There’s something dystopian about the expansive seventh floor of Prada’s USA headquarters. The ceiling is unfinished cement, the overhead lights are neon fuchsia, and the building’s massive cylindrical supporting columns, like something from a ship or a parking garage, are painted pale matte pink—set details left over from the resort show, held a couple nights before. Headless mannequins dressed in an enviable wardrobe dot the space, numbered tags dangling from their rigid, willowy wrists. The view from some of the oversize windows is the roof of a luxury car dealership, Lamborghinis and Bugattis stretching out under the midday sun; from others, it’s a bright glimpse of the Hudson. It’s a setting that might appear in a beautiful, disturbing film by someone like Sofia Coppola (a frequent face in Prada’s front row) or Nicolas Winding Refn (who participated in a project called Soggettiva earlier this year at Fondazione Prada, the contemporary art institution, in which artists present a survey of personally inspirational films).
Miuccia Prada, who celebrated her 70th birthday in May and possesses the kind of timeless features that beg to be rendered in oil paints, would herself look more at home in the lush, rich palette favored by Luca Guadagnino (another fan, who once called Mrs. Prada “a constant source of inspiration”). Her hair, curling gently at her collarbone, is buttery blonde. Maroon orbs dangle from her ears like dragon eggs; her marigold knee-length pleated skirt is a staple style for both Prada the brand and Prada the woman. Under a caramel-hued short-sleeve sweater she’s wearing a tight, crepe-thin white undershirt that peeks out just so at her sleeves and neckline. It’s unexpected. It’s perfect.
This is, after all, the creative force behind the sartorial juggernaut that is Prada Group, which, between Prada mens- and womenswear and Miu Miu, puts out 10 complex and cinematic collections each year. This is a woman who has spent a lifetime perfecting the art of personal aesthetics, who honed her eye as a teenager and college student in Milanese vintage shops scouring for Yves Saint Laurent, and donned children’s clothes so as not to blend into the crowd. But when I ask her whether she still finds such joy in putting on clothes every morning, she makes a particular, unnameable expression—lips turned down and pursed, head pulled back—that somehow communicates both “perhaps” and “absolutely not.”
“I tend to dress in uniform,” she says. “Most of the things that I love, I can’t wear because of my age.”
She smiles. “Like miniskirts.”
“The miniskirt she mentions a lot,” says Verde Visconti, Prada and Miu Miu’s longtime PR director, a balletic attaché who accompanies Prada to most public appearances and has been with the company for more than 20 years. For the duration of our interview she sits, catlike, about five feet away. I’m not sure if she means that Prada often mentions her personal desire to wear miniskirts, which might be true, or that she does in a grander referential sense through her work, which definitely is: a pleated olive knit number in 1994; raw-edged silk printed with a beach scene in 2010; Lilliputian patterned skorts in 2017. When they haven’t been scanty in length, they’ve often been so in opacity. Gauzy ’90s cuts over black leotards. Webs of iridescent plastic gems. She sent male models down the spring 2019 runway in shorts so tiny they seemed destined to inflict genital harm; she called them miniskirts for men.
“Provocative,” Prada says gravely, still imagining the skin-baring clothes she’d be wearing were it not for the burden of time. “Seriously.”
We may be sitting among the resort collection, but due to the garbled chronology of fashion and magazines, we’re talking about fall/winter 2019, which she showed in February and which evokes provocation more cerebral than sensual. The manifold themes were sparked by Prada’s fascination with the women writers of late 18th- and early 19th-century England, so often underappreciated during their lifetimes: Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, whose novels she fell in love with decades ago, and Mary Shelley, whose Frankensteinshe started reading for the first time just recently. The social acuity of these writers coupled with the dark romance of Shelley’s classic work propelled the collection, but like everything Prada creates, there’s an injection of wry humor as well. Cartoon images of Frankenstein’s monster and his bride adorn the clothes, along with oversize roses and lightning bolts—symbols and motifs stretched to the extreme. “Now we are working on explaining the complexity in a simple way, because people have no time, have too much information—but there is something not good in that,” says Prada. “How much can you simplify without saying nothing?” Do you get it? Do you? the clothes seem to needle. “I never declare my political intention, because I think in fashion, in luxury business, it’s better to shut up,” she says. And then, as though she can’t help it: “But it was also symbolic of the love of the rejected, the people that have such a difficult life now, and how much love is needed for all these people.”
