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BEIJING — “There are fashionable people here that you wouldn’t even find in Paris, New York or London,” Miuccia Prada said of the burgeoning Chinese market. “They have already understood everything that they had to understand.”
And Prada’s company wants to tap further into that growing understanding. The luxury goods house last weekend staged its first-ever runway show in China at this city’s Central Academy of Fine Arts Museum, displaying a slightly revamped spring collection. The show is part of Prada’s plan to continue to expand in the region as it opens more stores in Mainland China and nearby territories.
“In a country like this, there is a special desire for rich products,” Prada told WWD in an exclusive interview in which she discussed a vast range of subjects, including her company’s potential initial public offering, the challenges of globalization, fast fashion and her views on the art world.
Clad in a thick navy sweater, pleated white cotton skirt and platform heels, with hair still wet from a shower just moments earlier, Prada spoke from her Park Hyatt suite overlooking the expansive urban sprawl of Beijing. Still nursing her jet lag, which she put to good use by working at the show venue past 3 a.m. the night before, she marveled at how quickly the country had changed since her first visit, in the Eighties.
Catering to China’s increasingly moneyed clientele, for the show on Saturday the designer ditched the cotton pieces that dominated her September show in Milan and created new versions of her opening monochromatic looks in radzmire silk. She also revisited her flapper-style striped dresses, strappy heels and clutch bags by coating them in sequins. Similarly, canvas bags from the Milan show were redone in silk or saffiano leather for Beijing. The clothing from the show was made available made-to-order at Prada’s stores in China and Hong Kong the day after the show.
The event drew the likes of actresses Gong Li and Maggie Cheung and featured a lively after party with a performance by the Pet Shop Boys, whom the house flew in for the occasion.
The festivities reignited chatter about whether the company that Miuccia Prada owns along with her husband, Patrizio Bertelli, Prada’s chief executive officer, will finally go public after years of flirting with potential investors. Most recently, it emerged the company is looking at listing in Hong Kong to capitalize on the region’s wealth and desire for luxury names. On that score, Bertelli told WWD, “Up until now we haven’t made a definitive decision. At this point, we think a listing in Hong Kong is the most opportune solution. In the coming months, we will evaluate the timetable and the details.”
The executive, who had to cancel his trip to Beijing at the last minute, also said via e-mail that the group plans to open a significant number of new stores in Asia over the next three years and expects to attain significant growth in the region. Prada currently has 14 stores in Mainland China, nine in Hong Kong and two in Macau, and this year plans to open nine stores in Mainland cities such as Harbin, Guangzhou, Changchun and Hangzhou.
The company said 2010 revenues in China, Hong Kong and Macau rose 75 percent from 2009, to 389 million euros, or $529.4 million at current exchange. That represents nearly 20 percent of the group’s total turnover.
Here, Prada’s thoughts on China, the IPO, politics, the Internet and more:
WWD: With this show in China, is this the first time you have presented special pieces for a specific market?
Miuccia Prada: It was an adaptation for a special evening. Also the idea of doing the same identical show would mean the excitement level would drop. The pieces in striped cotton became sequined. There was a festive upgrade. Here, they don’t love cotton uniforms, so we enhanced the part of the show [made with less expensive materials]. In a country like this, there is a special desire for rich products. A [lower-end] product might not be well received.
WWD: Do you think globalization has made the creative process more difficult because you have to think about all of these individual markets?
M.P.: I think absolutely yes. I always say that up until the Seventies, fashion was white, Catholic, Western. Now fashion embraces the whole world with [different] religions, costumes, et cetera, et cetera. Before, it reflected the spirit of a small group. There is just one collection, and we don’t make specific things for specific markets, but [the clothes] try to accommodate a world which has become a lot bigger. It’s a lot more difficult in this sense…[but] I think it enriches [the design experience] because it’s bigger.
WWD: One day could you make separate collections for different markets?
M.P.: I don’t know. Germany is sportier, America is more minimal. They’re small differences. I don’t know how to say it in a more simple way, but the rich are the same all over the world. The intellectuals are the same all over the world.…It has always been this way. What pleases, pleases everywhere. Perhaps Japan is the only country that retains a bit of differentiation right now.
WWD: What do you think is different there?
M.P.: It’s a little different from the others. There is something about that country that escapes me.
WWD: We are really curious about your decision to open new design studios in Paris and Hong Kong. Why did you decide to do this, and how will it work?
M.P.: We decided to do this because not everyone wants to live in Milan.…I made a curious twist on the French word flâner, which means that when the people wanted to understand what was happening, they strolled the city. Now people travel the world. People really spend one day here, one day there, and then they want to spend two years here and two years there. I’d say it was almost a practical necessity…also it’s clearly an opportunity to get some young minds, fresher minds.
WWD: And the work in these offices will influence the design office back in Milan?
