THE MAG­NIF­I­CENT MRS PRADA Jus­tine Pi­cardie talks to the leg­endary Mi­uc­cia Prada about her Foun­da­tion’s new art space

Harper's Bazaar (UK) - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by BRIGITTE LACOMBE

The newly opened Torre art space at the Prada Foun­da­tion re­flects the bril­liance of the woman be­hind it, and houses a per­sonal col­lec­tion that rebels against con­ven­tion, much like its avant-garde owner. In a rare in­ter­view, Jus­tine Pi­cardie meets Mi­uc­cia Prada, a glob­ally revered fash­ion de­signer whose true pas­sions ap­pear to be pol­i­tics and art

It was a sun­lit sum­mer’s morn­ing when I vis­ited the Torre, the newly opened art space at the Prada Foun­da­tion, in prepa­ra­tion for my meet­ing with Mi­uc­cia Prada her­self later that day. The Mi­lan sky was such a bright blue that the pris­tine white con­crete walls of the Torre seemed even more daz­zling in con­trast, and the 200-foot-high struc­ture looked like a gleam­ing sculp­ture, ris­ing above the group of build­ings that make up the Prada Foun­da­tion, de­signed by the Dutch ar­chi­tect Rem Kool­haas.

As it hap­pens, I had al­ready seen the Torre by night, six months pre­vi­ously, at the Prada show in Fe­bru­ary, where the col­lec­tion had been pre­sented on the fourth floor of the build­ing. The con­struc­tion was not quite fin­ished at that point, which added a hint of dan­ger to the pro­ceed­ings; a black mir­rored floor ap­peared to give way to a void of dark­ness, while be­yond the vast floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows, the au­di­ence could see the city sky­line il­lu­mi­nated by neon Prada signs, hov­er­ing like car­toon UFOs (a spi­der, a mon­key, a di­nosaur among them). As I sat and watched the show it­self – which was filmed by a sin­is­ter drone – it oc­curred to me that the ex­pe­ri­ence was more akin to watch­ing a piece of per­for­mance art. These were not se­duc­tive clothes that we were see­ing; in­stead, the pa­rade of mod­els wore rub­ber boots, flu­o­res­cent pad­ding, util­i­tar­ian lay­ers of work­wear over tulle dresses, with ID cards at­tached, as if in a sci-fi dystopia.

The show was chal­leng­ing – even puz­zling – but provo­ca­tion has been Mi­uc­cia Prada’s sig­na­ture ever since she en­tered her fam­ily’s ac­ces­sories busi­ness four decades ago. The brand had been founded in Mi­lan in 1913 by her grand­fa­ther, Mario Prada, who be­came a suc­cess­ful man­u­fac­turer of lux­u­ri­ous leather goods for the Ital­ian elite. Af­ter his death, his daugh­ter Luisa (Mi­uc­cia’s mother) took over the busi­ness; and she was fol­lowed in turn by Mi­uc­cia (or Mrs Prada, as she is known by ev­ery­one in her com­pany, and the wider in­dus­try). At the time, she seemed an un­likely en­tre­pre­neur: a for­mer mem­ber of the Ital­ian Com­mu­nist Party, she had a PhD in po­lit­i­cal sci­ence from the Uni­ver­sity of Mi­lan, and had sub­se­quently trained as a mime artist at the famed Pic­colo Teatro, where she per­formed for sev­eral years. Prada’s first big suc­cess was the range of black ny­lon back­packs and bags that she de­signed in 1985; three years later, with the en­cour­age­ment of her hus­band and busi­ness part­ner Pa­trizio Bertelli, she launched her wom­enswear line, with a show in 1988 that she de­scribed as ‘uni­forms for the slightly dis­en­fran­chised’. Ever since then, her in­flu­ence has grown, so that now Mi­uc­cia Prada is among the most ad­mired – and end­lessly scru­ti­nised – de­sign­ers in the world; a bil­lion­aire pow­er­house who re­mains ut­terly true to her cre­ative con­vic­tions, and whose work is so orig­i­nal, un­pre­dictable and sin­gu­lar that it is near-im­pos­si­ble to copy or fake.

Thus it is that when the time comes for me to meet her, af­ter my morn­ing at the Foun­da­tion that houses her and her hus­band’s

art col­lec­tion, I am feel­ing in­trigued, but also a lit­tle scared. She rarely gives in­ter­views, and this one has taken many months to ar­range. As be­fits the sphinx of fash­ion, Mi­uc­cia Prada is also wreathed in myths. One is that if she is bored by a con­ver­sa­tion, she may de­cide to dis­ap­pear down a chute in her of­fice; this hel­ter-skel­ter slide, de­signed by her friend, the artist Carsten Höller, starts on the floor of her stu­dio and spi­rals through the build­ing to the court­yard out­side.

