Ahead of the Milan Men’s Shows, Scarlett Conlon Takes Us Back to Prada’s AW20 Showstopper

I’m just gonna get this out of the way, because the sooner I share it with you the sooner we can get to why it is actually quite poignant. Reader, I was a major ogler at the Prada AW20 menswear show in January – and not just at the clothes.

It turns out that, despite not considering myself a fangirl, a “follower” or a voyeur, sitting behind Chiara Ferragni captivated me in a strange new way. I can’t tell you exactly why I was gripped, although I felt a bit uneasy about it.

Observing the social media phenomenon arrive to screaming crowds (the Italians are very loyal to their homegrown talent), and then watching her thumb do the hokey cokey on her iPhone – swiping up, swiping left, all around the screen – replying to messages from Instagram followers (20.5 million and counting, people) and double-tapping countless “loves” in what looked like an IRL time-lapse, was captivating. One unfortunate autocorrect typo and her growing media empire would make the wrong headlines and end up in tatters, I worried to myself like a pesky risk assessor as I weighed up the consequences of tapping her on the shoulder to see if she had ever considered the problems her speedy appendage might cause (think Hilda Ogden on the second row).

Of course, no such catastrophe nor confrontation ensued. She’s a pro, she knows what she’s doing, I rationalised, before reminding myself that I was supposed to be one, too, and should start taking notes as opposed to ogling this lovely Insta-sensation.

Why am I telling you this? Because by the end of the show, it became clear that this outing from Mrs Prada was, in fact, a spectacle that challenged us to really think about what it means to watch and be watched – one of the greatest phenomena-slash-preoccupations of our era.

It wasn’t hard to pull my focus back to the main event – this is Prada, after all. Mrs P’s show space was, as always, the set design equivalent of her chosen frow: fascinating. AMO (the research and design studio of OMA) once again transformed the Deposito at the Fondazione Prada into two Italian piazzas several metres beneath the audience. They were designed to look like the congregational squares seen in towns and cities all over the country – you know the sort – cobbled, Campari-laden, postcard-cool.

It meant we were really made to be spectators – much like those who assemble with their aperitivi at 6pm – and much more so than usual. (Reflecting the role of the audience as scrutiniser was a popular tack to take this season in Milan – see Jil Sander, Gucci and Versace, too). Mrs Prada said afterwards that she liked the idea of creating “a court that is a place for meeting that’s the same since the past in every country”.

Being Prada, of course, this wasn’t sleepy, but supercharged, the effect more David Lynch than Michelangelo’s David. The models made their exits through scarlet-lit openings and the sets revolved around two abstract centrepieces of cardboard-cut-out-like figures on their steeds. Conversely childlike, they were “a symbol of anti-heroic masculine identity”, Mrs Prada said later – the tension between strength and fragility never lost on this brand, or more beautifully expressed by another.

As we sat waiting for the show to start, two things happened: I snuck a side eye at the iPhone of the young Dutch journalist sitting beside me – a WhatsApp group going crazy with emojis at a snap of the back of Ferragni’s head – and I read the show notes: “The relationship between the fashion on stage and the audience gathered above is simultaneously detached and voyeuristic.” Feeling partly absolved of and partly appreciating the irony of mine and my bench buddy’s ogling, I started to muse on Mrs P’s clever ways.

“Paradoxes fuse,” the show notes continued. “Perspective and context are tools to transform through juxtaposition, displacement, contrast. The collection constantly explores an uncertain metaphysical hinterland, caught between two poles, seen from a different vantage.” OK, not the most obvious of descriptions, you might think, but from where I was sitting, my uneasy voyeurism was starting to have some context – and that was before the clothes had even hit the catwalk.

From my vantage point, the collection – called Surreal Classic – bridged Italy’s past, present and future, finding itself somewhere between the familiar and unfamiliar. Traditional knitted vests and tailored blazers (like those worn by men on Sundays for centuries) were contorted, either shrunken or made oversized, only to be contrasted with the razor-sharp skinny ties worn beneath. The most quintessential school coat of all – the duffel – came glossy and full of late-1970s exuberance in patent and shearling, while Escher-esque squares, like those seen in hallways and floors all over the country, were abstracted and isolated. Trousers were front pleated and turned up, but then made taut with jockey stirrups that wrapped underneath the footwear. This came in the form of shin-high boots (a stylised version of the style Italian Carabinieri wear). Elsewhere, bags were progressive versions of vintage cases that belonged to the local dottori.

These fusions of formal and informal, sophistication and naivety, stormed around the porticos. Looking down from our seats, it was like observing an alternative, albeit recognisable, universe interacting with a warped version of the past – and with a determined new purpose.

Purpose, as we know, is a sentiment never too far from an Italian designer’s mind, never mind Mrs P’s. She said that her focus was on “giving respect to work. [Right now] the only thing that makes me calm and optimistic is to give value to work and jobs and things that matter in your life and your work – the creativity mixed with technicalities.”

It’s what she has always done best. She can take a different view and reevaluate how her clothes reflect and represent the zeitgeist while remaining rooted in culture and credibility. She actually couldn’t have put it better herself when she said, “every artist, every profession, knows that creativity is something, but it’s how you do it that makes the difference”.

Her talent also lies in not allowing the penny to drop about anything she’s shown or said backstage until later. It’s not uncommon to leave a Prada show feeling this way. So many ideas, so much to unpick, new emotions to unravel, not to mention shopping lists to make. Amid a fast and furious schedule of subsequent AW20 shows, it was only a week or so later that I managed to join the dots.

Familiar scenes from the past projected onto an uncertain and fast-paced future; existing in the same space as something that is physically out of reach; the silent spectacle of watching anonymously from afar; strength, fragility, accessibility, anti-heroism; and the voyeuristic role we all know, enjoy even, without analysing if it’s right or wrong.

It was a show that was something of an uncomfortable take on our times, wrapped up in a surreal, Lynchian set – another master whose work is famous for being familiar yet foreign, serving scenarios you can understand but are hard to describe.

That my own encounter with Ferragni (one of the most-watched people in the world) happened there was coincidental, but also important, as it got the point across. Mrs P is always ahead of the curve when it comes to confronting us with a cultural conundrum wrapped up in achingly want-me clothes.

Her AW20 collection – or her “uncertain metaphysical hinterland” – did just that. Ogden wouldn’t know her rollers from the runway, but this show left me pondering how this voyeuristic world we live in plans to evolve, reflect and perhaps even change our ways.

Mrs Prada was asked backstage if this is a moment for change. “Who knows?” she said. “We are on the abyss of a war – maybe not, I hope not.” However this wise one’s words manifest, we’ll have to wait and see.

Photography by Arvida Byström. Taken from Issue 52 of 10 Men – COMMUNITY, BELONGING, UPLIFTING – available to purchase here.


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