The Driving Force of Prada

Woman in Yellow by Eva Andrews //

The Driving Force of Prada by Thomas Costello //

A multi­billion dollar global empire of leather goods, shoes, clothing, eyewear, phones, and perfumes, always at the precipice of experimental art and architecture and synonymous with the word luxury. Prada, the powerhouse. Heavily praised as the most forward thinking and influential luxury fashion house in the world, the brand can do no wrong. The woman behind the brand, Miuccia Prada, can do no wrong.
Prada found its beginnings a century ago by Mario Prada in the notorious fashion capital of Milan. At the very heart of the city in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping arcade, Mario Prada established his business as a caterer to the elite of society even earning the official seal of approval from the Italian royal family (this endorsement present in the logo as a rope tied in four knots with a crown insignia). Mario Prada made his name with beautiful craftsmanship and the famous Saffiano leather,­ a thin cross­hatched leather not dissimilar to vinyl in texture, a Prada specialty and trademark. Since the beginning, Prada has been equivalent to prestige, but in comparison to the current landscape of the company, its start could only be described as humble. Now with approximately 80 locations across the globe, over 7,000 employees and profits exceeding two billion per annum, to say the business has expanded since that single shop in the heart of Milan would be quite the understatement. The secret element to all of this success? Mario Prada’s shy and rebellious granddaughter, the affectionately nicknamed, Miuccia “Miu Miu” Prada.
Standing in stark contrast to the leading label is Mrs. Prada herself. Hovering only a few inches over five feet, her features are bold and distinctly Italian. Olive toned skin, a strong nose, and dark golden brown hair kept in loose waves to her shoulders, Mrs. Prada could be described as a handsome woman with an austere, almost regal presence. This austerity is counterbalanced by the quirky, perhaps even tacky, choice of apparel. Towering heels accompanied by skirts made from plastic, feathers or leather, gaudy jewelry in the forms of flowers or fruits (bananas are a favorite), and lumpy sweaters made from brushed mohair or stiff wool are a testament to a kind of rebellious cool or her famous ‘ugly chic.’ Despite the contrast, or because of it, the clothes seem to work with her often severe demeanor perhaps owing to the fact that they are all her own design. At the end of the day, Mrs. Prada has always admitted to designing what she likes. Physical appearances interwoven with the subtleties of character make up an alluring complexity and complexity is key for Prada.
Complexity of form and individuality is what governs the design ethos of Mrs. Prada. In her younger days she was an extreme leftist in her political alignments, at one time both an activist in the Communist Party of Italy and filling a role as an ardent feminist. It is from this view that spawned an interest in what it is to be woman, what femininity means and even in contrast, what masculinity means. Their purposes and tropes are of endless inspiration to her, in a recent collection of hers for the label Miu Miu (another namesake brand under the umbrella of the Prada Group); she was quoted as saying, “Those stripy stockings have different associations from prostitute to schoolgirl” (Furniss “Miu Miu Fall/Winter 2013”). The intellectual meat of her designs is found in such perceptions and contradictions, cloth her medium to analyse social climate and perceptions of women, luxury, modernity, and the elite.
It is this analysis that spawned the meteoric rise of her inherited business with the design of one very fateful black, nylon backpack in the mid-80s. In her own words, “I wanted to do something that was nearly impossible, make nylon luxurious. But obviously, it made sense to people because, if you think about it, now black nylon is everywhere” (Kim, Rock p. 64). It is with this irreverence towards classically defined concepts of luxury and beauty that Prada has made her name. Something as banal as
nylon made luxury suddenly brought forth questions to the consumer: ­just what am I buying? What is luxury? Mrs. Prada initiated the idea of rebellion of the luxurious within luxury; a chord that hit home particularly hard.
But then, Mrs. Prada has always been a rebel, even before her immersion into the realm of inauthenticity. As a teenage girl, her strict and conservative mother would only allow her to wear ‘sensible’ brown shoes, however, Mrs. Prada had other ideas. Voguepedia, a derivative of the world renowned Conde Naste publication and a veritable tome of knowledge on all things en mode quotes Mrs. Prada in reference to her upbringing as saying, “[I was dreaming] of pink shoes, red shoes, pink dresses. Anything with color. Exciting underwear” (“Voguepedia: Miuccia Prada”). Perhaps a bit silly, but it is this rebellious spirit that forged her fervor for oddness and the forsaking of normality. Mrs. Prada would later go on to be a doctorate in Political Science, but rather than find a government position, she soon found herself studying to be a mime at the Piccolo Teatro, the first permanent theatre of Italy. She wore Yves Saint Laurent dress suits to Communist rallies (though she is quick to downplay the extreme leanings of her views; every young person in Italy was a Communist in those days). But to so unceremoniously endorse capitalism (or perhaps just craftsmanship) whilst rebelling against the very institutions which provided her upbringing and status, again Prada established herself as a rebel among rebels.
Though her pursuits are less world changing from a political standpoint, they are equally as if not more grandiose in stature. In an industry dominated by perceptions of beauty, what it is to be beautiful and what constitutes femininity, Mrs. Prada has turned these notions upside down­ and for a great profit. Credited frequently as being the first of her peers to question these ideals, she gained particular renown for her creation of the aesthetic ‘ugly chic.’ Prior to this revelation was the work of the great designers of the 80's - Versace, Gaultier, Mugler ­and their excessive glamour and glitz. Mrs. Prada initiated an uprising, dismantling the overtly sexual designs of those listed prior and brought intellect to the clothing with cool, slouchy silhouettes and a more subversive, and subtle, sexuality. She refers to this sector of her work with no small amount of pride, saying: "If I have done anything, it is to make ugly appealing. In fact, most of my work is concerned with destroying ­or at least deconstructing ­conventional ideas of beauty, of the generic appeal of the beautiful, glamorous, bourgeois woman. Fashion fosters clichés of beauty, but I want to tear them apart. An important aspect of my work is exploring what beauty means today" (Kim, Rock p. 58).
Such notions can lead one to come to the conclusion Prada bites the hand that feeds her. Perhaps not totally off base; where she tried to create upheaval by rebelling against her bourgeois background with her stints as an activist and a mime, she echoes today by creating upheaval within the industry that has so heavily supported her. But upheaval is required for progress and progress is always Mrs. Prada’s aim.
Unique to her business, Mrs. Prada supports the efforts of upcoming artists and architects with near religious fervor, constantly straddling the line of commercial industry and creative liberty with the Fondazione Prada ­ a gallery established by Mrs. Prada and her husband and the CEO of Prada group, Patrizio Bertelli. With it, Mrs. Prada tries to display the most fantastical and technically difficult works of modern artists. She echoes this within her own work; each “epicenter” (main stores) of the brand is lovingly designed by leading architects Rem Koolhas in association with the AMO (the design branch of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture). Even in her most recent ready-­to-­wear line, Mrs. Prada incorporated her patronage for artists in her Spring/Summer 2014 show. The set design was meticulously laid out and adorned with hand-painted murals of women, these murals repeated as prints on the clothing; each representing different aspects of femininity (intellect, sexuality, innocence etc).
Given these frequent collaborations, one might assume Mrs. Prada considers her work to be art ­one would be wrong; again contradiction rears its head. Rather than tout her work as art, Mrs. Prada fully admits that ­ due to fashion’s nature as commercially driven ­ it cannot be totally pure in the way that art might be. In her own words, "Dress designing is creative but it is not an art. Art is about pure self ­expression untainted by
commercial implications ... [and] selling, to me, is very important. It means that I am in touch with women, with their needs, their desires. It’s proof that what I’m doing is valid and significant" (Kim, Rock p. 144).
And herein lies Mrs. Prada’s significance. What sets her apart from other designers is not her history of intellectual fortitude or the sheer volume of sales she can boast. Many other designers can say the same, but not many can claim to be untrained entirely in design and guided primarily by their desire to understand women (and men) and yet still make such a profit. It could easily be argued, of course, that her privileged background allows for such significance. But it is entirely by her own hand that her business has risen to the status it has today. By touching on the ugly, the subversive, and the twisted aspects of societal constructions of what is beauty, masculinity, femininity, and luxury, Mrs. Prada has furthered the intellectual merit of her craft.

