image: Unsplash

image: Unsplash

About 30 minutes outside of Marfa, Texas (population 1,900) is Prada Marfa – a Prada store, designed by Berlin-based artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. The sculpture was constructed in 2005 and designed to resemble a Prada store, right down to the Fall/Winter 2005 collection shoes and handbags – selected and provided by Miuccia Prada, the creative director of the famed Italian design house – which are on display inside. 

Ms. Prada has also permitted Elmgreen and Dragset to use Prada’s intellectual property, namely, its name (a registered trademark) for the “store” but is, otherwise, unaffiliated with the project and did not fund it. The $80,000 Prada Marfa project was funded by New York-based non-profit organization, Art Production Fund, in collaboration with Ballroom Marfa, a Texas-based non-profit. 

In the twelve years since its was built, Prada Marfa – which is located on a rural highway uninhabited by any other nearby structures – has never been opened and will reportedly never be repaired, allowing it to slowly degrade back into the natural landscape – the point of the installation. (Note: This holds true save for some restorations that have taken place following significant acts of vandalism). 

Speaking of the creation of Prada Marfa, which has become something of a “must visit” spot in Texas, Elmgreen has said he and his partner did not anticipate that it would be the subject of such fan fury: “No one was there for the opening … There were just some ranchers that were there and five friends from New York!” Since then, it has welcomed guests that range from Beyoncé to mega-influencer Chiara Ferragni and the editors of Vogue, as well as a number of unnamed brands that wanted to use it as a background for ad campaigns (something the Elmgreen and Dragset do not permit).

As for why Elmgreen and Dragset decided to set up shop in the middle of the desert in Texas, Elmgreen said: “It was something we came up with because we thought, how would these shops for luxury goods actually look if they were taken out of their normal context, being in Mayfair, or Paris, or Milano. How would they look if you totally isolate them – almost like a U.F.O. dumped down in the middle of nowhere?”

The Legality of Prada Marfa

It was not all that long ago that the fate of Prada Marfa was in question, though. You may recall that in September 2013, the faux store/permanent installation was classified by the Texas Department of Transportation  as an “illegal outdoor advertising sign.” The Department of Transportation held that Prada logo on the “store” was in violation of the 1965 Highway Beautification Act, which prohibits advertising on unlicensed land bordering federal highway U.S. 90 and requires advertisers to have a permit.

The artists never obtained a permit because they “reject the idea that their installation is an advertisement.” They elaborated, saying: “There’s a difference between being commissioned by a company to do something for them and using their logo, and using their logo on your own.”

The dispute over Prada Marfa joined the art-versus-advertising debate that had been underway in Marfa since that June, when Playboy Enterprises planted its own installation on the same highway, just a mile northwest of Marfa.

The Playboy piece consisted of a 1972 Dodge Charger on top of a box in front of a forty-foot neon Playboy bunny sign, and was designed by the artist Richard Phillips for Playboy (and was paid for by Playboy). Despite push back from Playboy as to the status of the sign, the Texas Department of Transportation ultimately ordered Playboy to remove it, giving the Beverly Hills-based global media and lifestyle company a month to disassemble it.

Elmgreen and Dragset were dealt a more favorable hand. After nearly a year of deliberations between Ballroom Marfa, the Texas-based non-profit art organization that oversees Prada Marfa, and the Texas Department of Transportation, Ballroom Marfa obtained a lease for the privately-owned roadside land, allowing the site to be classified as a museum and thus, fall into a loophole in Texas state law.

Veronica Beyer, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation, confirmed the news in September 2014, saying: “The site is now an art museum site and the building is their single art exhibit.” Moreover, Beyer stated that any signage on the site may now be considered “on-premise” and does not require a permit under state law.

Speaking of Marfa

Speaking of the Prada Marfa project, Michael Elmgreen told Dazed Digital several years ago: “[Prada] didn’t initiate the work at all, we did a project in Chelsea in the gallery district of New York before where we used the Prada logo. We covered the windows of a private commercial gallery there saying ‘Opening soon: Prada’, so everyone thought that the gallery was closed.”

He further stated, “It was a cool project to do but the gallery didn’t like it so much because it didn’t sell anything for the whole duration of the exhibition! We didn’t ask permission at that time, we thought Prada is interested in art, they’re not going to sue us – and they didn’t sue us. But when we were doing the Prada Marfa we knew that it would be up for quite a while, we thought we’d better check that we were allowed to use their logo.”

Finally, Elmgreen said, “We gave them a call and said we’re doing this shop, would you provide the shoes and the bags. And they were very nice, Miuccia herself selected things that were really cleverly chosen in the sandy colours because it’s in the middle of the Texan desert, where everything has these dusty, earthy colour tones. So the bags and the shoes from that AW05 collection had pieces that would correspond to that colour scheme. She was very generous, she wrote us a letter that said you can use the logo freely and we’re not going to run after you and sue you.”