First lady

Good­bye de­signer train­ers, farewell maxi-skirts. It’s time to wel­come the ul­tra-short pink mini. How do we know? Be­cause Mi­uc­cia Prada says so, and she is never wrong. Lisa Arm­strong has a rare en­counter with a fash­ion vi­sion­ary

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Contents - Por­trait by Brigitte La­combe

In a rare in­ter­view, fash­ion vi­sion­ary Mi­uc­cia Prada tells Lisa Arm­strong about break­ing trends, finding a wider au­di­ence and why she isn’t slow­ing down

Con­found­ingly, for some­one whose taste has be­come one of the most in­flu­en­tial levers on the dash­board of 21st-cen­tury fash­ion, de­sign, ar­chi­tec­ture and beauty, Mi­uc­cia Prada used, un­til re­cently, to detest the word chic. It was on her banned list, along with ‘sexy’ (she con­sid­ers it banal), ‘lux­ury’ (also banal but, worse still, ubiq­ui­tous, ‘at one point even H&M was lux­ury. It just be­came a money-mak­ing term’), and hippy (‘too ob­vi­ous’).

It ought to be ex­haust­ing, this eter­nal quest to evade the trite and the pre­dictable. As for her never-end­ing im­pulse to chal­lenge the bour­geois and the vul­gar… Yet, a less ex­hausted in­di­vid­ual than the 69-year-old Prada I have not seen in a long time. This could be be­cause of the so-wrong-it’sright out­fit she’s wear­ing on this misty Novem­ber af­ter­noon – el­bow slits in a sil­very-grey cash­mere V-neck that matches the con­crete floor, eau de Nil lin­gerie skirt, di­a­mond and fire-opal an­tique ear­rings that bounce around her cheek­bones like tiny flames (‘I like to imag­ine the women who wore them be­fore me; were they happy, were they sad?’) and flat, jewelled Je­sus san­dals (it’s an un­sea­sonal 15 de­grees out­side, which is caus­ing even the Ital­ians to won­der if there isn’t some­thing in this cli­mate-change panic).

Or it could be that her hand­some, tanned face, un­trou­bled by make-up (she used to wear it when she was younger, she says, but then, ‘I re­alised it just wasn’t ap­peal­ing to me’), or any ev­i­dence of nee­dle, filler, thread or knife (a rare state of af­fairs in the fash­ion world), makes her look as though she’s just come back from hol­i­day.

The pre­vail­ing sense of light­ness is re-en­forced by her of­fice, which is odd, be­cause it con­tains a lot of pol­ished grey con­crete and blocky white walls, which ought to be op­pres­sive. (Later, when I lis­ten back to our in­ter­view, I can hear her san­dals flap­ping on the echoey floor.) The of­fice, de­spite its colour­ful Eames chairs, is what you might call stark. On the other hand, play­ful art gen­er­ally leav­ens sur­round­ings – and Prada’s comes in the form of a scar­let Lu­cio Fon­tana canvas with one of his trade­mark slits cut in the thick paint, and a Carsten Höller metal tube slide that juts out of the floor like a sleep­ing al­li­ga­tor and runs down three floors to the car park. Al­legedly, she has some­times whizzed down it, star­tling the se­cu­rity guards at the en­trance to the com­plex.

What re­ally catches my eye, though, is the lit­tle sil­ver drinks trol­ley from which she be­gins to dis­pense herbal tea and choco­lates. It is an un­ex­pected Do­mes­tic God­dess mo­ment, punc­tu­ated only by pe­ri­odic low rum­bling from the guts of the build­ing, which turns out to be pass­ing trams. Old aris­to­cratic Mi­lan meets the in­dus­trial. Es­o­teric comes face-to-face with re­al­ity. Very Prada.

The rea­son she is so ut­terly un­fazed by the relentless re­quire­ment from the fash­ion in­dus­try that she be the or­a­cle of what is about to be un­be­liev­ably hot and lusted af­ter, is that she in­stinc­tively knows this kind of stuff. Divin­ing what the fash­ion set will want in six months (and the rest of the world in about two years) is as nat­u­ral to her as breath­ing. ‘I am the worst kind of fash­ion­ista,’ she smiles, pour­ing tea. ‘I know what’s over be­fore it is. I don’t know how. I just do.’

