Prada. The very word fascinates. It resonates with mystery and seductive detachment. It stands for fashion at its most artful and lofty, as perceived not only by consumers but countless designers for whom its aura beckons as a holy grail of aspiration.
This story first appeared in the April 15, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The woman who fuels the mystique is as intriguing as her latest collection. Miuccia Prada and her brand thrive in pop culture to a near mythic extent on levels both high brow (last year’s “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations” at the Met) and less so, the house name powerful enough to support a chick-lit guilty pleasure and ba-dah-boom one-liners on long-cancelled sitcoms (Grace: “Straight men wear Prada.” Will: “Not in Schenectady.”)
Yet Prada herself remains an enigma, perceived as a press-wary goddess of brainy, adventurous, subtext-rich chic.
For fall, Prada showed a cinematic tour de force she described as “very personal and sensual, in a
way that could look destroyed…but always keeping some presence and power.” It left her audience mesmerized by Hitchcock-esque moodiness and enthralled by fabulous fashion. The emphasis is the designer’s own.
For all the intellectual provocation expressed visually through her clothes—and there is plenty, grounded typically in feminist musings—Prada stresses that when working on a collection, “I usually start with the fashion,” often of a sort in direct opposition to the previous season. Prada is among very few designers who can navigate wild seasonal swings without compromising an aesthetic completely and distinctively her own. Over the years, through countless design-staff poachings and the comings and goings of world-class stylists, that aesthetic has remained in the forefront of fashion, keeping Prada among the most anticipated shows of every season while pushing the needle with audacious intent. Case in point: her fancifully graphic spring 2013 furs. Prada has never been a big fur fan, “but now, because they are so forbidden, there is a contradiction.”
In a wide-ranging conversation, Prada discussed with WWD those sartorial mood swings, the last-day challenges of Miu Miu, her “fixation” of the moment—hypocrisy—and why she considers herself, “the biggest supporter of fashion.”
WWD: You have been in the forefront of fashion for years, yet you retain a mystique that fascinates people. Can you explain it?
Miuccia Prada: I just work. I really don’t know because it’s not done on purpose. It’s not that I have a system. Basically, it’s the liking of fashion. It goes back to that. Fashion. And what is good for fashion are changes. I am becoming the biggest supporter of fashion.
WWD: What do you mean?
M.P.: Fashion expresses—it’s not my idea; I read it, I don’t know where—people want to change. This will to change is a deep human desire or wish.
WWD: How do you apply that?
M.P.: The change is what drives me. Part of fashion is a process. After something, you do something new. You want to create. I usually start with fashion and after, I introduce all the rest.
WWD: You don’t start from a specific theme?
M.P.: No. For example, the one that ended up looking Japanese [spring 2013], I didn’t start [with Japanese].
WWD: How did the Japanese theme emerge?
M.P.: It’s a process that often starts from the [men’s]. The men’s was really simple and graphic. So [the women’s] had to be graphic, but also feminine. You have to add so much; women’s is so much more complex and so much more interesting. So “graphic and feminine” started becoming this basic flower. After, another important point, is adding a personality of women, a drama of women, an excitement of women, a character of women, a certain psychology of women. And that was a very strict and controlled femininity, the Japanese one. It came out a little bit princess, very severe, but very sensitive and delicate at the same time.
There are three things: the fashion, the new aesthetic that it represents [which in turn] is always connected to some human feeling. Sometimes it’s about fun, sometimes it’s about eccentricity, sometimes it’s about exaggeration, like “Carmen Miranda” [spring 2011], that kind of excess of joy. But never forgetting the fashion.
WWD: Is there a moment of epiphany: This show is about…?
M.P.: I do the show basically in one month. It’s a very dense process to try to find what I call “the title,” basically what I’m trying to express. More and more, [it emerges during] the last two days when I start to do the fittings and so on, when I know what I want to say.
WWD: The spring furs were such a hit—did you expect that?
