No sooner had Scarlett Johansson and Emma Watson settled into the front row in their elegant little black dresses than a curtain of slime began to ooze from the polished concrete ceiling of the Prada Foundation in Milan. The ick oozed in gummy ribbons, squelching on to the catwalk where it puddled in a scum of bubbles that the models deftly dodged in their pointed kitten heels.
Ugly chic is to Prada what molto sexy is to Versace. The slime – mesmerising, but yuck – was as much a classic motif at this Prada show as the knee-length pencil skirts and the neat grey sweaters. It made a point that the designer Miuccia Prada has been making for decades – that beauty is much more compelling with a little ugliness thrown in.
“I talk too much about ideas and not enough about clothes”, said Miuccia backstage after the show with her co-designer Raf Simons. She then proceeded to talk about masculinity and femininity; the weather; the inspirational eccentricity of her grandfather Mario Prada, who in 1913 designed a moire silk handbag that was revived for this show; and how the decorative aesthetic of the early 20th century could best be fused with 1990s minimalism for a look that is modern now.
Miuccia and Simons may not be able to resist philosophising but their clothes speak for themselves. The look of the season came into focus on this catwalk: white shirts, grey knitwear, and ultra-pointed court shoes.
Lee Miller, the Vogue model turned war correspondent, strode the catwalk at Max Mara. Not literally – Miller died in 1977 – but in spirit, as smartly turned-out models walked the Milan runway in utilitarian jumpsuits and elbow-patched knits, their hands in the pockets of their elegantly jodhpur-hipped trousers. Jackets were multi-pocketed, the better for carrying notebooks and pens, cigarettes and lipstick, and worn with the collar popped.
Miller looms large over fashion right now, with Kate Winslet featured on the current cover of American Vogue to celebrate her Hollywood biopic Lee. At Max Mara, however, “she’s not just a muse for this season, she’s on our permanent mood board”, said British designer Ian Griffiths after his show. “She is a character who I think about every season, not just this one. How could anyone not be inspired by her? What a woman! To go from being a silent voice as a model to become a groundbreaking, hard-hitting war correspondent, is extraordinary.”
Elegant but no-nonsense women are what Max Mara does best, and these tough clothes in pretty colours had charm in spades. Also pinned on the walls backstage were a portrait of three Land Girls in dungarees, images of Vita Sackville-West, a photograph of the actor Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and several snaps of Griffiths in his garden in Suffolk.
“I wanted to look at uniforms and workwear, and how women personalise those,” the designer said. Sturdy cotton apron-strap dresses and easy gaberdine car coats came in washed-out tones of lavender, blue and marigold, so that they stepped on to the catwalk looking soft and much loved, rather than box-fresh and stiff. As well as boxy camera bags inspired by Miller there were practical canvas gardening bags, the Land Girls having led Griffiths to Sackville-West, who wrote a book about them. “And I wanted it to be about Sissinghurst and gardening too, because I didn’t want it to get too militaristic,” Griffiths said.
His own image ended up on the board because the sweet peas he grows at home in Suffolk inspired the colours. And Waller-Bridge? “I think of her as a contemporary alter ego of Vita Sackville-West, somehow. She’s got wit and independence and she sums up this collection for me.”