Byline: Miles Socha / With contributions from Alessandra Ilari, Milan / Robert Murphy, Paris

PARIS — Designers who have worked at Prada like to describe the experience as “school.”
The focus of their studies is a double major in creativity and commerce, taught with authority and passion by professors Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli, respectively.
Their degree? For a growing number of Prada graduates: a plum job as the head designer of a high-profile European fashion house.
Consider what’s happened to Yvan Mispelaere, Stefano Pilati and Neil Barrett, to name a few. Mispelaere recently assumed the design reins at Louis Feraud after two years at Miuccia’s elbow in Milan. He shows his first couture collection for the house Tuesday in Paris.
Pilati, who had worked on the Miu Miu collections in Paris, was named women’s design director for Yves Saint Laurent ready-to-wear in March. Although Tom Ford is the chief designer of YSL rtw and creative director of the house, Pilati is assisting in creating one of the most eagerly anticipated collections of the fall season.
Barrett, since exiting Prada after years as its men’s wear director, has seen his career catapult. He launched acclaimed men’s and women’s signature lines and was tapped last year as designer of Samsonite’s new and popular Travelwear collection.
Other former Prada assistants to have landed well include the French designer Marc Audibet, now women’s rtw designer at Ferragamo, and Lawrence Steele, who launched a Milan-based designer business after working for years at Prada and Moschino.
For these graduates of the Prada school, their success in finding great jobs is testimony to the power of the Prada formula: a finely tuned balance between creativity and marketing.
Meanwhile, for recruitment experts, it’s further proof that hiring a prominent design assistant, especially from a house as highly regarded as Prada, is a strategy as sound and solid as hiring a marquee name.
“They are not only designers; they have a vision about fashion,” said Floriane de Saint Pierre, who runs an executive search firm in Paris.
She said these designers are increasingly attractive to fashion houses looking for new talent because of the renowned eye of Prada and Bertelli.
De Saint Pierre said Bertelli and Prada have a reputation for selecting individuals who have charisma, strength, a modern design perspective and a highly sophisticated taste level — valuable qualities for a house in need of a dusting or makeover.
Lanvin was among the first venerable French houses to opt for a design assistant rather than a name designer when it sought a replacement for couturier Ocimar Versolato in 1997. Its choice: Christina Ortiz, who had previously been women’s design director at Prada.
“When we met her, she was more interested in marketing than many of the creative people we had seen,” recalled Gerald Asaria, Lanvin’s chief executive officer.
Six seasons later, he said it’s easy to measure the impact of her approach. Sales of the women’s collection leaped by 31 percent for fall, and the collection continues to make inroads in major stores in North America.
Ortiz declined to be interviewed about her Prada experience, as did Pilati. Prada and Bertelli also declined to participate in this story. However, several designers spoke frankly about how their Prada days altered their approach to the fashion business — and added a lot of heat to their resumes.
Mispelaere, interviewed as he prepared for his couture debut, described over espressos at a cafe here what an eye-opening experience it was to work at Prada, given that he had earlier designed at Valentino for a more unabashedly elitist clientele.
At Prada, he said, he had “the great opportunity to work in a very merchandising, marketing way, to think about the product and how the clothes will be received by the customer and displayed in the store. The most important thing about Prada is thinking through at the beginning what will happen at the end, controlling the whole process.”
But he stressed that the balance between creativity and commercialism is the raison d’etre of Prada’s success.
Although Miuccia Prada’s approach to fashion is often described as intellectual, Mispelaere characterized it as more cultural and instinctive.
“She has a really particular eye and knowledge of clothes, the culture of clothes and the details of clothes,” he said. “But we had a very simple approach, thinking about dresses, skirts, jackets, concentrating on the way it looks without thinking we are making special, revolutionary clothes.”
Meanwhile, Bertelli operates as the commercial conscience of the organization, adamant that what is designed will be appealing to a great number of people and sell briskly, Mispelaere said.
“It’s very well known that working at Prada is not easy,” he said. “It’s a lot of work and involvement. It’s really about the stress of satisfying Bertelli and Miuccia, but it’s a good school for that. It’s a way of thinking: being natural in your work about what you want to do and realizing what is reasonable and what will be successful. It’s playing with the limits of a designer’s work.”
