Opera Chic talks with Prada biographer Gian Luigi Paracchini

In the cover story of the upcoming Wall Street Journal magazine, Prada's Patrizio Bertelli discusses, among other things, a possible initial public offering for the company, noting that the stock market is the best option...


Why has Prada has so many problems with IPOs? Most of those problems can be summed up in one date: September 18, 2001. That was the day Prada was supposed to launch its IPO. Obviously, it was just one week after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, and it was unthinkable to go forward. The plan was shelved until June 2004 when it was re-examined and then postponed. Again, in May 2008 there were serious talks of an imminent IPO that was then postponed. Bertelli knows that going public is inevitable, given the debt load — about 1.5 billion USD — that the company has incurred, partially due to bad luck (that Bertelli admits) and to some acquisitions which ten years ago seemed like a good idea — Helmut Lang, Jil Sander, Church, Alaia, Car Shoe, Byblos, Jenny, the Fendi deal made together with LVMH. Bertelli wanted to create the Italian equivalent of PPR and LVMH: hindsight will tell you that it was risky, but it was an excellent idea then and it still makes a lot of sense now. September 11th, speculative bubbles, the most severe recession since 1929 came in the way of an idea that is still very impressive.

How would you define Bertelli’s style as a CEO? The reason Bertelli can still run a successful company given its considerable debt load is that he’s the sort of businessman that inspires confidence in the banks – to borrow from equestrian slang, he’s a “purebred”, someone with the right DNA to succeed. Prada has always reinvested their profits into the company, making Prada look more forward-looking, and they keep such an influential connection to the avant-garde — the stores designed by star architects, their Fondazione Prada. Banks know that Miuccia and Bertelli know what they’re doing, and they know that the whole fashion business always pays a lot of attention to everything Prada does. That’s why Bertelli, as CEO, has been allowed to go for an IPO taking his time.

When do you see it happening? The IPO is not an option, it is a necessity, and it will have to happen before 2012. Late 2010, early 2011 are a reasonable forecast. Bertelli needs to raise money but doesn’t really want to sell a large chunk of his and his wife’s company to a major partner. He likes being his own boss.

How do they work together? Bertelli is the sort of man who’ll smash mirrors in a store because he thinks that they make people look fat, the man who will clear the room of people who don’t work for the company before proceeding to chew out some underling who made a minor mistake. Your book is full of those anecdotes. They seldom agree about stuff, and even though they recognize their strengths — she knows he has amazing commercial insights, he knows she’s a uniquely creative mind — the process is very adversarial.

Is it true that she addresses him by his last name? Yes. She will only say “Il Bertelli” (The Bertelli), a very peculiar Milanese highbrow manner of addressing someone in your close circle. It’s how well-to-do, popular, cool high school girls such as young Miuccia would address their school friends. It’s affectionate, and it’s also very Miuccia. He will simply call her Miuccia, instead, plainly: he’s a direct, pragmatic man. He also loves sailing, and like sailors he might use the occasional profanity to drive his point home. They have a very interesting dynamic, the volcanic Tuscan and the cool, aloof Milanese signora.

How did they react to your book? They gave you interviews and quotes but it was not an authorized book. I had no interest in doing a hatchet job: I wanted to know how you can start from one old school store in Milan’s Galleria selling exquisitely made luggage and bags and end up as one of the world’s strongest brands in about three decades. He liked the book but he still thinks I put too much emphasis on his famous temper tantrums (tantrums that he has not denied happened). Miuccia liked the book, too, but had a very Miuccia way to convey her impressions: “I don’t think I’m as big a bitch as you think, but I had fun reading it,” she said.

Look for regular dispatches from our favorite (and anonymous) opera blogger, the Milan-based Opera Chic, every Wednesday. See her previous W posts HERE.