Miuccia Prada: The feeling is Miuccia

In a revealing interview, Miuccia Prada talks to Susannah Frankel about life at the helm of the world's most coveted fashion label
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The Independent Online

Our preconceptions about fashion designers - who deal, above all, with the creation of image - are manifold. We expect Tom Ford, for example, to be sexy, dressed in cool black tailoring and open-necked shirt and as brazen in his quest for power and money as most are merely coy. We similarly don't bat an eyelid when Donatella Versace is snapped wearing nothing but sparkle, Kate Moss on one arm, Naomi Campbell on the other. La Versace is the ultimate fortysomething party girl and proud. Then there's John Galliano, designer fashion's super-ego, and Martin Margiela, studiously elusive where others in his field are keen to seek out the spotlight.

But what might we expect of Miuccia Prada? A former member of the Communist Party and graduate in political science, she is branded an "intellectual" designer. A modern art collector and creator of the ubiquitous black-nylon backpack, her media incarnation is anything but footloose and fancy-free. Miuccia Prada famously avoids the party circuit, preferring instead to spend time out with an intimate circle of family and friends. And while other designers bask in the glory of the biannual ovation that meets their collections, stepping out onto the runway surrounded by fawning models and armfuls of flowers, Miuccia Prada barely deigns to appear, peeping out for a second before disappearing again in the blink of an eye. With this in mind, it is unlikely that anyone would ever presume that, upon first meeting the designer, one cold, crisp January morning in her daylight-filled Milan studio, she would be discussing nothing more obviously elevated than her own personal take on the merits of wearing the colour pink.

The story goes like this. When Miuccia was a little girl, her mother, Luisa Prada - today in her eighties and still a powerful influence - dictated that she wear flat, brown shoes. "Super-traditional," says her daughter. "I remember being mad about having a pair of pink shoes. I grew up envying pink shoes."

The rest of her childhood wardrobe, similarly, might hardly be described as coquettish: "Blue pleated skirts. Blue, red, beige. I was dreaming about fancy clothes. My mother was dressing less seriously than me, but still quite conservatively. She wore some labels, yes, and some couture. She had some English clothes. But nothing frivolous, nothing pink. I'm dreaming of being old and wearing only pink. Ha!"

By now animated, even playful, she is quick to qualify any apparent frivolity. "Pink," she adds, "is not a serious colour. I know that to wear it you have to be in a very good mood. When I wear pink, it's kind of a challenge because the days when you're really in such a good mood are not so common."

Far from it. Instead, rumours of impassioned, Italianate histrionics abound. There's nothing Miuccia Prada seems to like more than a challenge, however. Perhaps with this in mind, the designer who has, in the past, offered the world everything from the aforementioned backpack - crafted in heavy-duty nylon originally used by the Italian army, - to high-tech sportswear; and from the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie - "Miss Marple" tweed coats and court shoes - to "porno chic" today finds herself in a rather more obviously girlish frame of mind.

She is dressed, not in pink, sadly, but in an ultra-feminine close-fitting, tie-dyed cardigan, roughly fastened at the waist with a thick, suitably weathered brown-leather belt, not quite matching tie-dyed shirt, below-the-knee dirndl skirt and flat, backless slippers. Suffice it to say that the staff around her (who, predictably, boast less body fat between them than the proverbial chip) are cuddled up in layers of fine cashmere and, perhaps significantly, flat brown footwear that is sensible to the point of being - whisper it - ugly. All are colour co-ordinated in shades far from sugary. Instead, sludgy variations of chocolate, caramel, mustard and burnt orange unsettle a view that would otherwise be pre-feminist in its apparently retro style. For Prada's part, the look, which is all from her current collection, is reminiscent of Julianne Moore's in the art-house hit Far From Heaven.

"There was a kind of nostalgia for that kind of happiness," the designer says in an effort to explain Prada's spring/summer offering - and, in particular, the dominant 1950s silhouette of full knee-length skirts, Capri pants and narrow, tightly-belted waists. "I chose the period for its symbolic value. It is a symbol of femininity, of being feminine, pretty, nice, if you like. Of course, we don't want to go back to that but there was something very appealing about being so comfortable, about not having to think much, not having to choose. It's funny that everybody talks about the freedom of dressing however you want and, OK, it's a freedom but also it's so much more complicated. I very often see women who don't know how to dress and it's always a drama, to go to work, to an event, whatever, because you have so much freedom you have to know your taste, what you like and that takes time. Some people like the idea. For me, dressing myself, I have fun, not always, but sometimes. But if it's not a pleasure it must be a drama, no? Once when we had only one silhouette, one style, all women were dressed the same."

Such wanton retrospection is, of course, flooding the international runways just now. All too often, and in less capable hands, it seems like nothing more than mindless pastiche. Call it play-safe tactics in the face of economic and political adversity, if you will. Whatever, Miuccia Prada's take on the prevailing mood reflects the many aspects of her personality and, as usual, is more complex than most.

"I'm very upset when people say the big companies destroy everything, when they say that they destroy craftsmanship," she says, f suddenly introducing a second element into this season's mix. "I also wanted to bring that back in a big way. We had such fun making this collection, using all sorts of different techniques and tie-dying all this gorgeous material in the kitchen sink." And just when Miuccia Prada, in Fifties homemaker mode, is danger of that sweetness turning sickly, she changes tack again: "But I don't like fashion that is too ethnic. That would be far too easy, such a cliché," she spits. "I am interested in the criss-crossing of culture but of seeing it in a very European way." And so tie-dying, for example, comes at the edge of a snug little cardigan that mimics Coco Chanel - hardly the godmother of hippie-chic.