This dichotomy—to be political without declaring herself so, to do what those in the business of selling expensive goods should do—has created a nearly lifelong internal struggle for the designer, who grew up traveling to France, England, and Ireland, and earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Milan. “I was interested in everything, but I studied very little,” she says. When I ask what she was doing instead, she raises her eyebrows, mischievous. She was famously a member of the Italian Communist Party and an active feminist who spoke out in favor of reproductive rights and accessible childcare. “I was so embarrassed when I was young,” she says. “To be a leftist feminist and doing fashion, I felt so horrible and so ashamed.” But she couldn’t help it; her curiosity and appreciation of culture was omnivorous. She went to the movies, sometimes three shows a day, coming of age in the ’60s boom of great Italian cinema: Antonioni, Fellini, Bertolucci. Sergio Leone, whose work inspired a cavalcade of spaghetti Westerns. Luchino Visconti, of The Leopard and Death in Venice. (The aforementioned Verde is his great-grand-niece, perhaps less coincidence than kismet.) She was a devotee of the theater and would study corporeal mime at the famous Piccolo Teatro for five years. “In the end,” she says, “the love for objects prevailed.”
After first designing items for her family’s stores, Prada (then still going by her given name, Maria Bianchi) inherited the business from her mother in 1978. The leather goods company—founded in 1913 by her maternal grandfather, Mario Prada, who had designed trunks for the Italian royal family—was still a small family business. But Prada had recently met the man who would become her husband, a then rival in the world of leather goods named Patrizio Bertelli. The pair saw the project as an ambitious adventure; he would head the business side, she the creative. She had her unmarried maternal aunt adopt her, thus legally granting her that all-important family name. “We started building a company,” she says. A decade later, Prada launched her first womenswear collection. Miu Miu and Prada menswear were born in 1993.
Earlier this year, the elder of the couple’s two sons, professional race car driver Lorenzo Bertelli, joined Prada Group in an executive role; since then, he’s been integrating the brand’s digital presence with its brick-and-mortar stores. But when I ask if family legacy is important to her—she does, after all, still live in the Milan villa where she was born—Prada shrugs. “Not really,” she says. She sees the company as a passion project between herself and her husband, and seems neither convinced nor concerned about whether her son will one day take it over. “He’s going to see if he likes it.”
Prada and her husband share a devotion to the fine arts, and their house is, according to friends, home to an impressive collection of paintings and objets. During that busy stretch in the mid-’90s, the couple also founded Fondazione Prada, the contemporary art institute that serves as a stand-alone exhibition space, siloed from the capitalism and commercialism of fashion, where artists including Laurie Anderson, Carsten Höller, Theaster Gates, and Dan Flavin have put on solo shows. Prada calls it her solution to the existential crisis of being a politically minded person who also owns a fashion company. “In my mind,” she says, “it’s so connected, the fashion, the art, the culture, the politics.” But in order to be taken seriously in the art world, she felt, she needed to create clear divisions. Not once has she collaborated with an artist on a collection. “I didn’t want, for any reason, people to think that I wanted to take advantage of the art to make my work more glamorous,” she says. “Maybe I’m the last professional moralist.”
There has, however, been seep in other ways. At the brand’s Milan headquarters, one of Höller’s signature slides extends languidly from Prada’s third-floor office down to the street below. Both Höller and Gates have created pop-up clubs under Prada’s purview—though with total creative freedom—during Art Basel Miami. “If there’s anything that I’m doing that is ambitious, that’s audacious, that’s unreasonable, that’s seemingly miraculous,” says Gates, who first met Prada when she went to see his band, the Black Monks of Mississippi, play at London’s Ronnie Scott’s in 2012, “it’s only because I have people like Miuccia who do it every day and refuse to take accolades for it.” In 2011, Prada started hiring women filmmakers to create shorts for an ongoing project called Miu Miu Women’s Tales. The films, which have included The Wedding Singer’s Daughter by Haifaa Al-Mansour (2018), Carmen by Chloë Sevigny (2017), Somebody by Miranda July (2014), and The Door by Ava Duvernay (2013), have, like the art pop-ups, allowed the filmmakers total creative freedom, with the caveat that they dress their actresses in Miu Miu. For some, like Duvernay, the collaboration came at an important time. She had just won best director at Sundance for The Middle of Nowhere, and yet she wasn’t being hit with the feature film offers her white male counterparts had historically enjoyed. She needed the work. The Door “is still one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever made,” Duvernay says.