M.P.: Yes, I know when I’m doing something interesting; basically, when you get excited about something. First of all, a lady in fur in summer is kind of exaggerated femininity. It’s wrong in the season…There’s also a need for femininity at the moment.
WWD: Why is there a need?
M.P.: This is a very complicated question. We are losing the old power and not really knowing what is the new power. I think that you shouldn’t throw away anything, so I always want to keep our power as women or our deep identity that comes from all our history of women.
WWD: What old power are women losing?
M.P.: It’s the side that pleases men. It’s not a direct power but a power through men, which I hate but we have so much in ourselves. It’s all the feminist discourse.
WWD: Does every collection have a window into feminist discourse?
M.P.: In a way, always. I’m always trying to do something that is…never to please men in the most banal way. But of course, to please men or whatever your preference in sex is—seduction is very important for all people.
WWD: Fall was so seductive and sensual.
M.P.: Of course, after [spring’s] very severe and poetic but controlled femininity, I felt it was time for something more loose, much more human. Not at all abstract, but just the opposite—very, very personal and sensual, in a way that could look destroyed. And [this time] the most classic fur possible. For me, the last exit was very relevant because she had an embroidered dress and just the classic fur. But very noble. You can be dirty and destroyed, but always keeping some presence and power.
WWD: Talk about the fashion.
M.P.: Transparencies, and underwear. The coats were fur and had this classic back, a feminine shape—long or short. We decided fur had to be super classic. Just the opposite of spring. I like the idea of the collar in fur, but there were already so many around, it was not new enough. So we did the cuffs.
WWD: The cuffs?
M.P.: The cuffs. It was a long time since they were around in fashion, so that became kind of a key, instead of the collar.
WWD: There was a distinct Forties feel. How do you take something that feels somehow familiar and make it new?
M.P.: I think that is the way not only in fashion but in movies, in music, in art. There is a continuous rethinking of our past. It’s a very fundamental thing. Probably because there is not so much hope for the future, or it’s too complicated to analyze and find something new and exciting in the present. All of us need to rethink our origins, our past. It has gone on for 20 years. The real last futuristic period was the Seventies. After that, in fact, came what in art is called appropriation.
WWD: Tell me about the set. Do you go to Rem Koolhaas with a concept? Do you get very specific: “I want a woman, a cat and a fence?” How does it work?
M.P.: We like to keep them completely free. They come with many ideas and we choose one. It’s basically an architectural idea. For a few years, the architectural set was kind of enough. But now, I feel that nothing is never enough, and you have to say more. This is another point that has become very important. That in this vast world, if you want to be heard and you want to be listened to and you want to have a voice that is relevant, you have to not be so subtle. You have to say more.
For many, many years, I always wanted to hide my ideas and my personal feelings, my thoughts and my sentiment. That was the moment everyone thought Prada was minimal. I never thought it was minimal. For me, it was hiding. But since a few years, I decided I don’t want to hide. I think it’s necessary to say what you think. It’s the most difficult process because you know that you have to give more.
People are passionate so they need passion. You need to be more open if you want people to respond to your thoughts. The more you want to say, the more difficult the job becomes. With minimal, you keep everything in mind and you are very abstract, so it is more safe. But I really think this moment is very important to say more, to tell a story, to make it passionate.
You asked me about architecture. It starts with architecture. This time we had to be dirty and kind of industrial and hard, but at the same time poetic.
WWD: When you were in the phase characterized as minimal, what were you hiding?
M.P.: What I’m trying not to hide now. Mostly, you have to have courage. For instance, in this show, it’s about what I said about impossibilities. So many things are impossible. It’s impossible to show too much of your womanly side. Not impossible, but nearly. Exaggeration is not allowed so much anymore, at least for me.
M.P.: Until the Seventies or Eighties, there was still a group of elite that kind of lived among themselves. It was economic or social. Eccentricity was possible because you were living among equals, a small elite. This does not exist anymore. You live with so many people. Everybody is much more public. There is no place for this elite that made fashion more eccentric than is possible now. Now there is everybody. Rich, poor, Chinese, black, any kind of religion, any kind of race. [All kinds of people] live everywhere in the world. You have also to have decency, let’s say. If you look too rich or too eccentric, you look ridiculous.
