Prada: No one throws down the fashion gauntlet like Miuccia Prada. In her show on Monday, she thrust it and then stomped on it with her first look out: a black slip dress as austere as could be, save for the smallest edge of lace at the hem. An unequivocal return to minimalism from the woman who spearheaded the embellishment madness of the last several years.

Or was it? After the show, Prada said she wanted to “go back to more simple clothes,” with fewer frills and sans that now-familiar aura of romantic escapism. In fact, her shift toward the sturdy began for spring, and here she wanted something even “more serious, more deep, more human, more strong.” And darker, literally and figuratively; hence her reembrace of black, and apparent alignment with New York’s sober faction, specifically Marc Jacobs, who went Gorey-esque to great fanfare, and Tuleh’s Bryan Bradley, who took a frillier approach.

Unlike those two, however, Prada at first appeared to flaunt stark minimalism. After the slipdress came a sculpted black dress and suit, dressmaker seaming their only decoration. She moved from black to camel and back with the same restraint, until in crept a glimmer of deco, quietly spectacular — a yoke of jet beading on a fitted black coat. This led the way to increasing embellishment of the fashion oxymoron kind, low-key yet obvious. Where once Prada might have chosen crystals or a dance of mirrors, she now inserted countless grommets into a coat. In place of formerly delicate embroideries she opted for heavy passementerie trim. This went two ways: fabulous in black on dark colors; art-school awkward in high-contrast combos, especially those doily-decorated, droopy-boob variations. Not so the garment-dyed pieces, stark white bursting forth from beneath collars and inside pleats in a brilliant expression of graceful reserve. Throughout, Prada steadfastly avoided fluff. As close as it came for day was with retro-looking bags, some emblazoned with the house logo, and a series of breathtaking dark printed coats in intriguing moody colors — girly with a dash of woe. At night, however, Miss Woebegone lightened up in the high-impact dazzle of a jewel-encrusted chemise. 

Give or take a patchwork leather or two, Prada offered a wealth of gorgeous clothes. It’s a lineup that should give her stores a decidedly fresh look come fall. Despite the inventive bravura of the spring collection, retail is looking a little tchotchkied-up, all that robot gadgetry in serious cohabitation with peacock feathers. Which makes this collection difficult to review: beautiful clothes, seemingly more salable than the most extreme renderings of spring’s aviary theatrics. And beautiful, wearable clothes are what fashion is about. Except that, at Prada, it’s also about the bold, visionary thesis. One had the feeling that Prada longed to make such a definitive argument for fall, but then hedged, due, perhaps, to pragmatism or uncertainty. And that’s not something that happens often. Emporio Armani: Perhaps Giorgio Armani’s been kidding us all along. Not about understanding his customer, nor about showering her with timeless clothes for every occasion imaginable. And certainly there’s no joke to the phenomenal 30-plus year run Armani continues to fuel at retail. But he must have been teasing all these years when he insisted that only real clothes belong on the runway. Or he’s crossed over to the other side. Because the clothes Armani sent out in his Emporio Armani show on Monday afternoon looked anything but real.

We don’t even have to start with the hats. How about the wayward fringe? The Orphan Annie oxfords with skirts and bare legs? The he-loves-the-Eighties skintight cocktail shakers? And in what real world do these words belong strung together: pleated pinstriped shorts?

Armani’s program notes cited “a nostalgic past when the great movie stars were truly divine.” He thus went for a casually dressed-up attitude with mixes that attempted witty eccentricity, one that some of the calmer pairings achieved. Surely one can always find great clothes, here lovely jackets of all persuasions — short, long; lean, loose — some with charming details such as a loosely ruffled collar; a trio of cute, cozy faux furs and a fab high-collared khaki coat. And for any girl in the market for a short, sparkly evening dress, Armani’s her guy. (She probably won’t want to replicate his models’ eyeglass-flaunting gyrations, however.)  It’s just unfortunate that, with his increasingly peculiar approach to styling, Armani makes the bounty so difficult to enjoy.

Bottega Veneta: Who will emerge as Gucci Group’s next commercial powerhouse? On Monday afternoon, Bottega Veneta’s Tomas Maier stated his case in his first formal runway presentation. Certainly his house possesses blow-out accessories potential, and for fall he showed perhaps his best ever, including rose-strewn black bags with the moody aura of ultra-chic Goth for grown-ups. Yet Maier is intent on developing a full ready-to-wear house, and his greatest challenge is to create a viable, identifiable look around the accessories — no easy task. Bottega bags are among the most specific out there, and the whole notion of clothes-to-match-the-bag is counterintuitive, if not to the way the fashion business sells, then at least to traditional notions of creating a designer identity, and to how most women still get dressed.Maier made an appealing showing, revealing an instinct for polish and a more dressed-up look than he offered last season. Thus, for day he went for sleek tailoring with narrow-shoulder, slim-lined coats and jackets. He paired these with fullish skirts, often pleated and weighted with decorative metal beads for rapid movement. He also showed gently cut jersey dresses and lots of crushed velvets, some lavished with metal paillettes. And if the overall mood was not exactly “a deeply private romanticism” as the program notes heralded, there were plenty of pretty, pulled-together clothes, including some flowy evening gowns that did indeed radiate romance.

Yet while most of his clothes could have broad appeal, Maier’s development as a clothing designer with a distinct identity remains a work in progress. Specifically, something about the show’s mood rang a bit too familiar in a Tom Ford kind of way. The first such glimmers seemed almost imaginary: the models with hair pulled into tight chignons; the lean belted coats; the way the girls walked in low-slung skirts (albeit roomier than Ford’s typical fare). But when you spot a guy in a colored velvet tuxedo (here burnt orange), your mind can’t not go there. Perhaps Maier went there accidentally. But it was unnecessary, since his clothes are strong enough for him to find his own way.

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