French designer Marc Audibet said he worked at Prada just as the family-owned luggage firm was gaining fame for rtw and setting up its design teams. The experience served him well. Last year, he was recruited by Florentine house Ferragamo to work with Nicole Fischelis and Giovanna Gentile Ferragamo, who oversees rtw.
“Now, other firms want to hire designers from Prada because they want to buy a piece of the company’s success,” said Audibet, who spent six years at Prada in the early Nineties.
Audibet started his career at Cerruti, later working at Hermes and Trussardi. He asserted that Bertelli, not Miuccia Prada, drives the company’s success.
“If a house really wants to tap Prada’s success, they should hire Bertelli,” he said.
Neil Barrett did not mince words in recounting the degree of control Bertelli imposes on his organization, which famously extends to the number of pencils in employees’ pencil holders to the type of toilet paper installed in the company’s restrooms.
“The Bertelli regime imposes certain standards of precision, which on a work level I thoroughly enjoyed,” he said, describing the company variously as “precise” and even “anal.”
“One of the most important aspects of the training was seeing the big picture, which became fundamental when I set up my own company,” he said. “Our work was organized because Bertelli wanted to be able to walk into a room and in five minutes understand what you had been working on for the past three weeks. Our job was to make things legible for him and Miuccia.
“Everything was thought out in depth because, down to the width of the stitches, Bertelli was very keyed in with the technical aspects. What he didn’t understand, he wanted to understand.”
Steele, who left Prada to launch is own collection in 1995 after working on the women’s collection for five years, agreed “it was great to work in the middle of two brilliant people.
“Miuccia is very passionate about design. She is an expressive and poetic person,” he said. “Bertelli, on the other hand, is always so excited and driven. They have a great method of working, because even though they have different roles, there is a great, common harmony.
“Bertelli has a particular way of structuring because he’s involved with the color choices, the clothes and the accessories. The greatest experience was seeking the big picture with the eyes of two different people who are so in sync.”
Of course, Prada is not the only house to produce desirable design assistants who went on to major careers in fashion.
Early examples include Narciso Rodriguez, a prominent assistant at Calvin Klein who was ultimately hired by Cerruti and Loewe, and Alber Elbaz, a behind-the-scenes talent at Geoffrey Beene who burst into prominence when he took over the design reins at Guy Laroche and, more recently, Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche for three seasons.
Other fashion houses that have prominent former assistants at the helm include Nathalie Gervais at Nina Ricci, Peter Speliopoulos at Cerruti and Roberto Menichetti at Burberry. Previously, they were top assistants at Valentino, Donna Karan and Jil Sander, respectively.
The strategy of hiring prominent design assistants emerged in the late Nineties as an alternative to the star-making, buzz-generating but cost-prohibitive ways of LVMH chief Bernard Arnault, who hired glittering, headline-making talents for Christian Dior, Givenchy, Louis Vuitton and Celine in the mid-Nineties: John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Marc Jacobs and Michael Kors, respectively.
According to industry sources, some of these designers now earn annual salaries in the range of $1 million. But LVMH is also said to pay the salaries of key assistants, and in the cases of Galliano, Jacobs and Kors, the luxury giant also owns stakes in their signature businesses.
But healthy salaries aren’t the only factor behind the move to hiring prominent assistants.
De Saint Pierre said one big plus of hiring a prominent assistant is that editors and buyers have no preconceptions, positive or negative, about the designer’s work. Granted, buyers may wait several seasons to evaluate the designer’s work before placing an order, but “they really judge on the product,” De Saint Pierre said.
Asaria stressed there are no hard-and-fast rules about which strategy works best for a fashion house, be it a marquee name, a prominent assistant or an anonymous team behind the label.
But he acknowledged there are potential complications with the famous designer route, insofar as these men and women must divide their energies between their own label and the one they are hired to revitalize. And once they leave, their customers often follow them.
“That makes things a little more complicated,” he said. “But each house has to deal with that in its own way.”
Annie Bingham, a consultant at the executive search firm TMP Worldwide here, agreed, and said, “I think it’s better when you have someone who doesn’t have their own signature collection and can devote their entire energies to the house.”
As for when those designers come from Prada, Bingham echoed the designers precisely, describing it as a school where “designers have been trained very well in the style of the house.”

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