Flower Power

Miuccia Prada and Emporio Armani: Milan Spring 2013 Collections

Pink fur, floral flourishes, and toe socks: Robin Givhan reports on Miuccia Prada’s Spring 2013 collection from Milan.

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As fashion’s most tantalizing contrarian, designer Miuccia Prada retreated from the dizzying patterns and eye-candy bedazzlement of her well-received fall collection to present a spring 2013 line that was practically minimalist by comparison. Embracing a philosophy that might best be described as ‘never giving her customers more of what they already love,’ Prada was miserly in her use of color and single-minded in her embellishments.

Using a fabric that, under the spotlights, read like a heavy-weight satin, she created mini-dresses in a mélange of black, navy, or gray that were enlivened by a pattern of a single graphic flower. Blouses criss-crossed the torso like an old-fashioned stole and collarless coats hung close to the body. Sometimes the flowers multiplied in shades of persimmon or turned into two-dimensional appliqué. But they never became more complicated, more intricately drawn.

The collection’s simplicity was amplified by easy swing jackets, sheath dresses that fell just below the knee and shorts that were crisply tailored. And as if to emphasize a kind of teasing austerity, a boldly uncomplicated black sheath with a narrow band of navy blue rimming its round neckline was displayed on the runway—as if it were a revolutionary idea.

Prada’s most gregarious suggestion was in her spring furs: full length and in shades of white and pale pink, with whimsical flowers dyed into the luxurious pelts. Among fashion’s most costly material, fur was treated with whimsy and frivolity, as if a woman might toss it away at the end of the season.

The Italian label did not neglect its pivotal accessories business. The handbags for spring range from flower-adorned bucket bags to evening purses stitched from fur and dangling from sparkling chains. These pricey objects with their eye-popping profit margins were gussied up and served up like marzipan sweets.

The shoes, however, were a marvel of chutzpah, horror and utter eccentricity. Sandals were constructed to create the illusion of thongs worn over a pair of socks—a style most often associated with outdoorsmen and Tevas. Platform heels looked like Lego bricks. All of them looked as though they’d make walking a perilous adventure.

Prada debuted her collection in Milan Thursday evening. Twenty-four hours earlier, Alessandro dell’Acqua presented his No. 21 collection: an eccentric but delightful mix of shimmering prints, bold stripes of color, and paillettes that looked like crushed silver bottle caps.

Both of these collections are trying to woo customers who are in search of the unusual, those who are looking for something to startle their eyes rather than soothe them. Neither Prada nor dell’Aqua seemed utterly confident about where fashion might be going next, but both seemed eager to suss out that new path.

Of course, not every woman wants to be a vehicle for some designer’s aesthetic curiosity. And so sandwiched between Prada and dell’Acqua on the fashion schedule, one had Max Mara and Emporio Armani. The Max Mara design team unveiled a collection inspired by safaris. It was filled with shades of khaki, caramel and dusky blue, along with jumpsuits, utilitarian skirts, breezy oversized shirts and patchworks of plaid and leopard prints. And Giorgio Armani, in his Emporio collection, offered pleated trousers with tapered legs, iridescent shorts and matching vests, and short shorts tucked under easy tunics.

Still, one wonders about these middle ground collections. For retailers like Neiman Marcus, says fashion director Ken Downing, the sales are in high luxury brands that can deliver clothes that are dynamic as well as unique and in lower-priced, youthful contemporary lines with a point-of-view. The squishy mid-point—perhaps like the middle class—is feeling the stress.

In the season of runway shows, the attention is focused on brands such as Prada and No. 21. They are where editors typically discover new ideas and retailers uncover delicious talents who might not do blockbuster sales themselves but bring customers into stores. That was the conventional wisdom. And there was sheepishness about overlooking the more mass-appeal brands or those that are more classic. But in these days of a lackluster economy, the buzz is also where the bucks are. People are buying fashion, not clothes.

Customers, it seems, don’t want to be reassured; they want to be revived.