The show ends. Wrapping up the finale, the models disappear backstage, one after another, to thunderous applause followed by a few seconds of dramatic-tension delay. Will she or won’t she? The audience starts to play the familiar mental game, even though most savvy fashion vets know perfectly well she will. And presto! Miuccia Prada pokes her head out from behind a set wall, smiles knowingly and, in a flash, disappears. The applause swells to a brief crescendo before the crowd, duly satiated, rushes either backstage or out the door.
Prada’s split-second, twice-annual acknowledgment of the fashion flock’s acknowledgment of her genius has become as much an industry standard as shipping fall in July, and, some would say, is plenty calculated.
One of the most famous, most talked about, most respected designers working today, she swathes herself in an aura of mystery unusual in this celeb-obsessed, fashion-obsessed, blogging, tweeting, no-secrets world.
By doing so, Prada keeps even the cynical insider set awed by her rara avis credentials. An influential powerhouse for the better part of 20 years (she introduced ready-to-wear to the family luggage business in 1988), she retains that status on the strength of designs that brilliantly straddle the divide between cerebral and commercial. That approach has garnered her a reputation as fashion’s predominant intellectual artiste—or at least its predominant intellectual artiste with a major business—and one of the most envied and most pressured perches in the industry.
Prada’s most recent collection, for fall, highlighted here on Kate Moss, offers a near perfect fusion of the components fueling the designer’s stardom. Its initial inspiration was countrified, hence the thick, rough-hewn fabrics and the show’s anchor, thigh-high fishermen’s waders, inspired by a photo that found its way into her office, as such inspirational material does all across fashion, in the weeks preceding collections time. “A girl with this huge boot but a twist on the idea of the high boot,” Prada says. This endless strapped-on utility galosh provided an editorial springboard for very glamorous, very real clothes—fabulous coats and suits, ladies!—with a manageable Forties feeling that stood out in a Milan season elsewhere, for some inexplicable reason, big on glitzed-out retro club wear.
Commercial? Absolutely, in that some-women-still-spend-thousands-a-pop kind of way. Yet Prada has stayed at the pinnacle of fashion by allowing high chic to frolic with perversity while she herself seems to stay, if not oblivious, then above it all. Thus perfect, even sensible, tailoring shared the runway with shorts made of hair, and those waders splashed over from tools of a trade to fetish boot du jour. Although one can certainly identify sexual shenanigans in Prada’s work over the years, the obviousness here is a relatively new arrival, one mirrored in her own manner of dressing, which recently evolved from a full-skirted, Italian mama vibe (so genuine, the uninformed would likely have assumed Prada was anything but a fashion designer) to something more overtly alluring, if in a wacky, left-field way: On an afternoon in June she greets a visitor to her Milan headquarters working one of her spring collection’s lean numbers, the fabric light-toned and crinkled, with an add-on silvery gray apron (a key editorial item in her spring lineup) arranged to cover one hip, and elegant, dangling antique black pearl earrings contrasting a knitted grunge cap, a look that darned few middle-aged women not named Edie Beale would even dream of trying to pull off.
She is just back from the Venice Biennale, where, through Fondazione Prada, which supports contemporary artists, she hosted a party for John Wesley and punctuated the end of a spectacular and busy year, creatively speaking. Two stellar fall collections bracketed a spring effort that got a shot of intrigue at retail when Prada engaged four top fashion editors, including W’s Alex White (who styled Moss for this shoot), to redesign flagship stores in New York, London, Milan and Paris around the collection. Meanwhile, the April opening in Seoul, South Korea, of her firm’s Transformer space—the vast temporary steel structure designed by Rem Koolhaas’s Office of Metropolitan Architecture to change shape to accommodate various art installations (the first was Prada’s own “Waist Down,” still flying around the world, on and off, for five years)—turned into a PR coup in an essential emerging market. Conversely, with its polished intimacy, Prada’s June resort show in New York raised the bar for presenting that particularly difficult season.
“Usually my ideas come from what I don’t want to do, or what I find is old. I was really fed up of couture,” Prada says regarding fall, her excellent English suffering little from the occasional syntax snafu. One of the few designers who can change her message 180 degrees from one season to the next without relinquishing a bit of her identity, Prada opted for precision structure for fall after spring’s rumpled-crumpled look.