As it turns out, she is sit­ting be­hind her desk, a smile on her at­trac­tive face, and an alert look in her hazel eyes. She is wear­ing a bold blue knee-length skirt-suit of her own de­sign; the ef­fect is a char­ac­ter­is­tic com­bi­na­tion of lady-like el­e­gance with a slightly sub­ver­sive twist (the re­worked Prada logo of the show I’d seen in Fe­bru­ary is on her lapel, and for rea­sons that I can­not ex­plain, this looks sedi­tious, rather than cor­po­rate).

We be­gin by talk­ing about the Torre, and the ef­fect of see­ing it in day­light. ‘It was a long and dif­fi­cult process to build,’ she says, yet de­spite the com­pli­ca­tions, she is happy with the end re­sult, and with the set­ting, over­look­ing an aban­doned rail­way track that has been colonised with wild grasses. ‘Now it’s so beau­ti­ful, it’s per­fect like this.’ Mrs Prada pauses, and then a look of worry passes across her face. ‘I’m ter­ri­fied that this nat­u­ral space will be ru­ined. It’s much more easy to ruin a gar­den than a home, be­cause bad homes, some­how, are still used, but bad gar­dens… I can’t stand bad gar­dens.’ And then she laughs, as if at the strength of her own re­ac­tion.

But what is ev­i­dent is how much she cares about the Foun­da­tion, and the Torre that stands at its heart, as well as the art­works that are con­tained within it. These are dis­played in ways that sug­gest a di­a­logue be­tween the dif­fer­ent ex­hibits; and also, per­haps, within the mind of the bril­liant woman who has played such a key part in the cre­ation of this re­mark­able place. In­deed, it oc­curs to me that the Torre might be a kind of self-por­trait of Mrs Prada; and when I sug­gest this to her, she nods, al­most im­per­cep­ti­bly. ‘It’s very per­sonal, for sure,’ she replies.

As such, the Torre con­tains clues to un­der­stand­ing a de­signer who has of­ten been deemed in­scrutable. On the top floor (there are nine in to­tal) are two linked in­stal­la­tions by Carsten Höller: the first, a pitch-black tun­nel, the Gan­ten­bein Cor­ri­dor, which leads to the Up­side Down Mush­room Room. The for­mer is dis­ori­en­tat­ing; the lat­ter play­fully hal­lu­cino­genic (with a clus­ter of gi­ant mush­rooms re­volv­ing from the ceil­ing). Next to Höller’s in­stal­la­tions is one by John Baldessari, Blue Line: the gallery ap­pears to be di­vided by the thin blue line of the art­work’s ti­tle, but this turns out to be the top edge of a long panel, tipped at an an­gle. On ei­ther side, the artist has mounted a blown-up black and white pho­to­graph of Hol­bein’s mag­nif­i­cently re­al­is­tic paint­ing, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb. There is also a video cam­era, which turns out to be film­ing who­ever is look­ing at the art­work, but with a 60-sec­ond de­lay – so that you can watch your­self re­gard­ing an im­age of mor­tal­ity.

All of this is in­trigu­ing; and a re­minder, pos­si­bly, that Mi­uc­cia Prada had a Catholic up­bring­ing, then re­belled against con­ven­tion as a teenager in the 1960s, be­fore en­ter­ing the fam­ily busi­ness and rein­vig­o­rat­ing it in sur­pris­ing ways. But these are not the art­works that make her most an­i­mated in con­ver­sa­tion. When I tell her how ab­sorbed I was by the fourth floor – where her show took place in Fe­bru­ary – her face lights up, and she says: ‘It’s my best floor, my favourite, too.’ At one end, there are three works by Mona Ha­toum: Pin Car­pet, a beau­ti­ful yet lethal floor-cov­er­ing of stain­less steel pins; Un­ti­tled (Wheel­chair), in which the arms are sharp as knives; and Re­mains of the Day, a col­lec­tion of burnt and ru­ined house­hold fur­ni­ture that looks like the af­ter­math of a cat­a­strophic fire or bomb blast. Ha­toum was born in Beirut to a Pales­tinian fam­ily, and moved to Lon­don in the mid-Sev­en­ties, and her abil­ity to make the fa­mil­iar feel un­canny is also ap­par­ent in the work dis­played at the other end of the gallery on the fourth floor, by Ed­ward Kien­holz and Nancy Red­din Kien­holz (a hus­band and wife team known pro­fes­sion­ally as Kien­holz). Their in­stal­la­tions are from the ‘Volk­sempfängers’ series, which dis­plays a range of ra­dio re­ceivers de­vel­oped at the be­hest of Joseph Goebbels as a pro­pa­ganda tool for the Nazis. Rather than broad­cast­ing Hitler’s speeches, these now play mu­sic by Wag­ner (a com­poser ap­pro­pri­ated by Ger­man na­tion­al­ism).

