MILAN — Fashion solo acts are yielding to co-creation.
In one of the biggest meetings of design muscle in history, Miuccia Prada has invited Raf Simons to become co-creative director of the Prada brand. The first codesigned collection is to be unveiled on the runway for spring 2021 during Milan Fashion Week in September.
While there is bound to be huge anticipation given Prada’s stature in the luxury world and Simons’ cult-like following with the streetwear crowd, this is no onetime drop. Asked about the length of the employment contract with Simons, who starts on April 2, Prada said, “In theory, it’s forever.”
Prada organized a press conference Sunday to reveal the partnership — which, as reported in WWD in late January, had been rumored for months — with the two designers seated on green velvet armchairs clutching microphones: he in a roomy sky-blue coat and gleaming white boots; she in a navy sweater, pants and a vintage diamond necklace.
Investors are likely to applaud the move, as equity analysts have been lamenting a dearth of newness at the Italian firm, which has been trailing its luxury rivals in recent years.
And while Prada brushed off a suggestion that she might be retiring soon, the money crowd will surely cheer what appears to be a clear creative succession plan at an Italian house she and her husband Patrizio Bertelli, chief executive officer, catapulted from a historic maker of luggage and nylon accessories to a global megabrand.
“I like working, and feel like working even more. I’m very excited and this will bring new wind. Please don’t make me older than I am,” the 70-year-old Prada said with a laugh.
At the press conference, attended mainly by fashion editors in town for the fall 2020 shows, the role of creativity in the shadow of giant fashion conglomerates became the main topic.
“It’s hardly discussed openly, but lots of designers are questioning their own position in an ever-evolving fashion system,” said Simons, who exited Calvin Klein in December 2018 after a rocky tenure clouded by accusations of design missteps. Simons said Bertelli approached him shortly after he had exited Calvin Klein, and talks have gone on for about a year to cement the partnership. Motioning to Prada, he said, “We feel the need to join as creative people in a dialogue, to bring emotion and bring co-creation.”
The partnership underlines the strong complicity between Simons and the Prada Group, which originally tapped him to become creative director of Jil Sander in 2005 when the group owned that brand, and the long friendship between Simons and Miuccia Prada.
Prada said she felt a need to reinforce the creativity in her company.
“We need to really focus on the creative aspect of the business in general and it’s a challenge. We like each other, we respect each other, and we’ll see if it works also,” she said. “I was sometimes criticized for not doing collaborations, so now I am doing one,” she added, flashing a big smile.
Simons suggested “there’s more strength when two creatives believe in it, two creatives love it. It has more strength than when one believes in it,” he said. “It’s as simple as that. When we both believe in it, we’re going to do it. When one of us doesn’t believe in it, we won’t do it.
“I do believe a lot in collaboration,” Simons continued. “I think it strengthens the result.”
With his eponymous brand, founded in 1995, Simons has collaborated with Adidas and Asics for sneakers, Fred Perry for sportswear, Eastpak for backpacks, Linda Farrow for sunglasses and Kvadrat for fabrics and accessories.
In 2014, Simons invited American artist Sterling Ruby to jointly design his fall collection, which he mentioned at the press conference on Sunday as an example of the power of shared creativity.
Collaborations continue to flourish in fashion and sprout new configurations, especially in the luxury realm. Dries Van Noten invited couturier Christian Lacroix to codesign his spring 2020 collection, which retailers and editors hailed as a triumph. Emilio Pucci is the latest to adopt a business model based on serial collaborators, unveiling its first effort with French designer Christelle Kocher last week, while Moncler powers ahead with its Genius project, adding Jonathan Anderson and Rick Owens to its stable of guest talents, which include Richard Quinn, Matthew Williams, Craig Green and Simone Rocha.
Jean Paul Gaultier, who last month staged his swan song couture show, is expected to invite designers to interpret his fashion legacy and keep his high-fashion business humming, according to sources.
While it will be interesting to see how two strong-minded designers share the workload – not forgetting Bertelli’s considerable sway with Prada’s product universe — Simons and Prada share a similar esthetic hinged on modernism and occasionally futurism. They also share a passion for contemporary art, and hold the torch for daring creative expression, and occasional provocation.
Bertelli, who opened Sunday’s press conference, used the occasion to praise his wife — and Simons.
“Miuccia as you know has left an important and significant mark in the past 30 years of international fashion and together the both of us have shared the idea to involve Raf Simons in our project because he is close to us on cultural, human and design levels,” he said. “This is perhaps the first time in the history of fashion that two expert designers who have each had success in this sector will work together and also in this way. I must say that the Prada Group proves to be ahead of the global changes in the industry.”
