So in a world where choice seems to mean the difference betwen looking like Jane Russell dressed or Jane Russell undressed, there is much to be grateful for in the designs of Miuccia Prada, who last October, ignoring boudoir babes and stenographer chicks, sent her uncomplicated, stylish, thoroughly modern clothes down the catwalk.
In the five years since she began to show in Milan, Prada has championed the beauty of plainness. Her clothes, like those of Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake, drive a wedge into the front line of international fashion, opening up a route whereby women can escape the influence of big-dollar designers and express themselves differently. Prada clothes are unshowy, considerate clothes for women who want to go about their business in the real world but still pay some attention to what's going onin fashion; and in this they mark out their designer clearly from her - principally male - counterparts.
There must be something in this gender distinction: Jil Sander, who also shows in Milan, designs for women like these; Donna Karan does it in America; Nicole Farhi does it in Britain. All these designers, I hasten to add, charge a lot of money for their clothes, but what is important here is not that you rush out and spend £600 on a Prada jacket, but that you realise there is a third option in fashion as a whole.
In the last two or three seasons, Prada has had an increasing influence on the high street. The reefer coat, ubiquitous this winter, was based largely on a Prada classic, shown in almost every fashion magazine. The knee-length dress, introduced two seasons ago by a Prada ad campaign featuring Christy Turlington in knee-socks, has been influential in bringing down hem-lengths. The simple little black or navy dresses, neat white shirts, beautifully stitched shoes, have introduced a Convent-school girl charm into fashion that some women have found irresistible.
Unsurprisingly, there is plenty about Prada clothes that men don't like. Too cold. Too classic. Not overtly sexy enough. Too schoolmistressy. "Intelligent power dressing," as one man, rather disparagingly, put it. Exactly. k.d.lang, in a profile of Pradaby Ingrid Sischy in the New Yorker, described how, looking for the perfect jacket, she tried the men's department, then the women's and finally found one by Prada that fitted the bill. "You know," she said. "I have this image of being someone who wears men's clothes. But I didn't wear clothes that are associated with men because I want to come off like a man. It's just that there were no other kinds of clothes that had to do with confidence and authority instead of vulnerability and stereotypical sexiness."
To understand the clothes, it helps to know the designer. Miuccia Prada is 45. Her family owns Fratelli Prada, one of the great Italian leather-goods manufacturers, and in the early Seventies, like many other young wealthy Italians, she joined the communist party. She also studied for a degree in political sciences. She hated clothes then, and everything they stood for. But things change. By 1978 she had joined the family firm, and begun the long haul to bring it to its present successful position. Her husband, Patrizio Bertelli, works alongside her. One might say that the disciplines of communism - and, she has been quoted as saying, of Catholicism -make themselves felt in the severity of the clothes. The prices, however, belong to an entirely difference set of economic principles.
Much of Prada's financial success, it has to be said, is due to the Prada nylon bag - £115 for a simple one - which took over at the end of the Eighties from Chanel quilting and chains as the fashion-person's most practical accessory. But the clothing line is catching up. Last February, Prada received the International Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. And Prada's collection for Spring '95 is distinguished by its lack of ornament, its lack of reliance on the Forties, or any other earlier decade, and its lack of movie-star glamour.
Prada clothes are not for every woman. (As I write, Gossard are probably putting the finishing touches to a new Wondercorset.) But at a time when fashion is increasingly defined in Hollywood terms, Prada is for the art-house lot; clothes for the woman who'd rather look like Irene Jacob than Marilyn Monroe.