The jux­ta­po­si­tions evoke a num­ber of ques­tions, which are re­flected in Mi­uc­cia Prada’s own pre­oc­cu­pa­tions with the na­ture of free­dom, and what it might look like, par­tic­u­larly for women. ‘I feel so strongly about the prob­lem of the lack of free­dom,’ she says. ‘There are regimes ev­ery­where. Artists are of­ten re­act­ing to regimes, but our ex­hi­bi­tions are also ask­ing: “What is my own con­flict at the mo­ment?” And I try to have an­swers through art.’

And yet hav­ing watched so many of her fash­ion shows over the years, it seems to me that Mrs Prada will never stop ques­tion­ing her­self, and ex­plor­ing her dilem­mas – and those of other women – through her own work. She re­sists the idea that her role as a de­signer is close to that of an artist, even when I say that in my view, she could be re­garded as more cre­atively dar­ing than Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst (both of whom have vast pieces on show in the Torre; mon­u­ments, if not to hubris, then to their sta­tus). ‘I do a cre­ative job for sure,’ she says, ‘but mine is a com­mer­cial pro­fes­sion, I’m not as free as an artist. Yes, I chose my job, and in the end I’m happy to do it. Artists, when they do a work, in the­ory they should do it for the idea, and that’s enough.’

Mrs Prada re­turns of­ten to the sub­ject of free­dom – and is unafraid of ad­mit­ting to feel­ing con­flicted about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween lib­erty and money. On the one hand, she ob­serves that her role at the Prada Foun­da­tion is that of com­plete au­ton­omy,

be­cause she is fi­nan­cially in­de­pen­dent. ‘I can give the money for the Fon­dazione, my own money, and I don’t have to ask for money from any­one else, so in that sense I have a great free­dom, be­cause the mo­ment you ask for money, you are not free.

‘I al­ways say to any girl, “If you’re go­ing to do one thing in life, earn your own money.” Be­cause how can you be free if you don’t earn your own money? That was some­thing that was stuck in my mind ever since I was young, be­cause I re­alised that if I did some­thing that my mother liked, then she gave me money; if not, she didn’t…’

And yet, Mrs Prada also ac­knowl­edges that the com­mer­cial im­per­a­tive of be­ing a glob­ally suc­cess­ful fash­ion brand may not equate to artis­tic free­dom. ‘The shows are to­tally free; the rest, no… The dif­fi­cult thing is that the com­pany is mine, but of course, you have to work with so many peo­ple, and I feel the re­spon­si­bil­ity. Every­body al­ways cares, cares, cares about ev­ery­thing, and then how can you say,

“I don’t care?” Of course, I care – I feel re­spon­si­ble for the wages of thou­sands of peo­ple.’

Quite aside from the con­flicts of art and com­merce, she also ad­mits to an in­ner strug­gle be­tween her po­lit­i­cal con­vic­tions and her work as a de­signer. ‘I feel my job is not so rel­e­vant,’ she says, with dis­arm­ing can­dour. ‘I like it, but I don’t feel it’s the most use­ful work on the Earth. Of course, I think that doc­tors and politi­cians are prob­a­bly more no­ble oc­cu­pa­tions… it’s com­pli­cated, so I never re­ally talk about it… When I’m do­ing fash­ion, I’m do­ing fash­ion, be­cause be­ing po­lit­i­cal with fash­ion is very dif­fi­cult. I bring my fan­tasies to fash­ion, and pol­i­tics in an in­di­rect way. But I al­ways refuse to be of­fi­cially po­lit­i­cal.’

In an in­dus­try where great claims are made for the cul­tural im­por­tance of fash­ion – and as a de­signer who de­serves the high re­gard in which she is held – it is sur­pris­ing to hear her talk about her work in this way. But it may be that the ves­tiges of her com­mu­nist past, along with a Catholic child­hood, have com­bined into a po­tent brew that pro­duces feel­ings of guilt. ‘It’s a huge con­flict,’ she says, when I sug­gest that it is this very am­biva­lence that makes her fash­ion col­lec­tions so in­ter­est­ing. ‘Can you imag­ine be­ing a fem­i­nist in the Sev­en­ties, and do­ing this job? But I love this job; also, that’s the prob­lem, be­cause why did I have to choose it? I stud­ied pol­i­tics, I could have done other things, but I like beauty. There, that’s the truth.’