So here is her ac­count of what’s about to be over: over­sized, even though in the­ory it can still work; sneak­ers, be­cause they’re ev­ery­where; and maxis. Su­per-short, she pre­dicts, will soon be where it’s at ‘be­cause it’s so dif­fi­cult to wear’.

This may sound like fash­ion’s ha­bit­ual pen­du­lum swing, but pin­point­ing where the pen­du­lum is on its tra­jec­tory is what counts: tim­ing is ev­ery­thing in life. In fash­ion, some­times it’s all there is. Bring­ing some­thing new or thought-pro­vok­ing to the mix is the magic. This is what Mi­uc­cia Prada has al­ways done.

For the best part of 30 years, Prada – the woman

and her brand – has coaxed, ed­u­cated and con­fronted mass no­tions of good taste. This is partly why on Mon­day evening in Lon­don she will be hon­oured for her Out­stand­ing Achieve­ment at the Fash­ion Awards in part­ner­ship with Swarovski.

Prada made ny­lon bags a sta­tus sym­bol, drove the ’90s ob­ses­sion with vin­tage, in­tro­duced the world to geek-chic, ugly-chic and, when all of that threat­ened to be­come a bit too fa­mil­iar and cosy, be­gan to re­visit things many of us had al­ways loved and she’d al­ways hated: such as bows, pink, lace, taffeta, fid­dling and twid­dling un­til a dress that started out Jackie Kennedy circa Camelot ac­quired lay­ers and lay­ers of sub­text. She once said she had never met a beau­ti­ful dress she didn’t want to ruin. Is that be­cause, as the scion of a pros­per­ous Mi­lanese fam­ily, she grew up sur­rounded by lovely things, tak­ing them for granted?

Mi­uc­cia Prada was born Maria Bianchi. Her grand­fa­ther, Mario Prada, came from a fam­ily of civil ser­vants suf­fi­ciently af­flu­ent to travel in some style. In 1913 he opened a shop called Fratelli Prada with his brother, Martino, spe­cial­is­ing in, wait for it, ‘lux­ury’ ob­jects.

Some­how the busi­ness sur­vived the First World War and Mario opened a sec­ond shop on nearby Via Man­zoni, mar­ried, and had two daugh­ters, one be­ing Luisa, Mi­uc­cia’s mother. In the 1940s, Luisa mar­ried a man named Luigi Bianchi, about whom Mi­uc­cia has said very lit­tle, other than that he was ‘ec­cen­tric’. She doesn’t like to linger in the past – not her own dy­nas­tic past at least; his­tory, she loves.

The Bian­chis and their three chil­dren, Al­berto, Ma­rina and

‘I am the worst kind of fash­ion­ista. I know what’s over be­fore it is. I don’t know how. I just do’

‘Nei­ther me nor my hus­band is ob­sessed about mak­ing money so the fo­cus is more on cre­ativ­ity’

Maria – who later be­came known as Mi­uc­cia – lived in a four-storey, late-19th-cen­tury palazzo on the Corso di Porta Ro­mana, where she, along with other fam­ily mem­bers, still lives to­day. At some point she signed up to the Com­mu­nist Party. ‘At that time in Italy any young per­son in­ter­ested in so­cial progress was a com­mu­nist,’ she says. Her left­ist pol­i­tics didn’t in any way abate her rag­ing pas­sion for ex­pen­sive clothes. ‘I was re­ally, re­ally very in­ter­ested in fash­ion – fix­ated with it. I went shop­ping in Paris, in Lon­don, I wanted to be the first in Mi­lan to wear any­thing,’ she says. ‘I didn’t want to cam­ou­flage my­self, to pre­tend to be poor, and I thought I was very brave about that.’ She flirted with boho, with space-age, even­tu­ally set­tling on what would be­come a life­long af­fair with school uni­forms. The pleated skirts, prim shirts and princess-line coats that have be­come Prada tropes have their ge­n­e­sis in the pat­terns she used to de­sign in her early 20s and take to a Mi­lanese chil­dren’s dress­maker to sew up in her size.