The executive acknowledged that co-creation is probably not an easy path.
“This is a very complex and articulated exercise, but I think that people who have a heightened aesthetic and a non-egoistical sense of self can accomplish it,” Bertelli said.
In a company statement, the company said Simons would work “in partnership with Miuccia Prada with equal responsibilities for creative input and decision-making.”
It added that the partnership encompasses all creative facets of the Prada label. “It is a mutual decision, proposed and determined by both parties. It opens a new dialogue, between designers widely acknowledged as two of the most important and influential of today. Conceptually, it is also a new approach to the very definition of creative direction for a fashion brand — a strong challenge to the idea of singularity of creative authorship, whilst also a bold reinforcement of the importance and power of creativity in a shifting cultural landscape.”
It is rare for a marquee designer to map out his or her creative succession. One exception was the late Emanuel Ungaro, who in 1997 brought in Giambattista Valli to take up the ready-to-wear reins as creative director, while the founder continued in couture. (Valli was ultimately replaced, and Ungaro retired shortly thereafter.)
Simons has a longer experience designing men’s wear — still pulsing with youthful angst and rebellion — and clarified at the press conference that his independently owned Raf Simons label would continue in tandem with his Prada job. Simons never interrupted shows for his own brand through his stints as creative director of Christian Dior in Paris and Calvin Klein in New York.
His challenge will be to bolster the performance of the Prada brand, and prove his theory that strong creativity can translate into business success.
In the first half of fiscal 2019-20, the Prada brand grew 4 percent to 1.28 billion euros, accounting for 83 percent of total group sales, with largely positive full-price retail sales throughout the period.
At the press conference, Simons suggested creativity is being overshadowed by business concerns and financial objectives. “We feel the need to join forces as creative people to bring emotion and bring co-creation,” he said. “Miuccia and myself had a lot of conversations about these kinds of possible futures.”
He acknowledged that large fashion businesses can be built without strong creativity, but his conviction is that business is better with it. “I don’t want this to look like we are rejecting our responsibilities,” Simons said, stressing that “reinforced creativity” sends a “message to the world that we think we should not forget in this business about creativity.”
His comments echoed those he made in a talk in Antwerp last November, during which he bemoaned the focus on business performance over creativity – and also talked about the pressures of being a creative director at a major brand.
“When I was at Dior, I felt there was an incredible pressure from the outside on me to be with me while I was designing, while I was in the studio,” he said at the time. “Press wanted to be there, the press wanted to be at the fittings. Then you do all the previews, speak with all the press days before the show. I didn’t like that at all. It was mainly because one designer was very much at ease with it. I don’t criticize people from doing it, but because other people do something, it should not be a system for everybody,” said Simons, appearing to allude to the late Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel.
He also at that time said constantly growing a company seems to be the only measure of success, a pressure he is bound to feel at Prada given that it is a public company whose shares are listed in Hong Kong.
“It’s horrible,” he said in the Antwerp talk. “Most of the reviews I read in mainly big establishments, they are always judging it from an economic point of view. I find that very frustrating for everybody now. At the same time I think all the time you learn to really know what is, to kind of find out for yourself, what makes you happy. And, so then you can also push that away but I think it’s not the criterion to be judged on when you’re a creative person.
Still, his arrival at Prada, one of fashion’s iconic houses, represents a major rebound for Simons after the failed experiment by PVH Corp. to recruit him for Calvin Klein. Simons was given total control at the American fashion house over design, stores and image, arriving there after a stint overseeing women’s couture, rtw and accessories at Dior. But while Simons’ tenure at Calvin generated excitement around the brand, earned him CFDA awards and had some influence on trends, in the end it failed to result in any significant commercial success after PVH invested at least $60 million in the effort. PVH shuttered the Calvin Klein Collection business after Simons departed in December 2018, and the brand is still trying to find its way, with no creative director as of now.
Despite this stumble, Simons remains one of fashion’s most compelling talents and retailers attending the Italian collections all enthused about the between him and Prada collaboration, seeing it as a great fit for both designers.
“This is such exciting news, and makes great sense,” concurred Jeffrey Kalinsky, president and founder of Jeffrey USA, and vice president and designer fashion director of Nordstrom Inc. “Raf is one of the most talented designers working today and has a great history of working on brands that have a rich heritage. To be able to work with Miuccia as a co-creator should be the perfect scenario. His respect for Ms. Prada and for Prada the brand will make for a respectful, yet exciting partnership.”