Miuccia Prada's otherwise sparse office in Milan is dominated by a much-discussed artwork by Carsten Höller, the artist behind the huge helix-shaped slides at the Tate Modern. She and I met late in July this year, in the midst of a flurry of preparations for the upcoming collections in September and before the industry's total shutdown in August. Her bright eyes dart around; she clearly has a lot in her mind. I ask her about the stress of putting on a show, and she is adamant that "it's a pain you create for yourself, but very useful because it forces you to work more and better."
The Höller piece, a slide similar to the ones at the Tate, has been the subject of endless interpretation. The first time I saw it, it was tempting to think of it as an escape hatch. A permanent reminder that this is a woman who might at any time drop it all and run away.
That was the best part of a decade ago, by which time Miuccia had already achieved her creative eminence and had the entire industry hanging on her every utterance. Case in point: a friend who works at the studio of a leading French house told me about the time when, after seeing the Prada collection in Milan, the head designer scrapped his entire collection and started again - with two days to go until the show. Because Miuccia had spoken, the rest of the fashion industry was going to have to respond.
Of course, it wasn't always thus. Miuccia earned her stripes slowly and after years of being regarded with skepticism from critics and fashion insiders. Untrained in design and lacking an apprenticeship in the conventional sense, she earned a Ph.D. in politics, then became a mime artist before eventually taking over the family business. At that point in the late '70s, Prada was a small Milanese leather goods manufacturer. The company's profile and profits boomed thanks to a series of design innovations that were perfectly in sync with the culture and the zeitgeist of the '90s. A normal fashion success story might have ended there.
Prada's commercial success came before its creator's creativity and brilliance was fully acknowledged by the experts, reversing the pattern than defines the life cycle of most other fashion brands: creative success leads to commercial success. Commercial success leads to creative stagnation. Creative stagnation then leads to business decline.
For the past ten years, Prada has had an almost uninterrupted creative hegemony in the world of high fashion, while the business story of the Prada Group has taken some hair-raising twists and turns. Our meeting takes place only a few weeks after the company completed an oversubscribed IPO in the Hong Kong stock market, raising US$2.1 billion. Good going at any time, but particularly encouraging in the middle of a recession. This contrast between the commercial performance and creative output of the business defines the fashion industry.
The balancing act in most fashion houses is maintained by a corporate culture that strictly separates the creative and the business agendas and people. The creativity is allowed to flourish within the confines of the studio and in impossible fantasies on the catwalk. The business is done on the shop floor, selling you the same clothes - or just as likely, scents and accessories (the real money-spinners) - that you always wear.
Other famous Milanese brands might give you clothes in shows and ads that would only work for Lady Gaga, but the reality is that the vast majority of their sales come from the equivalent of the standard business suits of Italian businessmen. Designers' flights of fancy are limited to their gilded cages and are tolerated - even encouraged - by the management because these creations guarantee all-important column inches. It is less about making clothes for people and more about exceptionally creative PR, building the allure and helping maintain the illusion of brand.
Here is the most striking feature of Prada and it stems from this: Miuccia doesn't do illusion. "I struggle with and work against that," she says. "I always have said that I want to be very practical, realistic. That more or less what you present in the shows, you should present in the stores. That's why I don't like fashion when it becomes costume."
Elsewhere in fashion's wonderland, the crazy stuff on the catwalk is window dressing, whilst the collections destined for the stores are safe and dominated by concerns over margins. This concern is much higher on the profit-making accessories: most high fashion clothing is sold at a loss if you factor in the staggering overheads.
This hints at a universal division of labour that holds for all fashion businesses except the very smallest. A division between "Art" and "Commerce", you might say. There are no other brands of Prada's size where the designer is not only an owner of the business, but also has the same name on her passport as on the logos on her bags and Bond Street shopfront. In that sense, Prada is unique. A mom-and-pop business of gargantuan proportions. It's one of the world's top five fashion businesses. During our talk, Miuccia's phone rings constantly, but she only takes the call when it's her husband, Patrizio (better known as "Mr") Bertelli.
As she points out, his influence on the creative output of the company is not to be underestimated. From the decision to investing in visionary architect Rem Koolhaas on their landmark store in New York ("that could be no ordinary shop") to moving the show locations for Miu Miu ("he is obviously the one who pushes us, who says 'STOP, FINISH, BASTA!' And we are obliged to follow," she says). "Because we searched and searched and searched [for the location of Miu Miu's autumn/winter 2011 show] and finally Palais d'Iéna came up." One of Paris's Architectural gems, the building had never before been opened to the public. Another Prada first.
The level of Miuccia's influence on the direction of the business is extremely rare amongst designers. Most designers would have little, if any, involvement in or awareness of such decisions. In fact, they would consider it vital to be aloof from anything as grubby and worldly as finance. Not so with Miuccia .