The conceit was country yet hardly straightforward. Rather, since “you can’t live, apparently, without glamour,” Prada sought “a kind of an impossible combination…. Let’s put in the opposite of the glamour, which is the country.” Along the way she became obsessed with the idea of a perfect red suit and with leather, which she slashed like a knife-wielding predator because she felt she had insufficiently developed peekaboo skins in the previous season at Miu Miu. “It was very womanly, yes,” she notes. “Feminine, powerful.” Yet a collection she thought, “because of the heavy fabrics, everyone would hate.”
Then, the night before the show, Prada insisted upon a change that clarified the entire collection for her. “I went there and [the hair] is too big and I say, ‘Tie the hair.’ By pulling it aside, everything became German. It was so obvious. I saw at this point they all looked like after the war; the red suit became completely Forties. That is the interesting part. You do it and with a little change you see the whole thing differently, and you say, ‘Maybe that’s what I had in mind since the beginning….’ So the heavy wool was not country anymore but postwar and more serious.”
Power dressing, including a strong Forties shoulder, has a deeply entrenched place in fashion. WWII-era German themes, not so much. Yet Prada has mined the turf at least twice, first for fall 1994, when W’s sister publication, Women’s Wear Daily, noted that her austere uniform suits “made the world’s supermodels look like Hitler’s steno pool.” (Would that this writer could claim the line.) Dangerous territory indeed, while speaking to Prada’s particular genius. That she can approach the precipice of the outrageous, and shape the trip into the stuff of mainstream if high-minded fashion, fuels her fascination factor—in part. Although in her decades as a ready-to-wear designer Prada has braced for urban carnage, gone orange and brown ugly and pinup Forties, sans skirts or pants, she has also elevated the mundane—geek wear, bourgeois French dressing, the stuff of Granny’s attic—to outré levels. The only thing one can expect from a Prada show is its unpredictability. Her ability to shock, astound, mesmerize and influence after so long a time in fashion’s forefront often leaves competitors shaking their heads.
Not that Prada acknowledges the competition. When asked about colleagues they admire, most designers will come up with some names, at the very least those safe havens Martin Margiela and Rei Kawakubo. But not Madame Prada. “I’ve said before but not now,” she deflects, though she does offer a nonfashion nod toward one designer with whom she recently rubbed elbows: “I have a mutual respect for Marc Jacobs. We worked together in Venice. He’s nice.”
As praise for peers goes, that’s about it. One might assume that Prada finds it impolitic to compliment the competition were she not just as reluctant to voice favor in other arenas. For example, she recounts her pleasant surprise at sightings of creative good taste at the Biennale—“six girls, really well dressed. I have to say, really very nice.” Yet while some of the women are celebrities, she won’t go public with names. Or outfits. Before describing one woman’s particularly interesting ensemble, Prada goes off the record: “Don’t write it down.”
Such caginess is part of Prada’s complexity. Never a party-hearty type, or at least not since she became famous, she has long acknowledged that her homebody preferences were acquired by choice. “Before I had kids, I was out every night of the week,” she told W in 1996. “Now I want to create a real home for the boys, so I bring my social life in.” Fair enough. But with her sons now 19 and 20 and seemingly past the protection-needed phase, she declines to mention their names (Giulio and Lorenzo), which have been previously published. She does, however, say they now wear her clothes, which has piqued her interest in men’s wear—including the importance of perfect fit—until recently not the business’s most compelling area for her: “I have completely different eyes. Men’s jackets have the most boring stuff, a little bit more short, a little bit more big, a little bit more small. You develop a perfect eye, but it’s really boring. It becomes when you are really involved that you really care. Basically, I found out for my kids. Otherwise when I do the fashion shows myself, I’m more interested in the idea than actually if something fits or not fits. I never care. I care most if I like the idea.”
While mum on her boys’ names, she’s proud of their outspokenness, even when it’s directed at her. “I have to say that my husband and my children are so tough, there really is no space for pretension,” she comments. “We are all tough to each other.” And, she adds, “everybody is principled.”
As an example, Prada relates their horror at her decision not to vote during Italy’s most recent election. “My son criticized me. ‘You’re not coming? You’re not going to vote?’ So I have to justify,” she says. (Which she does; the woman who once famously attended Communist party meetings done up in Yves Saint Laurent noted dissatisfaction with the options.) “Of course, because I always taught them principles and the idea of [the importance of] politics, if they see in myself a false step, they become…. I know it was wrong. I should have gone.” (As for her views on Barack Obama, while so many Europeans in fashion are enraptured, Prada takes a more measured view: “Let’s see what he does. Of course, he’s a hope for everybody.”)