She has spo­ken with an air of de­fi­ance – as if to ad­mit to an

en­joy­ment of beauty is as shock­ing as the ex­plo­rations of ug­li­ness that made her name in the past. But given that I am my­self the daugh­ter of a Sev­en­ties fem­i­nist with a his­tory of com­mu­nist lean­ings, I am over­come with a feel­ing of sym­pa­thy for Mrs Prada. The de­nial of plea­sure, I say to her, is some­times as­so­ci­ated with an old-fash­ioned kind of fem­i­nism and left-wing pol­i­tics, that also meant you were not sup­posed to en­joy beau­ti­ful clothes. ‘You had to pun­ish your­self, like be­ing a Catholic…’

‘Ab­so­lutely!’ she says.

‘But I think we’ve moved be­yond that,’ I say.

Mrs Prada hes­i­tates, as if she isn’t en­tirely con­vinced, be­fore she replies. ‘I ap­pre­ci­ate and re­spect my job, be­cause you can do very in­ter­est­ing things through that and know the re­al­ity of the world. I can earn the money for the ac­tiv­i­ties I care about and sup­port the Fon­dazione. And I’m proud when I re­alise that an ex­hi­bi­tion can take place be­cause I do this job. Also, I feel like I have to be suc­cess­ful in my job be­cause I know that if you are suc­cess­ful, you are more re­spected.’

At this point in our con­ver­sa­tion, it strikes me that it is rare to hear any­one in the fash­ion in­dus­try be quite so hon­est, and I tell her so. ‘I try very hard to be hon­est, that’s true,’ she says. And her sin­cer­ity means that there is no cyn­i­cism in­her­ent in her de­signs; which is why I won­der whether her work might just turn out to have more value than that of cer­tain con­tem­po­rary artists. It may also ex­plain why she does not agree with Andy Warhol’s def­i­ni­tion of art, which I quote to her: ‘Mak­ing money is art and work­ing is art and good busi­ness is the best art.’

‘I don’t think like him,’ she says. ‘Deep down, I’m a moral­ist. So that’s why my ideas are dif­fer­ent, but the prob­lem is that there is a huge con­tra­dic­tion in my life.

‘But I try to be po­lit­i­cal with the in­stru­ments I have, I try to be­have well and do the best I can through my job; and af­ter all, thanks to the Fon­dazione, I can ex­pand my point of view… I like po­lit­i­cal art, it’s ba­si­cally the only thing I care about, more and more. And I have to find a way to push more, per­haps to talk more, but it is tricky, be­cause I am very strict with my­self in what I think I’m al­lowed to say, and what I’m not.’

‘That’s the Catholic and the com­mu­nist in you,’ I say.

‘I know,’ she says, ‘but I deeply be­lieve that you can’t pre­tend, you can’t be hyp­o­crit­i­cal, you can’t…’ She pauses, and casts her eyes around her of­fice, with its or­dered min­i­mal­ism, aside from the slide: the work of art that is also an es­cape. ‘How can I be be­liev­able?’ she asks.

‘The point is the try­ing,’ I sug­gest. ‘It’s the process, it’s ev­ery­thing we do. It’s mak­ing a mag­a­zine for me; mak­ing a col­lec­tion for you. You don’t nec­es­sar­ily need to reach a con­clu­sion; it’s the jour­ney that mat­ters…’

‘We have spo­ken like friends,’ she says, and I can see what a good friend Mi­uc­cia Prada must be to the artists she cares about so deeply, as well as to all those she loves. ‘And deep down, what re­ally in­ter­ests me are the lives of other peo­ple… I am re­ally pas­sion­ate about that.’ Spo­ken like a true artist, yet one de­fined by her hu­mil­ity, rather than self-im­por­tance or worldly suc­cess…

‘Can you imag­ine be­ing a fem­i­nist in the Sev­en­ties, and do­ing this job?’

Above: ‘Re­mains of the Day’ (2017) by Mona Ha­toum. Left: ‘No­tung’ by Ed­wardKien­holz and Nancy Red­din Kien­holz

Right: the Torre in Mi­lan, de­signed by Rem Kool­haas, which opened in April this year. Be­low: Prada’s A/W 18 show at the Torre

‘Up­side Down Mush­roomRoom’ (2000) by Carsten Höller. Right: Prada A/W 18

Prada’s A/W 18 show at the Torre

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