Clothing is instant communication and an embodiment of the cultural zeitgeist of the age. Mrs. Prada’s understanding of modern civilization and what men and women across the globe wish to communicate is what sets her apart from her peers as the tastemaker of the 21st century. Her designs are frequently referenced and even copied by her colleagues and colleague aspirants. And behind the
enormity of it all stands the small, olive­-skinned woman with the banana earrings, flashing a shy smile and a quick bow, as ephemeral and transient as the industry defined in her wake.
Works Cited
Bolton, Andrew, and Harold Koda. Schiaparelli & Prada Impossible Conversations. New Haven

and London: Yale University Press, 2012. Print.
Grau, Donatien. “Harold Koda.” AnOther Magazine: An Intellectual Fashion. AnOther Magazine,
13 April 2013. Web. 8 Sep. 2013.
Furniss, Jo­Ann. “Miu Miu Fall/Winter 2013.”, 6 March 2013. Web. 15 Oct.

Kim, Sung Joong, Michael Rock. Prada. Milan: Progretto Prada Arte, 2009. Print.

“Miuccia Prada.” Voguepedia. Condé Naste, n. d. Web. 15 Oct. 2013.
O’Hagan, Andrew. “Miuccia Prada’s Circle of Influence.” New York Times: T Magazine. T Magazine, 9 Sep. 2013. Web. 27 May 2013.
Stanfill, Sonnet. “Miuccia Prada.” Interview Magazine. Interview Magazine, Feb. 2012. Web. 8

Sept. 2013.