At some point, she re­placed Bianchi with the name Prada; she has never fully dis­cussed why, but given that her des­tiny was to turn the fam­ily em­po­ria of lux­ury ob­jects into a global fash­ion brand that floated on the Hong Kong stock ex­change in 2011 for $2.1 bil­lion, it was a pre­scient move. In 1978 she mar­ried Pa­trizio Bertelli, a charis­matic bull­dog of a man who helped her pro­pel the lug­gage house into the Prada (and its sis­ter house Miu Miu) we know to­day. Along the way, they had two sons, Lorenzo, 30, and Gi­ulio, 29.

Of late, how­ever, the ride has been bumpy. Prada seemed to be los­ing heat to Gucci, Ba­len­ci­aga and Vete­ments – deemed too bour­geois (oh, irony) by 20-some­things and too ubiq­ui­tous by the cognoscenti. This last crit­i­cism, in par­tic­u­lar, may have been wound­ing, but is not un­fair given the pop­u­lar­ity and wall-to-wall mer­chan­dis­ing in Prada’s own stores of its Gal­le­ria bag. In­ter­est­ingly for some­one whose wealth and sta­tus could have iso­lated her, and whose hor­ror at much of

what she sees on so­cial me­dia means she didn’t sign up to a (pseudony­mous) In­sta­gram ac­count un­til last year, and then only so that she could fol­low cer­tain peo­ple rather than post her own ma­te­rial, she is not im­mune to the word on the streets. Mind you, the Prada bal­ance sheet would have told her some­thing was amiss. Four years ago the seem­ingly in­ex­orable rise of Prada stalled: in 2014 prof­its dipped 28 per cent. The fol­low­ing year, sales in Asia alone – the re­gion that tra­di­tion­ally buoys up lux­ury la­bels – fell 16 per cent. The funny thing is, the choppy wa­ters have gal­vanised her. The first quar­ter of 2018 saw net in­come rise 11 per cent. ‘I’m in a mo­ment of acute self-crit­i­cism and ob­ser­va­tion,’ Mi­uc­cia says, sound­ing quite cheer­ful. ‘Be­cause I re­ally want to fix it.’

The shows never stopped be­ing com­pelling, puz­zling and con­trary, so the­o­ret­i­cally sales ought not to have dipped. Un­like some of her cre­ative peers, she has never sneered at the no­tion of

Mi­uc­cia Prada with hus­band Pa­trizio Bertelli, 2011 com­mer­cial­ity. ‘It shouldn’t be an in­sult. It’s an in­di­ca­tion that you’re do­ing some­thing peo­ple want to wear and there­fore it’s mean­ing­ful.’

But per­cep­tion is all, and for a while, some feared that Mi­uc­cia may have lost her magic. She hasn’t. But how did she and Bertelli al­low the prod­uct in their stores to mis­align with what she was show­ing on the cat­walk? ‘The truth is that nei­ther me nor my hus­band is ob­sessed about mak­ing money so some­times the fo­cus is more on cre­ativ­ity than num­bers.’

As far as her shows go, re­cent re­views have been rap­tur­ous. Now that Gucci and Vete­ments seem to have plateaued cre­atively, the in­dus­try is look­ing to Mi­uc­cia again for scin­til­la­tion. Spring 2019 was, in the best Prada tra­di­tion, a hit with crit­ics and re­tail­ers, re­plete with clas­sic boxy satin coats, flared skirts and jack­ets in suc­cu­lent shades of crim­son, char­treuse and bit­ter cho­co­late, as well as the weird­ness one longs for – jewelled, padded Anne Bo­leyn hair­bands, neo­prene bootie-san­dals and Kar­dashian-friendly plung­ing dé­col­letés. The lat­ter wouldn’t be the least odd in a Ver­sace show, of course, but at Prada, sex, or at least the main­stream, ‘banal’ genus of sex­i­ness, has al­ways been given short shrift. ‘I al­ways hated the cliché of the sexy dress, with all the ob­vi­ous de­tails that come with,’ she ex­plains. ‘I’m al­ways try­ing to push the bound­aries.’

