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
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