Last autumn, Prada released a short film, directed by David O Russell and starring Freida Pinto, John Krasinski and Sacha Baron Cohen. Called Past Forward, the film looks at memories and the way that clothing, or what we wear on any given day, informs our memory of a certain moment. Set in a futuristic environment with a 1950s feel, the film captures Miuccia Prada’s conceptual artistic approach, which has been extended beyond the catwalk to make a wider statement about how clothing shapes our existence. ‘The film feels like another manifestation of her designs,’ says fashion academic and broadcaster Oonagh O’Hagan. ‘It’s not explicit, not spelt out, but it feels familiar; whether it's a scene from the film or one of her silhouettes. You feel you know it, yet it is new and fresh.’
Miuccia Prada is just one of a number of fashion designers who is engaging with the past in order to shape the future. In the spring/summer 2017 collections at Milan Fashion Week, the past was referenced in a myriad of different ways, shapes and forms, played out through the design of clothes, but also the styling and the models.
At Bottega Veneta, supermodels from the 1990s Eva Herzigova and Karen Elson walked the catwalk alongside Seventies style icon Lauren Hutton and modern-day muse Gigi Hadid. Hutton’s presence was pertinent: in the 1980 film American Gigolo her look was accessorised with a Bottega Veneta intreccio (woven leather) clutch, which the label has reproduced, along with 14 other intreccio bags, to mark its 50th anniversary.
Bottega Veneta’s clothes this season reference a 1940s silhouette (the works of artist Norman Rockwell provided inspiration), but without overtly retro connotations. Instead, leather has been cleverly tailored into dresses and separates in sumptuous tones of fuchsia and red geranium, while the more neutrally toned ensembles, for which the house is known, put long loose layers and utility details at the fore.
At Versace, designer Donatella Versace has woven elements of the brand’s past into a collection that is making a dash for the future. Figure-hugging mesh, a long-established element at Versace, has been reinvented with sparkling crystals, while signature Versace shades of powder blue and hot purple shake off their usual associations with high-octane glamour in favour of a sporty, space-age persona. And, as at Bottega Veneta’s Milan Fashion Week show, Versace’s clothes were modelled by faces from the past as well as the future: Naomi Campbell, Carmen Kass and Doutzen Kroes joined Gigi Hadid and Edie Campbell, showing that the established and well known can be just as enticing as the new.
‘Decade collaging is a thing of the moment,’ Sarah Mower noted in Vogue, referring to the Fendi fashion week show, where the label’s creative director Karl Lagerfeld threw a multitude of old and new influences into the air – 1920s sleepwear, 18th-century baroque items, 1990s cargo trousers and PVC bomber jackets from the most recent decades – and landed them as one. While Lagerfeld has spent his career honing this technique to great effect, the ‘papier-mâché’ approach to design, which seamlessly melds different eras, genres and thoughts about fashion, is now being adopted throughout the industry.
It’s why Alessandro Michele’s riotous reworking of Gucci is proving more than a one-season wonder. For spring/summer 2017 the designer has reached new levels of multi-referential fantasy – which he describes as ‘phantasmagoric’. Eighteenth-century Chinoiserie runs throughout the collection, which also contains elements of baroque and rococo design along with 1970s trouser suits and 1980s skirt suits complete with shiny gilt buttons and pussy bows in the style of the late Diana, Princess of Wales. For O’Hagan, Michele’s work is a ‘quirky mash-up’ which is a natural reaction to the political insecurity that we are now facing. ‘When times are tough, people do not want to see pared-back, minimalist fashion. Instead, fashion tends to go frivolous – either via glamour and nostalgia or a fantasy craziness.’
What Prada, Bottega Veneta, Versace, Fendi and Gucci have all shown in their collections this season is that fashion’s past is no longer a dusty box of archived looks that sits on a shelf to be dipped into when other inspiration fails. Rather, it’s a living, breathing part of the industry’s current narrative, something which right now is transforming the new season’s collections into clothes that clients instantly desire.