For much of her career, Prada has found success in making moves that some view as pioneering, a little bit outré, even risky—in her creative decisions, certainly, like her iconic 1980s fascination with industrial nylon, which she used the way others would silk or leather, turning louche backpacks into fetish objects—but also in her business savvy. In the lean years following September 11, as others in the luxury business were tightening their expenditures and fleeing downtown Manhattan, Prada surged forward with a $50 million New York flagship store designed by Rem Koolhaas in SoHo’s old Guggenheim building, which opened in the last days of 2001.
“Sometimes she’s a little bit ahead of the curve, and the curve has to catch up,” says the filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, a longtime friend who shot the portrait for this story. The pair met when Prada designed the navy blue wedding suit Leonardo DiCaprio wears in Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet and have since collaborated on 2013’s The Great Gatsby, and traveled together to Shanghai for the opening of a cultural center called Prada Rong Zhai, and to Moscow to see John Cranko’s Onegin at the Bolshoi. He calls her Mooch. The actor and model Dane DeHaan, who has been appearing in campaigns for the brand since 2013, echoes Luhrmann’s sentiment. “Miuccia has such a knack not for what is popular right now,” he says, “but for what will be popular even years down the road.”
And yet she and the brand have also not been immune to troubling oversights. At the end of last year, Prada released a collection of figurines dubbed Pradamalia that a New York Center for Constitutional Rights attorney, Chinyere Ezie, photographed and posted on Facebook, pointing to some of the figures’ resemblance to the racist caricatures in the 1899 children’s book Little Black Sambo. “History cannot continue to repeat itself,” Ezie wrote. “Black America deserves better. And we demand better.” Prada (the company) pulled the figurines and issued a blanket apology which read, in part, “Prada Group never had the intention of offending anyone and we abhor all forms of racism and racist imagery.” It’s a familiar refrain, a version of which was delivered by Dolce and Gabbana earlier that month, following a set of ads showcasing Chinese model Zuo Ye attempting to eat Italian food with chopsticks, and another issued by Gucci two months later, after its release of a sweater with a balaclava collar that evoked blackface.
In most of these cases, the product is pulled, the apology is issued. But in the wake of what Prada herself soberly refers to as “this mistake,” she had a conversation with Theaster Gates. “What can we do to use this occasion to make things even better,” he says he asked her, “to check our designers and say, ‘Even with good intentions, sometimes racist images spew out’? How do we deal with that?” Last February, Prada Group launched a Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council, cochaired by Gates and Duvernay and advised by Harvard professor Sarah Lewis. The council, in its early stages at press time, is focused on educational efforts and broadening internal conversations, both within Prada and the industry at large. (Two days after Prada’s announcement, Gucci released a set of initiatives aimed at upping awareness, diversity, and inclusion.) “What is your practice? What has been comfortable in the past?” Duvernay says she has put to Prada’s team. “What I really talked with them about is not being performative in this process. I don’t feel like there needs to be a public presentation of what they plan to do. They just need to do it.”
Prada seems motivated by the challenge. “The whole world is full of so many different cultures and religions and races,” she says. “We should start embracing diversity of any kind. The fact seems that it’s happening more or less the opposite.” Nationalism is growing, she says. I think of the U.S.-Mexico border wall; she mentions Europe.
Other concerns are being addressed within the brand. This summer, after years of research and experimentation, the company released its first pieces made from recycled nylon, a sustainable update on an iconic piece of Prada’s DNA. In May, Prada Group pledged to go fur-free by 2020. “It’s very important that everyone seriously tries to do his best when it’s possible,” Prada says. She looks a little tired, but also determined. “It’s a process.”
As our time comes to a close, I ask what she does to de-stress from the work—from the designing, the artistic endeavors, the shows, the parties. She makes that face again. De-stress? “I like what I do,” she says. “The problem is only to have enough great ideas to be able to interpret the world, to be forward thinking, to create something new, interesting, to go to the next step.” But does she mind the constancy of it, the relentlessness of the fashion calendar, the press commitments, all the travel? She thinks. “I hate jet lag,” she says. “Of course, anytime you go somewhere, you learn something.”
Sources from: Vanity Fair