"I was a big sponsor of the IPO in Hong Kong," she explains. "Because you oblige the whole company to work so intensely in a particular country, I think it was very educational for the company. The reason we went there wasn't because the [Chinese] have more money to spend. We have been listed in Hong Kong because most of our investors are international and because this confirms the company has a real international outlook."
She is smart in ways other designers won't even consider. Prada's purchase and buyouts of both Jil Sander and Helmut Lang ended up burdening the company with almost half a billion dollars of debt. It was a rough patch that was resolved by moving the brands on half a decade ago and one that has now been smoothed over, thanks to the new stock market offering.
She may be pioneering, but she is not always the most pragmatic in pursuit of profit. Especially when the established methods seem too easy and shameless. The licensing of fragrances, normally the number-one cash cow for any luxury brand, took Miuccia nearly a decade to sort out.
Something similar happened with online marketing and e-commerce. Prada can be at once years ahead of the competition and charmingly non commercial in embracing new marketing techniques and revenue streams.
Another quick fix solution since the financial crisis has been "designer" collaborations. High-street giants like H&M have become part of the culture of fashion, such projects promise "top names at rock-bottom prices". Miuccia has been offered more of such opportunities than most but has always declined. Not because she hates fast fashion, but because she thinks that she can do it no service. "They have asked me a lot, but I don't like to do the cheap version of what I do. What I do makes a lot of sense in the way that I do it. Where the fabric is made and its quality is important. The quality of my work is present in the whole process, not just the design. The cheap copy doesn't interest me. Fast fashion should have its own quality, and I say that, if I could be so genius as to do a great work in that genre, I would do it for my company." A decision that seems to be paying dividends judging by the company performance during the downturn, despite being much copied by the high street (have you seen the recent H&M prints "inspired" by Miu Miu?).
Miuccia has a habit of avoiding the straightest route to any destination. Is that the habit of genius or a form of indulgence?
Miuccia has no romantic illusions about the traditional snobberies of the luxury business either; take the much coveted "made in Italy" label that has such high status with others. She is interested in quality and results, not the location of its delivery. "I remember I wanted to do a particular knit or crochet, and I wanted to make it in Italy. Done by hand, it was horrible. So I tried making it in India, and it was much, much better. No comparison: the quality was much better. Craftsmanship is something that is in decline in Italy. Also, we are not the only ones who have quality. The quality is good in so many places. I think that if you have the goal and the determination to do good quality of work, who cares where it's done? For me, I don't care."
At the same time she is passionate about supporting the craftsmanship that is worth supporting in Italy. "I think that we have some qualities that we should try and preserve. We should promote more of its culture, its reservoir of knowledge and experience. If we don't, I think we could lose it."
An Italian banker friend told me recently that whilst Italy is almost bankrupt, well-to-do Italians are the richest people in Europe. The charmed, civilised and productive lives of the Italian bourgeoisie exist in absolute contrast to the unproductive, chaotic and corrupt public realm, as overseen by the understandably pilloried Prime Minister Berlusconi.
Italians tend to stay close to those closest to them. The serenity behind the gates of grand villas in Milan is guarded from the chaos and gridlock outside. This extends to the country's cultural institutions. Relative to its size and despite its rich historical cultural heritage, Italy has one of the smallest public collections of contemporary art in Europe (less than Scotland, for example, which has less than a tenth of Italy's population). On the other hand, rich Italians are amongst the top collectors in the field.
Prada has a famous and fabulous contemporary art collection. Miuccia and Mr Bertelli established the art foundation nearly 20 years ago. Whereas other collectors collect for private use or investment, Miuccia tells me that their collection was always planned to be a public one, and the foundation was established before the buying began. Prada's long-term architectural partner, OMA, is working on a new space in Largo Isarco, a former industrial space south of Milan which is set to become the largest public collection of contemporary art in the city when it opens in 2013. A glimpse of the collection was on display during the Venice Biennale where I saw it in June.
To take on such a mantle specially in a country like Italy betrays, if anything, a propensity towards the Masochistic rather than a habit of self indulgence. Setting out to single handedly redefine the cultural map in a closed city such as Milan is brave indeed. We saw a glimpse of the extent of the art foundation in Venice in May this year. Ca' Corner della Regina, is an 18th century palazzo that has been restored by Prada Foundation in return for its usage for the next six years. A universally celebrated show this was one of the highlights of the Biannale this year.
Highly smart and most unexpected for a fashion brand, this was no Chanel doing handbag-inspired "art". No thinly disguised marketing exercise, this is real and serious stuff. Not only because it contained many artists who are part of the canon and present in major international collections, (it's hard to tell you something about Damian Hirst or Jeff Koons that you don't know already?) but also because of it's highly original selection of their work, often purchased long before the artists had achieved their success. You can discover the least-expected works by the best-known artists. Anish Kapoor, famous for his big flashy chrome sculptures, is represented by an early work from 1989 called "Void Field". Roughly cut blocs of Northumbrian sandstone reminiscent of an ancient Egyptian mason's yard are arranged in neat rows. Damien Hirst is represented by a beach ball hovering over a huge fan. It's not the Kapoor or Hirst everyone knows, and it is for that reason that the pieces are some of their most important. To venture into the art world at this level takes cash, takes guts but more than anything it takes a level of confidence in one's own judgement few can demonstrate.