The pres­sure to stim­u­late, pro­voke – and sell – sea­son af­ter sea­son, must be in­tense, but not, she says un­bear­ably so. ‘Prob­a­bly be­cause of the cre­ativ­ity. I put huge pres­sure on my­self,’ she says. ‘No one is more crit­i­cal of me than I am.’ Prada’s com­pany size has changed im­mensely over the years, and the fash­ion in­dus­try in gen­eral has trans­formed from clus­ters of thriv­ing fam­ily busi­nesses to global be­he­moths, no­tably Ker­ing and LVMH, which vac­uum up swathes of fash­ion la­bels and de­mand ever-more spec­tac­u­lar growth from them. Yet, she says, the cre­ative process it­self hasn’t changed since she started. ‘I’m not more or less stressed… I al­ways thought I was not am­bi­tious.’ But then she says, laugh­ing again, some­one told her, ‘Mi­uc­cia, you’re a mon­ster of am­bi­tion.’

I think what we have here is the dif­fer­ence be­tween drive and am­bi­tion. She works with the same – more or less – six-strong in­ner cab­i­net of de­sign­ers who have been with her for years. Fabio Zam­bernardi, Prada’s de­sign di­rec­tor since 2002, is the one she trusts, along­side her in­ner critic, to give it to her straight and sug­gest mu­sic for the show – usu­ally just two or three days be­fore. ‘Fabio and Frédéric Sanchez [the French mu­sic pro­ducer] know ev­ery­thing about mu­sic, and I have the in­stinct,’ she says. Some­times she has a very clear idea of what the

next col­lec­tion should be, ‘mainly based on what I don’t want to do. My de­ci­sions are more about what I hate… and then what’s left.’

Some­times what she hates are the very things she feels she must bring into the Prada fold – pink, bows, lace, all in­tro­duced at re­cent Prada and Miu Miu shows. She tends to leave ev­ery­thing to the last minute – Miu Miu’s spring / sum­mer 2019 col­lec­tion of crushed cock­tail dresses, big floppy bows, sheer slip skirts and leather blaz­ers was de­signed and pulled to­gether in five days. Not be­cause she’s an adren­a­line freak, nor, she chuck­les rue­fully, when I sug­gest it, be­cause deep down she be­lieves the artist must suf­fer. ‘It’s just that I al­ways think a bet­ter idea is around the cor­ner.’

One rea­son she doesn’t suf­fo­cate un­der the pres­sure may be that it all pales be­sides the worry she had when Lorenzo was a pro­fes­sional rally driver. This year he fi­nally hung up his racing gloves and joined the com­pany, over­see­ing its dig­i­tal strat­egy (not be­fore time; crit­ics have long mar­velled at Prada’s re­luc­tance to em­brace the in­ter­net) and com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Her other son… ‘I’m not al­lowed to talk about him,’ she smiles fondly. ‘He doesn’t ex­ist.’ I checked later and it’s true – mirac­u­lously among his gen­er­a­tion – he has no dig­i­tal foot­print. When I ask whether she re­laxes by cook­ing, she says she doesn’t cook be­cause her hus­band and sons are all fix­ated on it (and also they have a cook). ‘Ac­tu­ally,’ she adds ca­su­ally, ‘I re­lax by watch­ing foot­ball.

‘When I was younger my idea of re­lax­ing was all re­lated to be­com­ing more beau­ti­ful. Sun­bathing, diet, ex­er­cise. [She also stud­ied mime. Of course

With the Carsten Höller metal slide at the Prada HQ

she did.] Now that beauty is less rel­e­vant at my age I prefer hav­ing fun to re­lax­ing. Friends, travel, sport… I was en­vi­ous of men hav­ing so much fun watch­ing foot­ball so I de­cided to be­come a foot­ball fan.’ These days, Sun­days are ded­i­cated to the beau­ti­ful game, and yes, she con­firms, it is fun.

