Let’s Talk About Sex

MILAN — Forget the summer of love; welcome to the season of sex. It has been bubbling up ever since New York Fashion Week began (ever since the naked summer, really). But on Friday it moved to the center of the catwalk conversation.

When Versace and Prada — the id and the ego of the Italian industry — both start getting fleshy, something is going on.

There they were: a dozen shirtless six-packed men in black trousers, parading down the runway at Versace to take positions on either side, next to a series of braided black silken ropes. On cue, they began to pull them in unison, making the canopy of silk scarves strung overhead undulate up and down (are you feeling hot and bothered yet?).

And here was a ribbed knit with stitched-in bra cups at Prada; a dress unbuttoned down to below the belt in back. (Now you see it, now you imagine it. Now you need a cold shower.)

“Why are these ideas still important, after hundreds of years?” asked Miuccia Prada in a collection news release, the usual post-show scrum of panting supplicants and journalists suspended because of Covid.

It’s a good question. Especially coming from a designer who spent much of her career rejecting the whole concept of “sexy” and its hackneyed imperatives; especially in a city where, despite a history of bunga bunga, the aesthetic has most recently turned toward comfort and swaddling clothes, and the messaging seemed to be: Up with knits!

There are many possible answers: After more than a year of lockdown and isolation, we are all craving physical contact, and after the same amount of time spent getting reacquainted with our bodies, we are happier to expose them to view; between Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, sex has become part of the general political conversation in a way it never was before; there’s an explosion of hedonism waiting to happen, a need for release after all this pent-up emotion; it’s a basic human instinct, no matter how grim the global situation (maybe especially when the global situation is grim). Just pick your rationalization.

Maybe it doesn’t really matter, though, since there’s no question the pheromones are coalescing. And, at least on the runway, it was awfully — well, pleasurable, to watch.

In their first joint live show, for example, Mrs. Prada and Raf Simons, her co-creative director, undressed their own preconceptions regarding the sartorial clichés of elegance and femininity (“Trains, corsets, evening gowns,” Mr. Simons listed in the news release), deconstructing them and subverting them — the better to transform them for the modern day.

Miniskirts in the kind of double-face satin once worn at court wrapped the thighs with a sash looped around the back, the end flying out behind like a train. Above, there were beat-up leather motorcycle jackets, often worn with nothing underneath. Cotton shirts came with unlaced corsetry, and those unbuttoned dresses had stays on the outside. There was a lot of black and gray, shot through with bursts of color: magenta, lime green, egg yolk yellow, shell pink. Shoes were wickedly pointy, with princess heels.

In the finale, sleeveless satin mini shifts were cut with deep vees in the back, to expose the kind of lingerie pants once worn by pinup girls but remade here in some sort of stretch material. The dress had a bow on the bottom, the ends again dangling behind. It was a tease for the mind as well as the body.

And, as has been the case since Mrs. Prada and Mr. Simons joined forces in one of those it-could-be-great but it-could-be-a-disaster partnerships, it was like watching a living conversation unfold: between past and present, one designer and another and — this time — one country and another. The live event in Milan was mirrored in a live event in Shanghai, occurring simultaneously and each live-streamed to the other on giant screens dotted around the show spaces. That’s one way to couple up.

Or, in Donatella Versace’s case, get “Physical.” Dua Lipa’s song was on the soundtrack and the singer herself, along with Lola Leon and Naomi Campbell, strutted the runway for a Versace show that celebrated scarf dressing in every possible permutation as well as sort of sending up the brand’s own history, Miami and a Betty Boop camp carnality in silk, latex and chain mail.

Black pencil skirts were slashed practically to the hip on one side, and jackets sliced at the waist, the sides kept together by a series of candy-colored plastic safety pins that recalled the safety pin dress worn by Elizabeth Hurley back in 1994, sometimes inset with scarves in Medusa and Greca prints.

Scarves also came as pajama sets, halter tops and basketball shorts (there was men’s wear here, too), their juice bar colors later squeezed out into suiting, worn with T-shirts splashed with the phrase “Versace Dream,” and then the kind of push-up slip dresses that make a walk into a wiggle.

Like the prelude to — not a kiss. Something a little more R-rated, perhaps.

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