This well-informed sense of independent vision translates in her designs. She goes to places few dare to tread, but very many follow. Miuccia has demonstrated that repeatedly. A few years ago, Prada suddenly introduced colourful and graphic prints. At that point, a deeply unfashionable thing to do. As most designers including Miuccia would admit, a difficult terrain. "Working with print is the most difficult thing possible for a designer because you have to express an idea [explicitly]. It's the opposite of minimal. It's about telling stories and then forcing yourself to be more explicit, because with prints you have to choose a theme. You can't leave it ambiguous, and you have to nail your colors to the mast." A few seasons on, prints are a staple of trends everywhere from high fashion to high street and selling like crazy. Yet again Prada's audacity and risk taking paved the way for the rest of the industry.
I have long wondered about the working methods, which so consistently deliver this. Talking with most fashion designers about their work is usually limited to discussions about "inspiration", "trends" and perhaps the personal experiences that influence these, with travel and love lives featuring among the chief clichés: I travelled to Tibet/Brasil/Congo with New Boyfriend,/wife/husband and dot dot dot. You get the picture. It can be charming, but in a limited way.
With Miuccia , that kind of pedestrian anecdote is useless. Her system for creating collections is more akin to a modern architecture practice or a systematic artist. One gets the impression that for her, the process of arriving at ideas is more interesting and exciting than the finished ideas themselves. This is how she copes with the urgency of fashion and its feverish obsession with the new. She describes her way of working in a way that sounds more like a scientist who is sequencing genes. A process of trial and error, endless combining, challenging, eliminating and rethinking.
"I have the head of design, Fabio Zambernardi, who works really closely with me, and we have a good group of people. We start altogether from scratch. We build ideas very slowly," she explains. In the run-up to a show, they "drop some ideas and follow others until basically four days before the show, we [start again and] produce everything that goes in the show [from scratch]."
She isn't from the tribe of designers with flourishing sketches in the splendid isolation of her atelier. Her approach to design is more akin to, say, Comme des Garçons's Rai Kawakubo - conceptual, cerebral and even philosophical - but unlike Comme, Prada's clothes work well on the body.
Prada can do sass and sex and even, when the season demands it, bling. The designs touch high culture and low culture in turn, and if the idea is complex, the looks can be disarmingly, well, fashionable. They revel in the inherent luxury of their materials and the technical innovation that goes into making them - which is to say that the rigour and austerity in the thinking behind the clothes doesn't translate into itchy, ill-fitting things that make you look like a new-age nun. Miuccia is neither a conceptual designer who designs for museum curators' wardrobes, nor a high-gloss designer of classic Italian polish along the lines of, say, Gucci (which can too easily veer into Euro-flash). Her clothes aren't boringly utilitarian; they can be conceptual and sensual. Rarely overtly sexy, they can be erotically charged propositions, as the Miu Miu collection this season. High Necklines and low hemlines yet dripping with sexiness.
It isn't just the devil who wears Prada. Actresses, pop stars, business people and intellectuals as well as the coolest of fashionistas can tap into Prada's "just so" style.
It's more like the art of commerce than the commerce of art, as she puts it: "basically I am trying to make something [creative and artistic] out of my work, something meaningful, in order to complete my life. And I am trying to make the best I can out of it. So it's not like this one side is business and the other is creativity. I think there is a sense of completeness. It's all one thing."
So the "escape route" interpretation of the Carsten Höller art hatch in her office is, after all, wide off the mark. She isn't a reluctant intellectual trying to get away from the frippery of the fashion world. Perhaps the hatch is a way in and not a way out; like Alice, she has the magical ability to connect alternate places, concerns and dimensions in her body of work.
Perhaps what qualifies Prada to speak to the sensibility of
these conflicted times is the way Miuccia expresses the questioning
and unresolved nature of the woman and shapes her company and
collections in her image.
1.Portrait of Miuccia Prada by Manuela Pavesi
2.Prada AW11. photography by Sean Cunningham
3.From left: Patrizio Bertelli, Jeff Koons and guest, Miuccia Prada and Rem Koolhaas. Ca' Corner della Regina, Venice. Installation by Anish Kapoor. Ca' Corner della Regina, Venice
4.Miu Miu AW11
5.Prada flagship stores. Clockwise, from left: Shanghai, Chengdu, Tokyo, Shenzhen, Wenzhou
6.Miuccia Prada at her office in Milan. photography by Brigitte Lacombe
This interview was first published in the AW11 issue of O: Woman Quarterly Fashion Supplement by Tank