Now that Milan Fashion Week is underway, it is worth noting that a lot of brands show during fashion month, and while the usual suspects in each of the big four fashion capitals draw a lot of attention each season, and special circumstances (Raf Simons' Dior debut, Hedi Slimane's Saint Laurent debut, etc.) periodically warrant extra attention, Prada appears to reside on a different plane altogether. The Milan-based design house has our undivided anticipation and attention each and every season no matter what. And so we ask: Why is Prada so special?
The fanfare which we associate with Prada is certainly not an age-old practice for the house. For the uninitiated, Prada, which was founded in 1913, originally functioned solely as a leather goods company, started by current CEO and creative director Miuccia Prada's grandfather, Mario Prada. When he died, his daughter took over, and eventually, she brought her youngest daughter, Miuccia, on board. By that point, Miuccia, or Miu Miu, had received a Ph.D. in political science, trained as a mime, and joined the Communist party. Alongside her husband, Patrizio Bertelli, who she met at a trade fair in Milan in 1977 and with whom she shares the role of CEO, since she stepped down from her position as Chairman earlier this year, Miuccia has revolutionized not only her family's business but the fashion industry as we know it, in a variety of ways.
In turning her family's company into the house that we know it as today, Miuccia started small, first focusing her attention on updating the house's selection of accessories. As the New York Times put it not too long ago, "In 1978, she designed a black nylon rucksack that would later take the world by storm." Since then, Miuccia has transformed the company entirely, taking it from a small leather goods business to a much-admired brand known for its eccentric designs to a contemporary design powerhouse with annual sales of over $5 billion. In 1988, Prada debuted its first womenswear collection, which was met with critical acclaim.
Menswear followed in 1995. Nowadays, the house, which is reportedly worth about $13 billion, operates in 70 countries. And in case that's not enough, even those outside of the fashion crowd have become acquainted with the design house thanks to movies (The Devil Wears Prada is just one) and music (think: "Praises due to the most fly, Prada," courtesy of Kanye West). In short, the house, under the control of Prada and Bertelli, the latter of which is the business mastermind behind the label, has come a long way.
Most interesting to me, however, is not the brand's rise to household fame or even its 2011 listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, which brought in $2.14 billion (an impressive initial sale), but instead, its ability to hold hostage both fashion's inner circle and those on the periphery with its offerings each season. To adequately discern exactly what Prada's staying power is, we have to look to the brand's underlying appeal. It does not have the logo-centric hold on consumers like, say, Louis Vuitton or Gucci with their bold logo-bearing accessories, even though Prada's upside down triangle trademark is far from being ambiguous. In actuality, it is heavily replicated by counterfeiters. But the essence of the brand goes far deeper than simple typography; that's what Miuccia, one of fashion's great intellectuals, one of fashion's out-there thinkers, desires. "I hope they don’t just buy because there is a logo but because the object is relevant to them," she said of her brand.
It is hardly a secret that Miuccia designs for a special breed. Her designs, her overall aesthetic, in fact, has been given many labels, but the ones that immediately come to mind include: eccentric, ugly, strange, in bad taste (that one is courtesy of Giorgio Armani). Miuccia is familiar with these assessments of her brand: "I was very much criticized for inventing the trashy and the ugly." And she owns up to it: "Ugly is attractive, ugly is exciting. Maybe because it is newer. The investigation of ugliness is, to me, more interesting than the bourgeois idea of beauty." At the end of the day, Miuccia is a thinker, a challenger of conventional notions and norms.
Maybe this is what draws us in; Miuccia's desire to investigate, to analyze and comment, more often than not with herself in mind. Prada is, after all, a distillation of the designer herself, her style, her thoughts on the state of the world. In a 2013 article entitled, The Power of One, the New York Times wrote of Miuccia: "Prada pleases herself, and she does it with dedication. She makes what she wants to make." And what is it that Miuccia wants to make? It seems she wants to do more than simply manufacture clothing; she wants to make a statement, which is very likely one of the factors that keeps us coming back. Of her approach to fashion, she said last year: "I am trying to work out which images of the female I want to analyze. I’m not really interested in clothes or style.” Recently, of her Spring 2015 menswear collection, she told Style.com: "Just 'clothes' is boring. We need more passion, more humanity." Maybe we love Prada so much because it is not just about fashion. It is never just a collection with superficial beauty; there is always more to it than meets the eye.
