BY TIM BLANKS
Miuccia Prada ticks my boxes. Cerebral, sensual, paradoxical, iconoclastic, hedonistic, and a dozen more -als and -stics could scarcely begin to explain my fascination with this woman and her work. In the 30 years since she took over the family business, she has steadily built an organization that offers a way to think, a way to be, as much as a way to dress. You can read her collections like you’d read a book. Sometimes there’s enlightenment, sometimes bewilderment. But there’s never boredom. ‘I want to introduce intelligence in my work, that’s for sure,’ she says. ‘If you introduce even a little intelligence or a little criticism or a way of seeing things, that is important. I do that because I put all my ideas in my work.’
Those ideas often run counter to perceived wisdom. For instance, when we met in Paris recently, she was insisting, ‘I’m against design like crazy, for a few years, actually. I hate the idea of useless design, just to make things more beautiful without any sense.’ It was a point she returned to several times in the course of our conversation. When she described technology as ‘an instrument like any other,’ rather than an end in itself, she added, ‘I always search for a reason for something. What’s the sense of it? OK, it’s beautiful, but who cares? It always has to have a meaning. Beauty as beauty doesn’t interest me.’ Prada’s most outr’ fashion propositions help underscore how fearless and forceful she is in her re-evaluation of conventional thinking about design. That’s why her influence has been so irresistible, so widespread.
It’s also why I think of her as akin to David Lynch. Prada shares his ability to find seduction — even beauty — in the banal, the marginal, the ugly. She has often made it her mission to do just that with her odd proportions, clashing patterns, garish colors, and fabrics that can run the gamut from classic camel to black polyurethane in the same collection (as evident in the fall 2010 collection). ‘To put opposites together is a real obsession for me,’ she explains. ‘When something is matching, I’m desperate.’ If fashion insists it treasures change, Prada gives us mutation.
Like Lynch, Prada can establish a mood that is both familiar and disorienting. This is integral to her shows, which can feel like experiments in implanted memories, like something from Total Recall. Rather than moving away from the traditional mode of presentation, as one might expect from a company as restlessly now as Prada, the shows are getting more and more multilayered. Spring 2010 was a case in point. For a collection that was black, white, and gray, the backdrop was composed of quotes from old black-and-white movies, like Twelve Angry Men, that highlighted conflicted masculinity (a Prada staple); the post-show cocktail was a Black Russian; the canap’s included cream cheese on pumpernickel (as black and white as you’ll get in one bite). The ambience of the show for fall 2010 was harder to decipher. According to Prada herself, the d’cor was supposed to suggest a ‘fake’ city. So the puddle of green resin on the floor was presumably a park; the big circular bar in the middle of the room might have been a stadium; perhaps the complicated seating arrangement was meant to suggest buildings. A cultural context was provided by a word piece on one wall, which listed 10 key turning points in the last decade, from 9/11 to the launch of Facebook to the debut of American Idol. And DJ Frederic Sanchez, a longtime Prada collaborator, jumbled together a live mix of electro, rave, and indie that might have passed for the sounds of that fake city if it had been somewhere in England two decades ago. How did all this reflect and amplify the message of the clothes? ‘The idea of normality’ was Prada’s cryptic summation of traditional navy and camel blazers interspersed with reconfigured camouflage and fitted cropped knits. If, in its own inscrutable way, it did indeed add up to a contemporary wardrobe for a young man in the second decade of the 21st century, Prada claims now that what she’d actually been doing was ‘putting feminine clothes on men, in a way that no one would read,’ least of all the fashion journalists whom she damns as ‘sometimes more conservative than other people.’
It wouldn’t be the first time. She has often talked about wanting to emphasize a man’s vulnerability vs. a woman’s strength in her designs. For that black-and-white spring collection, Prada started with the gray suit, one of the most conventional building blocks of menswear she could think of, and stripped it of familiarity, pairing it with a raw-hemmed V-neck, with inescapable hints of ragged lingerie. She also poked holes in coats, jackets, pants, even shoes, the resulting perforations creating a kind of mesh that added a suggestion of sci-fi sheerness. At the time, Prada described it as a way for a man to ‘feel sexier, more beautiful, more sensitive — he wants to be vulnerable.’
Two years ago, she had gone even further, when she sent her male models down the catwalk in what looked like little tutus over their trousers. The resulting storm of derision saw the offending items pulled from the showroom within a few days. Prada acknowledges her surprising sensitivity to criticism. Was she being naive in not anticipating the response or deliberately trying to disturb her audience? ‘No, I want to do something new,’ is her response. ‘Maybe people are disturbed, but I like when I disturb with something that is so simple — a little plastic skirt and people seem scandalized. I always search for something new, a new reading. Until I get excited, I know I’m doing nothing interesting.’
Go into any Prada shop and you’ll find plenty of sober, beautifully cut suits, office-appropriate striped shirts, and muted knitwear — the kind of clothing that makes up the bulk of the business. But Miuccia’s own seasonal ‘new reading’ for the Prada man often seems to involve something ambiguous. It has definitely become younger in spirit since she closed the men’s division of her second label, Miu Miu, at the beginning of 2008. The idea that she may be bent on subverting traditional concepts of masculinity would seem less surprising if she herself weren’t clearly such a man’s woman. The collaborators with whom she works most closely — including her husband Patrizio Bertelli, Germano Celant (Fondazione Prada’s artistic curator), the architect Rem Koolhaas — have the silver fox charisma of men at the height of their authority and power. Try subverting that.
Still, Prada does like to make life hard for herself. ‘Hard is a consequence,’ she agrees. ‘I try to do things that are interesting and exciting.’ Her most recent excitements have been the Double Club, the pop-up nightclub in London that was conceived by artist Carsten Holler and funded by Prada, and the equally temporary Prada Transformer, a Rem Koolhaas’designed multipurpose structure in Seoul. The integration of art, architecture, and design has shaped her company’s distinctive Renaissance personality. And it seems to have cast Prada herself in the role of patron, a modern-day counterpart of the Medicis. ‘Maybe from the outside, it would look like this,’ she counters, ‘but I don’t live it like this. It’s more direct. It’s not that I put people together. I am very much involved in all these ideas. And very often it comes from me.’
But if that sounds supremely confident, her attitude toward her collaborations also hints at a surprising insecurity — or maybe it’s just pragmatism. ‘I see that people want to do things with me because I am successful in my work and they respect my work,’ Prada claims. ‘If my job weren’t relevant, there would not be the same attraction. It’s not a question of coordinating others or of having money. It’s the idea that creative people are always in search of other creative people.’
Prada has a radar for the relevant. ‘This is something I inherited from my mother,’ she says. ‘When I enter the room, I see very often the truth. So probably in my work, I get what is relevant to women or men.’ The relevance of fashion itself is something she never questions. ‘There must be something important in fashion because people are so crazy about it,’ she explains. ‘Like music. It attracts people in such an incredible way there must be something very serious about it. We think it’s so superficial, but its impact on young people is huge.’