A 25-year-old Australian model Julia Nobis silently strutted out onto the runway. She treaded gently — a light, earthy brown skirt sat low on her hips, its hem lapped around her calves. It invited onlookers to glance up at her narrow hips, where a black, fitted blouse begins. She walked tall, her figure straight — almost boyish. Soon after, Kenyan model Imari Karanja followed suit in a similar outfit, albeit in lime green and pastel pink.
The silence quickly broke to thumping bass and blaring, upbeat music that fashion runways are often associated with. Models started turning up in motif prints, and acrylic chain necklaces.
By the end of the show, onlookers — actual show attendees and those who watched the show's live stream — were mouthing, "It's like '90s Prada!"
It was Prada's Resort 2019 collection, one that unfolded a couple of days ago, on the 4th May, at the brand's New York headquarters. And yes, the cut of clothes, the colours, the prints, repetitive motifs, silhouettes, hair, and accessories all called to mind a memorable time in the brand's '90s history, helmed by the woman-in-command, Miuccia Prada.
The brand Prada considers its founding in 1913, when Miuccia Prada's grandfather, Mario Prada, opened doors to a store filled with accessories such as bags and trunks. Miuccia Prada joined the business in the '70s, where she designed accessories. It was only in 1988 that she injected a womenswear line to the brand.
Back then, Prada's models were clad in suits and dresses that were typical to runways of the time. The conservative '80s style would spill over to 1989. When 1990 arrived, Prada's vocabulary changed — as if the new decade ushered in a newfound sense of freedom for her. She shook off the bulk of the masculine, power suits. And there were snakeskin prints, beaded embellishments, and feathers.
Yet, it was the Spring/ Summer 1996 collection that was strikingly similar to the Resort 2019 collection that we saw a couple of days ago. It was this collection that the show attendees were referring to when they said that it looked "very '90s Prada". In the 1996 collection, Prada sent down the runway woollen polo tees in sketchy plaid prints, floral prints, and a repetitive tile motif in olive green and peanut brown. The sheath dresses had lines that ran under the bust line, elongating the body line. There was a light tea length skirt that sat low on the hips, complete with a polo tee. The collection would go down in memory as the "pretty ugly" collection.
The year 1996 was an appropriate time to consider the narrow connotations of these ideals — it may even have been a natural move, considering the series of events that led to this. By now, the model Kate Moss made her break in the industry. She was a far cry from the reigning crop of voluptuous models — Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, and Cindy Crawford. Moss was skinny, boyish, and was repeatedly rejected by casting directors and agencies. Yet, in 1992, "Kate broke open the door for other girls who before would have been too odd or too ugly," fashion writer Maureen Callahan documented in her book. There was a shift in the tectonic plates of the fashion industry, and Miuccia Prada must have felt it under her feet.
Prada would go on to contest the notions of ugly as pretty in her other collections in the decade to come. In 2007, Fashionistaattributed Prada's penchant for this concept to "jolie laide", a French phrase which is loosely translated to "pretty ugly". In 2012, the Costume Institute's exhibition titled, "Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations" formally cemented Prada's "ugly" endeavours in the fashion history books. The museum likened Prada to a fellow Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli, who is famously known as Gabrielle Chanel's contemporary. Both designers unceasingly defied fashion's conventions and designed clothes that incited irate comments.
Angry comments and repulse are, in fact, psychologically the expected response to Prada's doings. The term ugly-pretty is an absolute oxymoron. They are made up of two binary terms that contradict each other. And beyond the literal meanings of these words, the connotations are bad and good respectively. What is ugly carries an evil, negative connotation. What is pretty is good. This explains why, at times, people may sulk at the runway images or the Prada stores' window displays, exclaiming "This is fashion? It's so ugly!" This too, explains why toddlers who cannot read are naturally inclined to Snow White but not the Evil Witch. Like it or not, people subconsciously measure what they see — clothes, accessories, Disney characters — against their moral barometers.
Why do ugly? Why would Miuccia Prada do that to herself? To her, it is about cliches, conventions, creativity, and reality. In an interview in 2015, she satiates all our curiosity, "Fashion never opened itself to the 'ugly'. I started it, and I have been criticised a lot for this. But that has been the success of Prada... My true point of view in fashion is to go against the cliches of beauty and sexy." This season's Resort 2019 collection may have been a hark back to Miuccia Prada's roots. She might well have been reasserting, "You know, I started this ugly-pretty concept" in a time when "ugly-pretty" has grown to be a fleeting trend on its own.