The Nostalgia Trap

Ever dreamed of a do-over? Wished you could climb into a special mystery machine like Dr. Who and end up sometime in the late 20th century, before smartphones and social media, before alternate facts and the return of autocracy, when climate change was still a question mark, air conditioning could blast with impunity and hedonism was a subversively appealing marketing concept?

That kind of magical thinking is exactly how it felt on Thursday, walking through a wall-to-wall-carpet-lined tunnel into the Tom Ford show: the first major new designer debut of the Milan fashion season. It was the first live show since Mr. Ford sold his namesake brand to Estée Lauder, who in turn handed over the reins of the ready-to-wear to the Zegna Group; the first since Mr. Ford stepped down, and his longtime No. 2, Peter Hawkings, was appointed creative director in his place.

One minute you were outside in the Milanese rain, a crowd of looky-loos shrieking happily at Elizabeth Banks and Rebecca Dayan. The next minute, you were swirling down the decade drain into 1995 or ’96 or ’97, the era when Mr. Ford was busy reinventing Gucci and bringing excitement back to Milan with show venues covered in plush carpet to recreate a haute nightclub circa 1979.

It has been almost 20 years, cultural schisms and a whole other company since Mr. Ford left Gucci, and yet Mr. Hawkings, who could have taken his mentor’s brand almost anywhere (literally and aesthetically), chose to bring everyone right back to the beginning.

And not just with the carpet and the décor, but with the clothes: an effective tour through Mr. Ford’s greatest Gucci hits (with a touch of his Yves Saint Laurent) in 50-plus moments of déjà vu.

Tom Ford, spring 2024Credit…Justin Shin/Getty Images
Tom Ford, spring 2024Credit…Giovanni Giannoni/WWD, via Getty Images

Remember the slinky jersey dresses cinched at the hip with a curvy, Elsa Peretti-inspired buckle from Gucci fall ’96? They were here, in black with a bronze-buckle belt, the backs cut to the lowest curve of the spine. Remember the rock star velvet pantsuits from the same collection? Ditto, in teal and raspberry (one with shorts, instead of pants). Remember the slick pencil skirts that Mr. Ford’s Gucci stylist, Carine Roitfeld (sitting front row at Mr. Hawkings’ show), once made her signature, along with slinky silk charmeuse silk shirts unbuttoned to the navel? Those too, though this time the skirts, like the slick suits for both men and women, were in faux patent leather croc rather than the real thing.

Tom Ford, spring 2024Credit…Simbarashe Cha for The New York Times
Tom Ford, spring 2024Credit…Simbarashe Cha for The New York Times

Every look came with a pair of shades and a stiletto sandal (or, for the men, a sharp leather boot). Most also included some gold chains and a clutch. The only thing lacking, really, was the follow spot. Oh, and the frisson of discovering the gleeful sex-power-strut thing.

After all, it’s not quite the same any more. The world isn’t; gender isn’t; the relationship of sex and power isn’t. So why double down on the past?

The Dress-Up Game

Maybe this was a transition collection; an attempt by a protégé to pay homage to the man who trained him by proving that he understood the legacy, and to show his new owners that he was a steady pair of hands. Maybe, in a season in which a new designer is about to debut at Gucci itself and all sorts of rumors have been floating around about a return to that brand’s classics, it was an effort to reclaim those looks; to out-Tom Ford the house that Mr. Ford helped build. Maybe, after 25 years of working with Mr. Ford, this is simply what Mr. Hawkings knows.

Or maybe Mr. Hawkings believes (correctly) that we live in a time of nostalgia for the past, especially that turn-of-the-millennium past, where generations that didn’t experience it the first time around try to recreate it as closely possible the only way they really know how: pants!

Tom Ford, spring 2024Credit…Simbarashe Cha for The New York Times

After decades in men’s wear, Mr. Hawkings is a dab hand at those (and he did succeed in uniting the Tom Ford men’s wear and women’s wear). But in doing all that, he forgot one thing: When Mr. Ford first blew fashion open, he wasn’t going through the motions of existing norms. He was unzipping them, with a dash of irony and a self-aware wink.

If Mr. Hawkings learned one thing from his mentor, it should have been that: Real seduction comes garbed in the confidence of an original point of view. After all, you can’t repeat the past. You can just play dress-up in it.

Prada Plays the Slime Card, Beautifully

It’s not that a designer needs to reject history (theirs, ours, a brand’s) entirely — if you don’t learn from it, you are doomed to repeat it and yadda, yadda, yadda. But it needs to be remixed rather than reproduced, so that suddenly the familiar looks entirely different. That’s how progress happens.

That’s what Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons do so brilliantly at Prada, and what they did again this season.

Starting with slime, which oozed down from the ceiling in long, transparent sheets, bisecting the runway and pooling in sea-foam clumps on the floor, like some sort of delicate alien plasma (or sneaky metaphor).

Prada, spring 2024Credit…Prada

“We had the ’20s, ’30s, sort of sliding together, and then the ’90s, and some ’80s,” Mr. Simons said backstage after the show, as he and Mrs. Prada were swarmed by the usual flock of well-wishers and journalists pecking at their crumbs of wisdom.

He was talking about the echoes of decades past in iridescent organza shift dresses bathed in dawn shades, wisps of material floating behind them like mist. Talking about the strong-shoulder suit jackets that narrowed to a point at the waist over tiny tailored shorts. With, perhaps, a shard of a chiffon scarf thrown over the shoulders for good measure — and a gold or silver carwash skirt, or at least notional skirt, belted atop, like a can-can dancer on her way to a board meeting.

He was talking about the Milky Way swirls of rhinestones and comet trails of silver grommets that decorated leather and velvet frocks, under distressed oversize barn coats (they are turning into something of a trend this season, as seen in ’80s-style dyed denim at Max Mara and at Etro). Not to mention the freaky little baldheaded icon that doubled as a handbag clasp and turned out to be a recreation of a bag clasp from around 1913, when Mrs. Prada’s grandfather founded the brand.

Prada, spring 2024Credit…Prada

It was, Mrs. Prada said, a “mythological head,” but set against the ominous strains of the “Vertigo” soundtrack, it bore an unsettling resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock, peering out from an alternate accessories dimension.

The effect was to de- and re- contextualize the clichés of femininity and masculinity; to challenge any entrenched sense of surety about what is fancy, what is professional, what is kitschy, what is tough, what is fragile. And in doing so, open up the sense of what is possible.

“It’s about shifting things,” Mr. Simons said backstage. Expectations, preconceptions, the ground under everyone’s feet.

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