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The year of dressing sensibly

IT STARTED in 1991. One by one, fashion editors started trading in their Chanel and Hermes handbags for those made by the Italian designer Miuccia Prada: tough, practical bags; understated, yet - with their discreet gold label - smart. A year later, fashion insiders had become hooked on Prada clothes, too: sober, timeless coats; low-heeled, sensible sandals; and graceful, slightly flared skirts. And, since then, the Prada revolution has quietly taken over the world. In 1995, her simple designs are the favourite of fashion victims everywhere - coveted not only by women who can afford the real thing, but also by those who have to settle for high- street imitations. Prada is to the Nineties what Jasper Conran was to the Eighties.

Miuccia Prada's success has been a long time in coming. In 1978, aged 28, she inherited her grandfather's luxury leather accessory company. Over the next 10 years, she added shoes to the collection - items which gradually became "must-haves" for those in the know. By 1988, she had added clothes to the label, opting for traditional-looking designs made in the unlikeliest of fabrics: hard-wearing industrial nylon. Now, aged 45, Prada has shops stretching from LA to London to Sydney. Her style combines the sparse couture style of the late Fifties with the more graceful designs of the Sixties, when Miuccia was influenced by her mother's dress code, which was elegant but never "swinging".

The current fashion for "sensible chic" has provided the perfect climate for Prada to flourish in. And Miuccia Prada has already achieved one astonishing coup. Back in March, at the Academy Awards in LA, designer heavyweights were falling over themselves to dress Hollywood's hottest woman, Uma Thurman, nominated for an Oscar for her vampish role as Mia in Pulp Fiction. Instead, Uma sought out Prada's new off-Rodeo Drive store and chose a lilac dress and a chiffon stole faintly scattered with sparkles for the occasion. She looked divine. She didn't win the Oscar (she lost out to Diane Weiss in Donna Karan); but she, and Prada, stole the show. Marion Hume