WWD: Does that make creating fashion more challenging?
M.P.: That is the biggest challenge, to be able to do something [interesting]. This, last season [Prada indicates her graphic flower fur].
M.P.: Yes. Fur for me was a symbol, because I never liked fur in a way.
M.P.: No. I never wore them. But now, because they are so forbidden, there is a contraction, because they are a symbol of something finished, something that really existed.
WWD: Fashion tends to swing politically correct, but fashion loves its fur.
M.P.: It’s part of what can’t exist anymore. It’s part of that old way of being a woman but still meaning so much. My generation, we come from 2,000 years when eating meat, wearing fur, was normal. Now, you can’t eat meat, you can’t wear fur, which I understand. I prefer to do politics [differently] than writing “no fur” on the T-shirt. I always thought it was too easy. This is my way of provoking. It’s part of a larger discussion, but now we’re getting into something complicated.
WWD: You’re not afraid to say your feelings on fur are unresolved, even while playing to the provocation.
M.P.: It’s a lot about hypocrisy, because we do so many things that are against saving the world. For instance, traveling with the fumes. So we should stop traveling? We should stop so many things. I hate when people are superficial. It’s easy to say, “You’re horrible because of this and that.” You have to go deep in solving the problem and knowing all the consequences.
Intellectual critique is sometimes very hypocritical. This is my fixation at the moment, also in art and everything. Hypocrisy. For instance, in Italy, talk about politics [and] it’s all about “We have to create richness; we have to create places for work; we have to create work, we have to create what people spend.” But after, on the next page, “Consumerism is horrible; companies are horrible.” Forget fashion, because it’s the worst. At some point, you have to decide. Let’s say if capitalism is to work—and it’s more or less everywhere—we have to find another way of living, another way of consuming. So we have to go deep in this discussion.
WWD: When everything is so geared toward the sound bite, is it possible to go deep with a subject and really solve problems?
M.P.: I think that is what all the intellectuals should do.
WWD: Some time ago, you were asked about “fast fashion” and you said the one thing people don’t ask is why those clothes can be made so cost-effectively. That was before the Bangladesh fires became front-page news.
M.P.: That poses a perfect example of hypocrisy, no? People [who] are intellectual leftists, they say I am expensive and horrible, “How can you sell clothes at that price?” Simply, it’s the cost. If you pay people to do everything with the right system, things are expensive. And the same people that criticize the [dangerous production environments], when it comes to cost they like the inexpensive pieces because they think it’s more democratic. This is an example of hypocrisy.
WWD: The stories about you joining the communist party as a young woman and going to demonstrations dressed in Saint Laurent have become lore. Can you chart your intellectual or political evolution from then to now?
M.P.: Not basically. But I have to accept my position as a rich fashion designer and I choose that. That is a choice and I have it [as] my contradiction. I try to do whatever I can, but without ever taking a political, direct approach. I have been asked to present myself in partisan [terms], but I say no because I think my position wouldn’t help.
WWD: It wouldn’t help?
M.P.: I am too vulnerable. As a rich fashion designer, my position is so much the opposite of what is easy or correct. That’s why I like to have many, many discussions and try to show all those contradictions are not only mine.
WWD: Back to your preoccupation with hypocrisy. How has it impacted what attracts you in art?
M.P.: It’s very complicated. All this starts with the fact that fashion is very much criticized…I don’t see why, for instance, the design [in other areas] is accepted and considered noble and fashion is not. Not that I have anything against design…
WWD: You mean home design or architecture?
M.P.: I mean other kinds of objects, from wheels to any other object. Fashion is kind of a scandal. There is something that deeply disturbs people. It’s all my life that I try to understand why.
WWD: Have you figured it out?
