c.2015 New York Times News Service

c.2015 New York Times News Service

MILAN — “What is real and what is fake? What does the confusion of the two mean for our understanding of beauty?”

These are questions that have been raised again and again over the last few years, both inside the fashion industry and out — by legislators, the advertising industry and women, activist or not — as the truth versus airbrushing movement has reached epidemic proportions.

When they come up, they generally, and understandably, provoke passion and debate. Sometimes they provoke political activism. What they do not often provoke, however, is clothes.

Except, that is, in the case of Miuccia Prada, quoted above. This was backstage, after the show, when the crowd had surged in to hear her elliptical comments on inspiration. It has become a Milan ritual, as predictable as traffic jams and dinners at Da Giacomo — and the fact that what Prada does each season cannot be predicted from the last.

Exploring ideas of retouching, genetic modification and plastic surgery — the things we do these days to redesign nature — this time round the designer sent out shrunken trouser suits with three-button jackets and pants cropped at the ankle; sculptural baby-doll dresses; and neat little coats in the sugary pastel shades of clichéd femininity, but remade in spongy futuristic techno-jersey fabrics and accessorized with opera gloves, bouffant up-dos and 1960s-style flat bows or fur epaulets.

There were real ostrich skin spaghetti-strap dresses and faux ostrich-print leather jackets; plastic flower brooches on coat lapels and rhinestone flower brooches on cocktail dresses; real tweed draped sleeveless tops with coordinated pants, and faux tweed prints — many of the iterations of womanhood she has toyed with before, though never with so much overt irony. Despite the mess-with-your-assumptions approach, however, it was in many ways her least convoluted collection (and explanation, for that matter) in seasons.

“Both realities are a part of today,” she said afterward, the clothes being a case in point. “It wasn’t about dreaming or imagining; it was about thinking over all those metrics.”

It is this — Prada’s willingness to engage with an idea, one generally in the public domain, and wrestle it out on the runway — that makes her so interesting to watch. Sometimes the process is more resolved than others, sometimes more layered, but the sheer fact that she is working through a problem in real time gives her clothes a relevance that goes beyond silhouette or seam.

Admittedly, though, not everyone wants meta-commentary on the human condition as part of their wardrobe. For those, there is the relaxed approach at Agnona, where Stefano Pilati is slowly but surely crafting an image of intelligent, subtle ease for a grown-up woman (see the rough-edged glen paid overcoats; the lavishly fringed feather-light cashmere knit capes; and the season’s most elegant jumpsuit, with diamond-studded patch pockets on the backside).

Certainly it makes more sense than the halfway measures at Emporio Armani, where an effort to jazz up the signature youthful tailoring via “hybrids and cross-cultural references” (read: ikat), blouson trousers cropped and buttoned at the calf, knit purple and red fur vests, and a series of glittering little black dresses felt unnecessarily forced.

Sometimes it’s OK to just play to your strengths, as Veronica Etro did in her Etro collection, which resembled nothing so much as a textile fair in a trouser.

Or a dress, or tunic, patchworked out of woven jacquards, tweeds, suede, python, tapestry, sequins, velvet — sometimes as many as 10 fabrics in one controlled, strong-shouldered silhouette, and one color palette of golden earth tones. Imagine a wear-your-living-room-to-work day, and you’ll get the idea.

It actually wasn’t a bad one (Etro is a good decorator). Still, it did not attempt to address any larger questions of contemporary culture, and as a result lacked a certain currency; that was the province of Jeremy Scott at Moschino, who did it through the prism of a one-liner. Or, to be accurate, an entire stand-up set of one-liners.

This season, his subject was fashion itself, from the rise of athleisure wear to accessories to haute denim to branding. There were quilted puffa everythings in Lego-bright shades, from greatcoats to skirts to overalls, along with multiple bags (backpacks, messengers, top-handles) with every look, that gave way to quilted leather versions of the same, which segued into baseball-striped jerseys and sweats splashed with hip-hop Looney Tunes characters.

Next came Moschino-banded Calvin Klein-style tighty-whiteys turned into one-shoulder cropped tops paired with inside-out jeans or sweats and hung with exaggerated rapper chains, and faux Chanel boucle suits likewise festooned; faded denim patchworked with gold leather; brown and tan logo-print leather carry-ons; and to end it all, a series of graffiti-sprayed sequin and taffeta gowns.

A lot of it was funny, in a slapstick sort of way, but easy jokes can wear thin after a while, especially when the suggestion is that they actually be worn. Most women do not want to be a visual punch line (Katy Perry aside, perhaps).

Which is why the finale dresses, especially the white ones tagged in black, worked: stereotypical at base, the spray-painting gave them an urban edge that was additive. They were not just a sartorial stunt; they were smart. As a result they were, at long last on Scott’s runway, a step toward the real thing.