Two things strike me: her de­ter­mi­na­tion, and her re­fusal to de­clare which team she sup­ports. It would turn into a mas­sive deal, she says, by which I pre­sume, she means that foot­ball in Italy, as else­where, is tribal, and she is very fa­mous. It’s not the only time in our talk that she grows wary. While she’s free-range and funny off the record, she can be guarded when the recorder’s on. Yet, con­found­ingly again, she says that one of the as­pects of mod­ern so­ci­ety that most con­cerns her is the as­sault on free­dom of speech. She loathes a lot of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, which she sees as su­per­fi­cial, knee-jerk and hyp­o­crit­i­cal, all traits she does her utmost to avoid. ‘Peo­ple don’t talk hon­estly any more. There’s a hid­den sys­tem of self-cen­sor­ship and that scares me. This is the first time in my ex­pe­ri­ence when what you say can get you into trou­ble… ba­si­cally you can’t say any­thing.’ Es­pe­cially, she feels, when you’re a rich, suc­cess­ful fash­ion de­signer.

This is why the Fon­dazione Prada, which she and Bertelli launched in 1995, and which re­cently moved to 118,000 sq ft of space de­signed by Rem Kool­haas, one of her favourite ar­chi­tects, is so close to her heart. Open to the pub­lic, this isn’t sim­ply a means for yet an­other ‘rich, suc­cess­ful fash­ion de­signer’ to demon­strate their love of art but a way for her to com­mu­ni­cate ideas that she feels she can’t broach in the fash­ion arena.

But why can’t she? These days fash­ion has such a po­tent cul­tural reach that Mi­uc­cia, revered as she is, is surely in a po­si­tion to change things. Some­times her re­fusal to jump on a moral band­wagon has landed her in hot wa­ter. Prada – the brand, and by ex­ten­sion her – has been crit­i­cised for be­ing late to the diver­sity party, for not em­brac­ing curvier mod­els, for be­ing re­sis­tant to older women on its cat­walk… but she doesn’t see that older women par­tic­u­larly re­quire help in this way. This may change. ‘For the past three or four shows, one thing I’ve been very in­ter­ested in is to catch the beauty of the dif­fer­ent races,’ she notes. She is also, at last, grap­pling with is­sues of sus­tain­abil­ity. ‘It’s all mil­len­ni­als care about,’ she says, by which I take it that Lorenzo has been hav­ing his say. The mes­sage is, she lis­tens. Prada is about to make some quite se­ri­ous an­nounce­ments about its pro­duc­tion – but she doesn’t want to rush into su­per­fi­cial ges­tures. Much as she thrills to some progress, she ab­hors the way so much dis­course, par­tic­u­larly in pol­i­tics, has be­come sim­plis­tic. She’s ex­as­per­ated by the hash­tag cul­ture. ‘If you’re com­pli­cated, peo­ple don’t even look at it.’ Isn’t she the ex­cep­tion? ‘But I’m strug­gling. I can do su­per-so­phis­ti­cated clothes for an elite but that’s too easy. I want to take it to a wider au­di­ence.’ There is, we can take it, zero sign of her slow­ing down.

Ac­cord­ing to Wikipedia, her and Bertelli’s per­sonal net worth is around $2.8 bil­lion. But con­ven­tional suc­cess, she says, was never what mo­ti­vated her. ‘My hap­pi­ness comes from so many dif­fer­ent things. If it [her ca­reer] would go re­ally badly, prob­a­bly it would af­fect me. But I think hap­pi­ness comes from hu­man things. I’m happy in my job when I’m do­ing some­thing that I think is re­ally clever. That makes me happy… for one sec­ond.’

The Fash­ion Awards 2018, in part­ner­ship with Swarovski, take place on Mon­day at The Royal Al­bert Hall; fash­ion­awards.com

‘I can do su­per-so­phis­ti­cated clothes for an elite but that’s too easy. I want to take it to a wider au­di­ence’

Mi­uc­cia Prada at a fit­ting with Carla Bruni

Back­stage at the spring /sum­mer 2019 cat­walk show

Spring /sum­mer 2005

Au­tumn /win­ter 2007

Spring /sum­mer 2008

Spring /sum­mer 2001

Spring /sum­mer 2004

Spring /sum­mer 1996

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