There is nothing like a week of watching designer infomercials to make you long for the return of fashion shows IRL.
Those sometimes infuriating, often perplexing, seldom dull and more than occasionally brilliant demonstrations of the truth that fashion is less about clothes than a cultural gestalt seem more essential the longer you are deprived of them. Lockdown has proved as much. It tested creative people in an industry always slow to adopt new technology; generally, they were lacking.
Holding a viewer’s interest for a span of eight minutes is next to impossible under the conditions of a social media big top. Watching the shows on a laptop, one often felt the impulse to zoom, pinch, toggle or flip over altogether to Instagram, YouTube and TikTok.
There is no way if you are, say, Alessandro Sartori designing for Ermenegildo Zegna, to compete. You may show your technically capable if wonky collection of supersize and curiously colored (are designers the only ones that don’t know Colman mustard yellow screams sales rack?); suits with billowing trousers; boxy chore coats with kangaroo pockets; short-sleeve leather jackets with so many built-ins that they read like walking desks, all photographed on a runway on a hillside inside a reforested Zegna oasis in Northern Italy and the aisles of the Zegna mills.
Drained of the drama and emotion of a real-time event, and of the tension of knowing that any one of a thousand high-wire variables can fail, your show is bound to feel slack.
To be fair, Mr. Sartori, like most designers, was thrust into unfamiliar territory along with the rest of us, forced to adapt on the fly. Yet the more successful shows were often those that employed the simplest of means, like Paul Andrew’s 20-look Ferragamo presentation.
It was goofy and offhand (one wonderful mash-up from the archives produced a giraffe-leopard print) and photographed in the open-air safety of a beachside villa an hour from Florence.
You could hardly call the videos Prada commissioned from five artists simple. Each was given a generous budget and free rein to interpret the Prada spring 2021 men’s wear collection. Yet they were economical, and one, at least, had a lasting resonance.
Sure, the slick commercial quality of Prada snippets produced by Juergen Teller, Willy Vanderperre and others met accepted Vogue standards. But they were yawn inducing. This observer cannot be the only one weary of the trope of “juxtaposing” luxury goods worn by gorgeous young people with the factory settings where such things are made.
It is more than an annoyance. It offends, in part, because it glosses over the human costs of industrial production. Factory laborers, of course, have been among those most affected by the pandemic. Even before, the actual working conditions of those who cut and piece and stitch these things did not lend themselves to glamour photographs.
Joanna Piotrowska bypassed all that. She seemed to accept on its face the beauty that Mrs. Prada, more consistently than most designers, has produced for decades. Her disarmingly simple black-and-white video, mirroring a genuinely masterful and austere monochrome collection of uniforms for chic reform school students, showed models both male and female doing little to nothing.
They stretch on the floor in the chiaroscuro lighting of the artist’s studio like cats. They weave. They bob around a bit. What, most memorably, they do is snap their fingers.
Finger snapping is a uniquely human gesture. Percussive, rhythmic, aggressive, dismissive, joyful, it has many meanings. In Ms. Piotrowska’s video, it reads as a gesture of offhand defiance. Particularly in the final frame, when the model Anok Yai addresses the camera with the insolence of youthful beauty and clicks the video to a close, it left this viewer hopeful.
“I am deep down a fashion designer and I like my job a lot,” Mrs. Prada wrote in an email this week. “I have always been interested in the creation of a single object, the piece, to make clothes for people, this is the core of my job. I am not sure what this means, but I know that the clothes will be tools for life that everyone will use differently.”
The verb tense signifies. Fashion shows — as distinct from fashion films that, like everything once photographed, exist outside of time — are distinctly, if not axiomatically, about the present. And yet they also imply the expectation of a future. Tools for life that everyone will use differently.
Take it as you will, but to my ear her statement sounded like a snap of affirmation.
(And this may be the place to mention that there were, in fact, two fashion shows held live, and before an audience, during Milan fashion week — Dolce & Gabbana and Etro — and that, whatever their aesthetic merits, it was impossible, looking at them online, not to think: Yes, but not yet. Too soon.)