A lot of brands show during fashion month (130+ during New York Fashion Week alone). And while the usual suspects in each of the big four fashion capitals draw a lot of attention each season, and special circumstances (highly-anticipated debuts, go-away shows, etc.) periodically warrant extra attention, Prada has made its home on a different plane altogether. The Milan-based design house has our collective, undivided anticipation and attention every season, no “buts” about it.
The question is: Why … exactly?
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 Mr. Prada died, his daughter took over, and eventually, she brought her youngest daughter, Miuccia, on board.
The History of a House
By that point, Miuccia had received a Ph.D. in political science, trained as a mime, and joined the Communist party. Alongside her husband, Patrizio Bertelli – whom 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 in 2015 – Ms. Prada 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 globally-reaching brand that it is today, Miuccia started small, first focusing her attention on updating the 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, Ms. Prada 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; it was met with critical acclaim. Menswear followed in 1995.
Fast forward twenty years and the house, which is reportedly worth about $13 billion, operates in 70 countries. Thanks to an array of pop culture references – whether it be movies (The Devil Wears Prada is just one) or music (lyrics, such as “Praises due to the most fly, Prada,” courtesy of Kanye West) – even those outside of fashion’s circle have become acquainted with the design house.
In short, the house, under the control of Ms. Prada and Mr. Bertelli, the latter of which is the business mind behind the label, has come quite a long way.
Maybe more interesting than the brand’s rise to household fame or its 2011 listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, which brought in $2.14 billion (an impressive initial sale), is Prada’s ability to hold hostage both fashion’s inner circle and those on the periphery with its offerings each season – even if its sales have been hugely lackluster in recent years.[As recently as February 2017, Prada reported a 10 percent drop in revenues as sales fell across all regions. The brand has continued to struggle following years of overexpansion in retail and high exposure to Asia. While all luxury-goods companies have been hurt by collapsing demand in China, the strong dollar and the terrorist attacks in Europe, the Italian company has been hit harder than most, at least in part because its handbag range is too expensive and it has been too slow to invest online.]
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 is 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, of course, not a secret that Miuccia designs for a special breed. Her designs and 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), expensive.
Ms. Prada 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 attracts the moth to the flame; 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 the house’s design mastermind: “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.
More Than Meets the Eye
Of her approach to fashion, she said relatively recently: “I am trying to work out which images of the female I want to analyze. I’m not really interested in clothes or style.” Of her Spring 2015 menswear collection, she told Vogue Runway (nee Style.com): “Just ‘clothes’ is boring. We need more passion, more humanity.”
Maybe we are all so taken with Prada 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. Her collections do vary quite a bit over time.
In this way, Mrs. Prada 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.”
Somehow Prada is firmly situated somewhere in-between. As for the inevitable innovation that occurs each season under the Prada label, Cathy Horyn penned an article on the designer in 2015, 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.”
Depth and Always an Element of Surprise
And from here we can derive yet another reason for the flock en mass to the label each season: To see what Miuccia has up her sleeve, because it can be so very unpredictable; Mrs. Prada has the ability to keep her Prada-philes guessing.
And beyond innovation and surprise, Prada is known for the depth of her collections. Over the years, Tim Blanks – during his Style.com tenure – 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.” On another occasion, he wrote: You can’t pin a Prada collection down to one scenario.” And still yet, “Prada’s collections always reward reflection,” just to reference a few points.
With all of this in mind, Mrs. Prada is not the only cerebral designer; Hussein Chalayan, Dries Van Noten and many of the great Belgians, in general, Alexander McQueen, and a handful of others, have been given this title.
She is also not the only designer reinventing herself from season to season. It is something Raf Simons also did in his heyday, and a tactic that others have taken on, as well.
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. This type of success could – until somewhat recently – have been measured both in terms of critical response and financial growth. Prada was, for quite awhile there, experiencing stellar sales increases (that is no longer the case), while also simultaneously being labelled as “the season’s high point.”
Looking 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.
Do Something, Have a Perspective!
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,” Ms. Prada once said of her process.
In a time when we are so thoroughly bombarded by mindless forms of entertainment and unenlightening garments that fail to balance the scales of art and commerce, of clothes almost exclusively created to appeal to the population’s incessant desire for instant gratification, it is somewhat surprising that fashion that requires anything of a second thought would survive.
Perhaps there are still some out there who value the complexities that are inherent in thoughtful, well-designed fashion or maybe most people just like the ugly/pretty dresses.
* This article was initially published in February 2015 and has been updated.