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