That her sons feel free to express themselves should come as no surprise, parented as they are by two strong-willed, opinionated people. Their father, Patrizio Bertelli—Prada refers to him alternately as “my husband” or “Bertelli”—the company’s CEO and chairman, is known within the industry as much for his volatility and his years-long flirtation with an IPO as for the expansion of his wife’s family’s company under his direction. Recently, in Italy, he has turned tabloid subject as well, having been photographed in a subway station with an unidentified blond woman, the two looking quite cozy.
“Gossip—gossip is everywhere, so what do you do?” Prada responds to a general query. “Of course, I pay attention, but after, what do you do? Nothing.”
Similarly, she admits to paying attention to reviews. “I don’t believe that anyone is not bothered by critics. I think that everybody cares,” she says, but stresses that she does not let criticism alter her approach to her work. “There is a difference between caring and really being changed by it, okay? I care because, of course, I am a human being. That doesn’t mean that I work for appreciation. I work for my ideas and doing what I believe in. But when somebody says that I did a horrible show or that was ‘ehh,’ I’m not happy. This, I think, is just a question of honesty, which is very different from behaving for appreciation. That I don’t do at all.”
Nor will she allow the economic crisis, which has taken its toll on her company’s profits, to dampen her artistic resolve. For the fiscal year 2008, Prada SpA, which owns Prada, Miu Miu, Car Shoe and Church, listed a 22 percent drop in earnings. The group did not break down numbers by individual businesses. “The only difference that I noticed is that you have to be more and more yourself,” she insists. “What is really selling is what is really Prada. You can’t do some generic bulls—.” Nor can you ignore the basics. Prada cites—and her die-hard customers will concur—“the perfect sweater, the perfect black dress, the perfect coat” as being as integral to her ethos as the high-profile runway fare that instantly flags a woman’s au courant sartorial status from one season to the next. “Sometimes you do too much fashion and forget the basics,” she says.
“When you say ‘commercial,’ it shouldn’t be an insult, like something is not beautiful,” she continues. “It has to be best in the sense that [it’s] really what people want to wear to look beautiful and elegant [in]. I wouldn’t have been thinking of all this stuff if there was not a crisis. The crisis obliges [us] to really focus also on what really makes sense.”
Prada credits Bertelli with keeping her focused on the real-world needs of the moment. He has “an incredible eye on what happens in society and so on,” she says. Which is not to say he injects himself into the design process at all; he doesn’t. He does, however, handle the hiring, even when it comes to Prada’s design assistants. “At the end, it’s more or less me” who designs the collections, she explains, adding that she has little patience for the hiring process and that Bertelli has a better radar for talent. Besides, except for a few close relationships—she mentions PR director Verde Visconti—Prada keeps a deliberately cool distance from her staff. “I decided not to care,” she explains. “If you become so aficionado, too affectionate, and they leave, you suffer. Of course, I have a few people in the company that are very near to me. But the others, you know that they come, they want to do a career and they leave, and so you have to learn not to suffer.” Perhaps not surprisingly, then, some former staffers consider the house of Prada not the warmest of workplaces. The designer takes a similarly dispassionate view of the girls who walk her show, considered one of modeling’s plum assignments. For spring, her impossibly high, clunky shoes proved too challenging. At least one girl fell, and numerous others wobbled their way around the winding runway looking terrified. Postshow, Prada sounded more bemused. “I liked it,” she said, smiling, careless of her teen models’ obvious anxiety. “It made the show more interesting.”
Staying interested rates high on Prada’s priority list, including when it comes to getting dressed. Then one of the greatest designers in the world becomes Everywoman, tackling indecision and insecurities. “The more important is the occasion, the [more] last-minute I dress,” Prada says. “It’s important that you feel right, so I use an instinct at the last moment. What I think is unbearable is to wear something that we don’t feel comfortable in. It’s completely, totally psychological. One dress you felt so happy in for that day and that occasion, you put it on in another moment and all the magic is completely disappeared. There is a very tricky [relationship] between the occasion and your mind at that moment.”
One not made easier by an increasingly truncated attention span. When Prada was younger, her initial seasonal wardrobe selections would keep her happy for six months. These days, “after 10 days,” she declares, “I’m fed up.”
That fashion allows its devotees to act on such emotions is a huge part of its allure for Prada. “Since I was very young, I always wanted to be before the trend, the first to do this or to do that,” she says. “I think fashion, in that sense, is the last triumph of what’s new, of what was not done before. That is interesting.”