M.P.: I ask almost everybody, because I’m fixated. It’s one of the touchy subjects that is so personal that nobody wants to talk about. You can talk about anything, but you talk about clothes, you talk about yourself…[the negativity is] more from an old-fashioned, more conservative [point of view]. What is strange is the most clever people love fashion.
WWD: The fashion/art connection—has it become just another trend?
M.P.: I think fashion embraces everything that is happening, everything in society and vice versa. Other creative fields find in fashion openness, comprehension, money—not necessarily money, but interest. People in fashion are open to music, open to movies, open to art, open to architecture. In the fashion world, there is a lot of enthusiasm. Also, speed. Speed is very much envied by other fields. You want something, you do it; it’s quick. A piece of architecture takes five years to build, a movie maybe less. But fashion is instant. You have an idea, you do it and after, change—good and bad.
WWD: When designing a collection, do you think about the customer as you are designing?
M.P.: No, never. You have to be in contact with people indirectly. You can’t study. It has to be completely instinctive, but of course, your instinct is an accumulation of all of your knowledge.
WWD: You don’t think about the customer when designing, but you certainly talked about creating merch that will sell. Is there an emotional connection that comes?
M.P.: Of course. We have to sell, because otherwise you close. So there are different moments. The creative moment has to be separated from that, but after, if I could do the buying…
WWD: You would do everything if you could, right?
M.P.: If I could. But I don’t do it all.
WWD: Do you like spending time in the stores?
M.P.: No, because I am so terrified that what I see is not reflecting my ideas. I nearly don’t go. I’m scared to go.
WWD: Seventy percent of the business is in your own stores, right?
M.P.: Now we want to try even more.
WWD: You want to eliminate wholesale?
M.P.: Except department stores and a few [smaller stores] in a few places.
WWD: Why eliminate the others?
M.P.: They decide what they want to buy from you, and you don’t want that. Mainly, in a moment of crisis, they tend to buy what is ugliest, what is easy, what is more safe. And after, [they] discover maybe the bestsellers are something completely new. The buying is a very difficult process. I think it is the most difficult part.
WWD: Has your creative process, the physical process of it, has it changed since the IPO?
M.P.: No. I’m actually feeling liberated.
M.P.: The company is doing so well. In a way, being public is easier than dealing with bankers. And we are used to be being public. Our company was so public always anyways that it didn’t do any difference. It’s a bigger responsibility, but for sure we can stand this responsibility. Or I can stand it.
WWD: Is the focus now on China, in terms of expansion?
M.P.: We have so many markets potentially, and that is one. Everybody talks about China, of course, it’s a broad market. But still, kind of small…Also filling Europe, filling America. Everywhere. In the newspapers, it seems there only exists China. It’s not true. Of course, they are affluent, but also an easy and difficult client at the same time.
M.P.: Easy because they have money and the will to spend.
WWD: Why difficult?
M.P.: Difficult because you know them less. It is difficult to understand what they have in mind. For this European culture, more or less you know. For American culture, more or less you know. But when it comes to such a different culture, and you want [product] that is not just appealing because of the label but because of the content.
WWD: Do you design specifically for various markets?
M.P.: The buyers do the selection. You don’t know if their selection is a cliché, or if they are right. That is basically the buying process. There are so many preconceptions or prejudice about the tastes of [women in various markets].
Of course the profession of buying is difficult. The buyers try to understand, but often it’s the opposite of all [their] criteria that’s the biggest success. That’s what I like about it.
WWD: E-commerce. Prada has been conservative in this arena.
M.P.: Yes, we don’t like it. I don’t care. My husband hates it and we think for luxury it’s not right.
WWD: Why do you think it doesn’t work for luxury?
M.P.: It’s good in countries that don’t have the shop nearby. [Otherwise] the choosing and sending home is too complicated. Personally, I’m not interested.
WWD: What about social media?
M.P.: We are always interested in the Internet. We do incredible movies, we even did a Polanski movie. Now we have a huge project for art that is done on the Internet.
WWD: Is that relating to Venice?