Prada described her womenswear collection initially as "uniforms for the slightly disenfranchised" and it is something that rings true to this day, despite the transformation that occurs each season. And that is an interesting point. Miuccia's collections do vary quite a bit over time. In this way, Miuccia and her label remind me of something Raf Simons told Harper's Bazaar last year -- in categorizing designers, he said: "In fashion design you can divide people into two groups. You have people who come with an aesthetic that is there forever, even if it evolves. Then you have people I call jumpers. One season it can be this; the next season it's completely something else." I don't think it is a stretch to say that somehow Prada is firmly situated somewhere between. As for the inevitable innovation that occurs each season under the Prada label, it seems I am not the only one to pick up on this. This summer, Cathy Horyn penned an article on the designer, writing:
Miuccia's answer to high fashion in the '90s, when she introduced Prada's notion of ugly chic, wasn't just personal; it was a rebuttal to Milan's system of presenting a consistent style and silhouette each season. She really challenged that notion by changing Prada's direction every season, often dramatically. The consequences of that move have been profound. Because unlike most of her competition, Miuccia isn't obliged to stay within this narrow lane of expression.
Similarly, the Washington Post's Robin Givhan wrote:
The motivating force in Prada's aesthetic is reinvention. Over the years, her collections have shifted from being encrusted with baubles to being positively barren. Sometimes they have exuded a teasing pleasure in feminine wiles and then they have been nearly asexual and then have gone back to being wholly exhibitionist.
And here we have another reason to flock to the label each season: To see what Miuccia has up her sleeve, because it can be so very unpredictable (and not in a Jeremy Scott for Moschino over-the-top, costumey kind of way. Prada is far too refined and/or austere for that). Miuccia keeps us guessing. Beyond pure innovation and surprise, Prada is known for the depth of her collections. Over the years, Style.com's Tim Blanks has explored both the profundity and the intricacies of the Prada brand and its resulting wares, writing: "Any Prada collection is a finely woven web of reference and allusion;" "You can't pin a Prada collection down to one scenario;" and "Prada's collections always reward reflection," just to reference a few points.
With all of this in mind, Miuccia is not the only cerebral designer; Hussein Chalayan, Dries Van Noten and many of the great Belgians, in general, and Alexander McQueen, among others, have been given this title. She is also not the only designer reinventing herself from season to season. Raf Simons identifies with this tactic, as do a handful of others. It seems, then, that we are left with the unconventional and idiosyncratic aesthetic of the brand as one of the driving forces behind its continued success. [Note: The partnership between Bertelli and Prada is not to be overshadowed, though. They appear to be rather perfect embodiment of that fact that the creative and commercial needs of the brand have to be on equal footing for the company to be a true success. Thus, Patrizio Bertelli's commercial savvy (which includes calculated production, the introduction of an array of product categories and the supplemental Miu Miu sister collection, cautious expansion, and the start of a portfolio of other luxury brands) and Miuccia's deep-seated talent and creative force certainly account for much of the puzzle]. Such success may be measured both in terms of critical response and financial growth. Prada has, after all, been experiencing stellar sales increases for the past several years, and is simultaneously, consistently labelled as "the season's high point."
But back to the brand's wares, themselves. In terms of aesthetic, Prada is deeply original. Miuccia, with her many many visual and cultural references and no particular muse ("I’m not interested in that," she says) is arguably one of the forces responsible for pioneering the production of a slightly off-kilter wardrobe. The house's strangely beautiful collections are wearable and intelligent, influenced largely by the sartorial conventions of bourgeois Milan. The garments, which portray a sense of awkward sexuality and complexity that is unfussy, an off-hand aura of luxury, and a play on classic shapes, provide a substantial take on fashion, on personal style, on dressing, in general. Implicit in the house's often drab palette, sober luxury, and tailored clothes is a perspective. For instance, "I’m trying to make men more sensitive and women stronger," she has said of her process.
In a time when we are so thoroughly bombarded with mindless forms of entertainment (read: Keeping up with the Kardashians), almost constantly appeased with instant gratification and aided with any number of conveniences that make our lives easier than the generations that preceded us, it is somewhat surprising that fashion that requires a second thought would survive, let alone triumph. Perhaps there are still some out there that value the complexities that are inherent in well-designed, well-constructed fashion or maybe most people just like the ugly/pretty dresses.
* This article was initially published in February 2015.