M.P.: Definitely. [The new system] is not yet functional, but I imagine that they will think of ideas and they will make sketches and send them to Milan. Maybe they won’t come to anything, or perhaps they will be useful. Regardless, the concept is a good thing. The world is big now. If you continue to think in the same way, you’ll restrict yourself to a small world. So this is also an effort at becoming more open. We open stores everywhere, we have offices everywhere, so it’s right to do this as well.
WWD: But does this mean the creative possibilities within Milan and Italy are limited?
M.P.: Let’s say that no one city is enough. In the end, I’m the one that does the things. But the idea of being more directly connected to other countries is important. And definitely there is a lot of turnover of young people in design studios. So, for example, the opening of an office in Paris is very useful in this sense.
WWD: So you’re trying to attract new talent?
M.P.: More than to attract people, it’s for preventing the continual poaching of talent [laughs].
WWD: Is there a possibility that you could open other studios in other cities in the future?
M.P.: Not for the moment. For now, let’s see how things start and how things work with these first two.
WWD: Will you travel personally to these two cities?
M.P.: I don’t know. Probably while I’m in Paris, I’ll definitely go there…[but] they will be the ones who will be coming to Italy.
WWD: Do you come to China often?
M.P.: About once a year.
WWD: What do you think of the culture, the people?
M.P.: I really like this country. I’ve always liked it. I came the first time in the Eighties. It’s rather startling to see the differences every year. They are moving at such a fast pace.…There are fashionable people here that you wouldn’t even find in Paris, New York or London. They have already understood everything that they had to understand. Then later, they’ll follow their own path….The market is still small compared to the European, American or Japanese markets.
WWD: But it’s clear you are investing a lot in the country with new stores.
M.P.: Honestly, we’re investing a little, like we invest everywhere. It’s not as if we treat China in a way that is different than the other countries.…It’s another big country that will be our market.
WWD: What is your view of Italy today?
M.P.: A question worth a hundred million. [Laughs] I prefer not to answer.
WWD: In your past, you were very active politically.
M.P.: I prefer not to speak about Italy because you risk saying banal things.…Regardless, Italy is always an exceptional country, so…I have no intention to speak badly about my country. [Chuckles] Also because it’s true that Italy has all of the defects of this world, but it’s the country where perhaps one lives the best in this world. We are a country with…the most beautiful, most pleasurable things, an incredible historical wealth. So let’s be happy with what we have.
WWD: I read in a previous interview that one day you’d like to enter politics. Is this true?
M.P.: Yes, it’s true.
WWD: So it’s something you are considering seriously?
M.P.: Probably, yes.
M.P.: Because politics have always been a little of my passion. And now I [could] use my work as a tool to do things other than fashion.
WWD: Obviously everyone has been talking about the possibility of a Prada IPO for years. If the company were to become a public one, could it potentially limit your creativity or, for example, the way financial resources are used?
M.P.: To start with, everyone is talking, and we haven’t said anything. So we’ll talk when we talk. Everybody says [we postponed the IPO] five times. But this five times was invented by other people. We tried it once, but then [there was Sept. 11, 2001] and we didn’t do it. Everything else was always said by other people.…And if we make this decision, which hasn’t been made yet, I don’t think anything will change at all, because it’s a company [that has operated in a transparent way] for years now. The numbers are more public than those of companies already listed on the stock exchange. Honestly, I don’t think we’ll even notice.
WWD: Everyone is talking about technology and the speed at which everyone can see collections on the Internet immediately after they are presented. Consumers have a direct relationship with fashion houses and are less dependent on newspapers and magazines for information. Recently Tom Ford criticized this immediacy and banned photographers from his runway show. What do you think of all this? Does the technology bring more positive or negative influences to fashion?
M.P.: I think that, for now, this is the way it is. You can’t avoid it. It’s like being in denial about the future. The future will be even more like this because it’s an opportunity that’s so big and convenient. I don’t use a computer, but I see everyone around me using them. It’s immediate access to information, a way of communicating. I think it’s a real, great revolution, perhaps bigger than the Industrial Revolution. I say it’s just another, extra job. It’s not like it’s not necessary to work with [the press]. It’s not like you don’t need to do everything else. It’s just that you have to also take care of this thing. Every company uses it in its own way for what it believes is useful. We have done a lot of things. All of our films.…Like we always do with everything, we are trying to understand what is really the most intelligent thing, the most subtle thing that speaks to us. Sometimes people criticize us because we aren’t technological enough, because we don’t sell on the Internet…but [to have people] click on a runway show and sell it, I don’t think that’s the essence of the change.
WWD: Do you read blogs?
M.P.: I have reports sent over. Every week I have a summary sent over of the positive blogs, the negative blogs and the interesting blogs. I read them on paper.
WWD: Have you found any of them particularly interesting?
M.P.: It’s interesting to see what is making the rounds, what people are talking about. All of our work as designers is to understand what people are thinking, where the world is going, how things work. It’s one of many sources of information.…It’s not that I do it to do my job better. I do it because it interests me.…Definitely everything that leads me to know more about what’s happening probably makes my work more interesting. At least I hope so.