M.P.: Venice, yes, for the Foundation [Fondazione Prada, which supports contemporary art]. So we do a lot of content that seems to be good…But when they do the ranking, we are never in a good position. What is needed is something more superficial, probably. At least, when I read reviews of other companies. It seems easy to navigate and they like very simple, stupid things sometimes.
[Prada went off the record to give an interactive, merchandise-related example.]
If that is being genius, sorry but I prefer to be stupid.
WWD: The more mundane, the better, perhaps?
M.P.: Brava. Exactly.
WWD: Prada and Miu Miu have Facebook accounts and YouTube channels. Have you been converted to Twitter?
M.P.: I don’t even have a computer. I have the computers of all the people around me. Of course, I’m super interested. I think it’s a fundamental place.
WWD: But you don’t Tweet?
M.P.: I have no time to do it.
WWD: Is there someone who Tweets for the company?
M.P.: Yes, when we do the special events. [Otherwise, no.] You have to spend your life answering. Sometimes people hire somebody else to give answers. Here, the dictate is if I say something, I have to say something. Otherwise, I prefer not to answer.
WWD: Let’s talk about Miu Miu. Backstage you said that so much intense work went into Prada that you wanted Miu Miu to be more lighthearted.
M.P.: The press must be so bored of seeing fashion [by the time Miu Miu shows, on the last day of the season] that you have to do something new. For this season, the silhouette I thought was very interesting. It’s very difficult.
WWD: There was such a charm there. Is charm important?
M.P.: Yes. And because I have less time to think, I have to choose between ideas and fashion. I choose fashion, because fashion is my job.
WWD: Do you acknowledge a thread? The shows were very different, but each with a Forties feel.
M.P.: Yes. Because for sure, there is one fashion that I think is relevant. You can develop different aspects, but it’s not that one is totally dramatic and the other is totally romantic…Prada comes first. For instance, what we were thinking could be for Miu Miu if we needed, we put in Prada. You have to do it the best you can. Also, what happens in Paris dictates or makes you eliminate many things.
WWD: What do you mean?
M.P.: Many times [at Miu Miu] I’ve eliminated something I loved because somebody else did it in a way that we thought was slightly too [close]…It is a nightmare. That is the worst.
WWD: Miu Miu was so specific. How do you start throwing out last minute?
M.P.: This season, we liked the idea of the polka dots, but I thought it was maybe not special enough. But it was so perfect as this kind of femininity that in the end we did it.
You always hope that your idea is not done by somebody else. Basically, that is the nightmare for Miu Miu. For Prada, you have time to change and rethink the same concept in different ways.
WWD: There’s another kind of fashion show that people obsess about and in which you recently had a starring role—the red carpet.
M.P.: I think for actresses, it is such a big drama. It’s not easy for anybody and they have to do it and they have to interest people. They have to be very correct. They can’t risk. I’m sure that it’s a very difficult moment for them.
WWD: You say “They can’t risk.” Is that code for boring? I remember Uma Thurman in that gorgeous lavender Prada. That seems a lifetime ago, before the cookie-cutter machine took over.
M.P.: I think they are pressed by agents. I don’t know the whole system there. They are so afraid to get it wrong…They have to look beautiful; they have to look thin. I don’t think they are happy.
WWD: During the most recent Oscars red carpet, at least two very accomplished, very beautiful actresses said, “I didn’t have anything to do with my dress—my team picked it.”
M.P.: This, I don’t understand. If I were an actress, I would pick my own dress. Or collaborate. I think it’s a difficult moment for everybody. It’s slightly inhuman.
WWD: It’s become enormous.
M.P.: And you don’t even know if it’s really worthwhile. But I do think for [Anne Hathaway to wear] our dress to win the Oscar—it’s important.
WWD: Back to the runway, few designers stage two major shows. Does it ever become too much? Are the shows worth it?
M.P.: It is fundamental. I wouldn’t work so much or stress myself if I didn’t have to do shows. It’s the moment I stress myself and work. You are a fashion designer, you have all the journalists in front of you and they want you to be good. It’s a huge pressure, but it makes me think and stress and work.