The Man Bag Rears Its Head

A specific man came to mind during Prada’s spring 2019 menswear show. It was Lorenzo Bertelli.

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Guy Trebay
, New York Times

A specific man came to mind during Prada’s spring 2019 menswear show. It was Lorenzo Bertelli.

Bertelli, 30, is the eldest son of Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli, who together run their multibillion dollar fashion company. Early this year, the senior Bertelli announced that his son was being groomed to take over the company some day, assuming he “has the desire to do it.'’

The younger Bertelli is a dashing rally car driver with a look of familial intensity, a prominent beak he gets from his father and a habitually unshaven scruff. Though occupationally he uniforms himself in Nomex race suits, there can be little doubt that for his day job in the communications department at Prada he wears big-boy pants.

Prada offered some of those in a highly commercial show on Sunday, one that featured many signatures of a designer who, whether in homage or to add conceptual heft to her collections, tends to reference greats in related fields. Here it was Verner Panton, the Danish industrial designer whose see-through inflatable 1960s ottomans — pure pop icons — were arrayed in ranks throughout the double-height Prada show space, each cube’s position meticulously labeled on the clear vinyl flooring with precise compass coordinates.

Yet where were we really? That it was easy to imagine we might once again be drifting toward the Bermuda Triangle of gender-blur had something to do with the casting. Although on occasion the designer deviates from type, peppering her runways with famous geezers like Willem Dafoe, she tends to prefer guys who resemble adolescents.

Then she ramps up the effect by dressing them for a Boy Scout jamboree. Nearly half of the looks at Prada (23 of 52) featured short shorts that — pure surmise here — you would not catch Lorenzo Bertelli wearing. The rest had the look of uniforms for a hip high-school senior circa 1974 (pale washed denims, shown with creases)!

As always at Prada, the palette was off-kilter, evidence of Prada’s wonderfully, willfully perverse talents as a colorist: mustard paired with maroon, wisteria with forest green, the dull pink of a turtleneck contrasted with trousers in a brown hue evocative of baby’s first diaper. There were, too, the giddy Instagram-ready prints that have been a Prada signature in recent seasons. And, most tellingly, there was a bag with every look.

As a mental exercise during the menswear shows, it sometimes helps to erase the apparel that, for many design houses, is largely an image driver, and focus instead on the bottom-line elements. Should the young Bertelli decide to take over Prada from his parents (neither one, for the record, shows any sign of retiring), he will inherit a company that derives 60 percent of its revenue from handbags. (The rest is evenly divided between clothes and footwear.) Perhaps taking note of the fact that sneakers have stealthily become the male version of the statement bag, Prada seems to be prophesying that the future of menswear is the murse.

Ditto Fendi where, the designer Silvia Venturini Fendi again collaborated with an artist — in previous years, it was the digital artist Reilly and, before him, the painter Sue Tilley and the illustrator and sculptor John Booth. This time Fendi and the playful Italian artist Nico Vascellari (who, as the partner of her daughter Delfina Delettrez, is effectively her son-in-law) toyed with both the label’s logo and its city of origin, rendering Fendi as the anagram Fiend and Roma as Amor.

Like Prada, Fendi is both a designer and an aficionado of the applied arts and, for inspiration, she seems to be casting an eye toward experiments that industrial designers like Marcel Wanders have made into laser cutting as a means of rendering solid objects transparent and weightless.

At her best here, she offered mesh suiting and blazers and bombers of perforated mesh that read on the body like shadows. At her most lugubrious, she made suits covered all over with versions of the Fendi double-F logo.

As at Prada, there were plenty of short shorts but also logo shirts and belts and sports sandals and, of course, an awful lot of bags. Not satisfied with slinging one piece on each of the 53 models, she festooned them with so many totes and fanny packs and pendant passport wallets that the runway began to look like an ambulating luggage shop.

This, of course, makes a certain amount of sense when you consider that, like every global label, Fendi is in hot pursuit of millennial consumers and not merely the 80 million in the United States but the 400 million in China. Even those that cannot remotely afford one of Fendi’s zillion-dollar crocodile weekend bags can probably stretch the budget for a bucket hat. This is the lesson of Gucci, by far the most successful example of an Italian fashion house that uses runway frippery to drive revenues that ultimately derive far less from clothing than those gateway drugs of luxury goods consumption: belts and sunglasses and key chains. Giorgio Armani plays a different game. So skillfully has his company licensed and diversified the globally recognizable Armani name that the designer, still going strong in his 80s, can afford to present runway shows that are not only substantially devoted to real apparel but that are also designed with men in mind and not boys.

The chiseled and muscular models in Armani shows, with their squinting Blue Steel expressions, may sometimes seem like throwbacks in a twink and twunk era. So, too, the clothes can seem as if designed for another earlier time. This is because Armani has seldom deviated much from the fluid silhouette that made him celebrated enough in the 1980s for Time to put him on its cover, the first designer to rate that distinction since Christian Dior.

The contoured suits, the form-fitting sweater jackets, the flowing trousers (here gathered above the calf in some cases), the drifty blousons and fugitive pale hues that made Armani’s reputation were all in place this season, as they essentially always are. So were such reliably anomalous styling elements as a pair of grandpa trousers unaccountably worn with backward suspenders or Mary Jane shoes.

So what if his taste sometime seems out of step? With no special training as a designer, Armani single-handedly built a multibillion-dollar empire in less than half a century, one predicated on his holding true to his instincts.

Like others at the top of the Italian fashion heap, Armani routinely bats away the inevitable questions about his plans for corporate succession. It is his name on the clothes (this season in a softened Armani logo). It is his company. His is the final word on every design decision. As long as he is alive, as the designer said not long ago, he is the boss.

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