MILAN • Gender discrimination, the wage gap, issues of body image and the activism all have engendered may be dominant themes in the broader conversation, but women's fashion, a sector that should by right be highly attuned to any disturbance in the emotional weather and focus of its customers, has been surprisingly unresponsive.
At least until designer Miuccia Prada started thinking with her scissors. And what she thought was: "We should start being combative. There's still so much against us."
Or so she said backstage last Thursday after a show that featured the walks of a whole lot more than 12 angry women, set against walls plastered with a multitude of looming female faces drawn by seven female comic artists. Trapped in a scrum of journalists brandishing iPhone microphones in her face, Prada looked ready to push her way out.
"Militant, but in a practical way," she said, of the clothes. "We need to be able to show cleverness, ideas, intelligence."
Prada has always been less interested in what would please the male gaze than in what piques her own interest, and this collection was no exception.
Clunky shapes - camp shirts and Girl Guide shorts; dropped-waist pinafores that stood away from the body - were mixed with banker-stripe shirting, tailored coats and trousers, and vests that had begun as black slates and were printed with trompe l'oeil creases and cracks. Kitten heels were sharp as spikes, studs bristled from shoulders and sleeves, pockets were heavy with jewels.
"You've been having some mixed results lately," said a journalist, referring to a series of annual results that have been less than stellar (most recently, in the first six months of this year, when the Prada Group's net income fell 18 per cent). "Do you think this collection will turn it around?"
Prada gave him a look. "Life is bigger than sales," she said. Her investors might disagree, but still.
As for the Ateliers d'Artistes, as Giorgio Armani's collection was called - well, the "arresting imbalance" described in the show notes between dizzying candy-colour Cubism-meets-Niki-de-Saint-Phalle prints and black or celadon green separates could, indeed, knock someone over in her tracks in surprise.
Some looks later, a palate cleanser of silver trouser suits for men and women appeared. They were terrific, a reminder that no one does unstructured like Armani.
At Moschino, tutu skirts and giant bows, Swan Lake embroidery and My Little Pony shades provided a bad-taste raspberry of relief.
Especially once the designer Jeremy Scott got beyond the stereotypes of punk and the banal tropes of leather hot pants, and offered a bouquet of flower fairy dresses in hand-painted duchesse satin, from a bodysuit covered in blooms to a giant puffball of purple ostrich feathers sprouting a cloud of butterflies en tremblant.
When it comes down to it, what occupies Scott's design mind may be, bizarrely, not that far away from what occupies Prada's. "Now, more than ever, I think my role is to offer a respite from the dark," he said before the show, "to be a good citizen and a good neighbour and push positivity through my main vehicle, which is my show and collection."
The result did not deny the anger underneath. It just put a daisy - and a peony, an iris and a tiger lily - in the gun barrel.