by no means a failure. The longstanding Prada shawl-clutching motif made a welcome return, while the house’s logo was creatively reproduced in negative through cut-outs in the garments, and Simons acolytes will have enjoyed the introduction of his signature graphic prints. Nothing revelatory, but a serviceable offering which mediated the two iconic designers’ respective codes. At the beginning of a new era for the house, it felt like a respectful nod to the practices which elevated it to the superpower it is today.
So, how should this long-awaited meeting of two of fashion’s most acute and dependably innovative minds be marketed to the broader consuming public? The industrious team up at Prada HQ, apparently possessed by the visionary spirit of Don Draper himself, were more than up to the challenge and dreamed up a daring strategy of quite frightening ingenuity. The solution, naturally, was to denigrate the intelligence of their consumer base with a series of pseudo-deep ruminations. Nothing drums up desire like feeling patronised.
One reads: “Does ‘cloud’ make you think of data or sky?” Profound in 2014, perhaps. Another asks: “Is nature out there or in here?” Hmmm. I wonder. A call-back to the antique nature vs nurture debate regarding the cultivation of virtue, no doubt. A model lost in thought (and in a very nice coat) has his image overlaid with text reading: “Can something be truly new?” A searching assessment of the limitations of innovation within a tradition-based medium, I see, I see. I came for the knits but I’m staying for the knowledge. With each question (and there are a lot) is a prompt to provide our own answers at Prada.com.
This is all, of course, vacuous nonsense. No doubt we are supposed to conceive of the project as a striking examination of a modern world in which our vernacular is in constant flux, where concrete knowledge has been banished, and where our online life now informs our ‘real’ one more than the other way around; instead it reads as a series of *hits blunt* memes. As one editor aptly tweeted in response to the campaign: “Oh ffs. Our industry really is beyond parody.” “Did Jaden Smith write this copy [sic]” asked someone else. I personally experienced distressing flashbacks to the brand’s S/S 20 advertising campaign, which toyed with PRADA as an acronym for similarly vapid inanities like “Perhaps Romance Always Desires Another”. Whatever that means.
What examples like this do – surface-level intellectualisations of collections which lack more than a hint of subversion – is discredit the entire medium. Lots of fashion is frivolous and a matter of pure aesthetics, and that’s just fine. We wouldn’t follow fashion if we didn’t enjoy beautiful clothes. But when they lay claim to a depth they do not obviously possess it makes it harder to take seriously those collections which do deserve to be treated seriously.
It’s why Nicolas Ghesquière plastering ‘VOTE’ over his S/S 21 Louis Vuitton womenswear collection (which would not even be released until a number of months after the US election it targeted) helps no-one. Instead, it turns more casual audiences away from the idea that fashion can ever be meaningfully political. In actuality, we are blessed with a raft of designers like Grace Wales Bonner and Thebe Magugu who consistently and subtly confront issues of identity politics, ancestry, sexuality, and race through their collections. The Prada campaign poses fatuous questions and offers no answers; buying and wearing the clothes of brands like those mentioned amounts to a tacit personal alignment far more valuable than intellectual ostentation.
It’s all the more disappointing for the fact that Mrs. Prada, especially, is one of fashion’s true thinkers, a reliable mine of cultural insight who rarely fails to produce an incisive quote. She has a PhD in Political Science, and her Prada, built on technical daring, has typically appealed to a considered but difficult-to-pin-down customer. Of her first collection she said, “It was not for the classic ones — there was something disturbing. And for the super trendy avant-gardists, it was too classic. I always like to move in that space, never please anybody.” Few living designers seem to possess the self-aware conceptual grounding which she has exhibited for over four decades.
The conversation broadcast after the S/S 21 show clearly indicates that Mrs. Prada and Mr. Simons thought more deeply about the issues posed by these sorts of questions than the advertisements suggest. Both are intentional people, and they do not usually produce shallow collections. Whether or not the clothes actually conveyed those intentions is a matter of opinion; perhaps something was lost in the translation from product to marketing, perhaps from conception to product. But whichever it is, the images of this campaign, set to grace billboards, screens, and bus-stops the world over, will only serve to alienate with their absurd self-seriousness rather than to provoke introspection. Sometimes fashion media derided by the wider public can be defended on the grounds that ‘they just don’t get it’ – on this occasion common sense proves an accurate bullshit detector.
Artwork by Emma Hewlett.