"I try to express the contemporary woman and I do it through fashion because that is my instrument. I'm used to criticism and think it is mainly a good thing. Especially at the beginning, conservative people were very disturbed because Prada looked conservative but was obviously not, and for avant-garde people it was never avant-garde enough ..."

Call it radical conservatism if you will - and in a world dominated by catwalk theatrics and the flashing of celebrity flesh, a more strait-laced approach is indeed nothing short of anarchic. Whichever way you look at it, the rest of the world has now caught up with the designer's unique vision and the tangled web of contradictions upon which her empire has been built.

MIUCCIA PRADA grew up in Milan and lives in the same apartment where she was born, although it has been duly extended to suit her rather grand, if never ostentatious, needs. She describes her childhood in characteristically blunt shorthand. Although her accent is heavy, she speaks English fluently when she warms to a subject, staccato when she'd really rather not be drawn. "No problems with my family. Not so much fun. Not happiness. Neutral. Two brothers. Three children."

If she had to choose one word to sum up the ambience of her early years, that word would be "serious. It was a serious, Catholic family. My mother liked clothes but she liked correctness more." The Prada family was well-off and had made its money, since 1913, supplying luxury goods from glass-wear to luggage.

Miuccia was, by all accounts, less than anxious to take the helm of the company her grandfather, Mario, had founded and then passed down to her parents, even though that was clearly expected of her. Instead, she studied political science at the Statale University, graduating in 1970, and mime at the Piccolo Teatro. "It was an excuse not to talk," she has said. "I've always been shy." By then she had also, like many others of her generation, become a fully signed-up member of the Communist Party. "I was young in the Sixties, when Italian society was first becoming obsessed with consumerism, but my big dreams were of justice, equality and moral regeneration. I was a Communist but being left wing was fashionable then. I was no different from thousands of middle-class kids."

By the mid-Seventies, she relented, entering the family business to oversee the design of accessories. It wasn't until 1978, however, when she met the outspoken entrepreneur Patrizio Bertelli and the pair went into partnership, f that the more fashion-led style, which now characterises the brand, was born.

"You know, I had to have a lot of courage to do fashion," Prada says, "because in theory it was the least feminist work possible - and at that time, in the late Seventies, that was very complicated for me. Of course, I liked it a lot but I also wanted to do something more useful." The resolution of these two sides of her character remains a driving force. "When people think of fashion they always prefer to see the crazy side, the clichéd side, and actually I think that is wrong. Fashion is an important part of a woman's life. It's a question of aesthetics and that is in no way stupid or superficial," she says.

In 1987, Miuccia Prada married Bertelli, and they now have two teenage sons. Not one to mince his words - and in this, the two appear to match one another - Bertelli once famously said: "Miuccia was such a first-rate worker and designer. I knew it would be cheaper in the long run to marry her." Straight-talking to the point of self-parody, it's small wonder that today stories of the Prada Group CEO's temperamental working methods are legendary. His reputation as an aggressively creative businessman is second to none. And in his celebrated wife he has found the perfect - and perfectly stubborn - foil.

"Of course I'm interested in business," Prada says. "And he's also very much interested in design. But we prefer to work separately, to avoid discussion. When they say we scream a lot, it's true. Ha!"

All screaming aside, in the early Nineties, Prada made its breakthrough with the black-nylon bag complete with triangular metal branding. "I think the point was that these were fashion bags for the first time," the designer explains. "Labels like Gucci and Hermès had always done the same bags for many years. I treated bags as if they were fashion. Also, this was something practical, but also very luxurious. You know, those bags were more expensive than the leather ones because learning how to work with the nylon took three or four years. We had to develop the technique."

In 1988, Prada introduced womenswear for the first time, followed by the more light-hearted Miu Miu collection in 1993. In 1994, the designer expanded into menswear and in 1997 the hugely successful Prada Sport line was born. Today Miuccia Prada may be among the world's most respected fashion designers, but when Prada clothing was shown for the first time, it was subjected to more than its fair share of criticism.

"I remember a review that described one of my first collections as 'The Flintstones meet The Jacksons'," she recalls, adding: "It was meant in a very negative way but, of course, that was exactly what I loved about it!"

With this in mind, if the bickering between Prada and Bertelli is well-documented, it appears to be at its most fierce over the question of what is beautiful and/or sexy and/or commercial. Last year, Prada took the brave step of telling the Corriere della Sera, one of Italy's most respected daily newspapers, that her fellow countrywomen's alarming habit of appearing on television wearing barely any clothes was "awful. I call that look 'the desperation of the sexy'. That's what I say to the girls in our office when they arrive in the morning with their high heels and their tummies exposed. The more sexy you make yourself appear; the less you'll have sex, I tell them. You are desperate, I say." Strong words indeed, and spoken with an almost evangelical sense of responsibility and matriarchal pride.

"Seriously," she says today, not wishing to seem judgemental even though she actually cannot help herself, "I am against nothing. Really, if people want to go around naked then that's fine by me."

And this is one woman who is more than happy to put her money where her mouth is - even though in so doing she can, and apparently does, cause others in her company, and Bertelli in particular, a certain degree of f anguish. Because while designer fashion, and Italian designer fashion in particular, is famous for churning out clothing that is at best stereotypically glamorous and, at worst, plain degrading, Prada's contribution is anything but. From prints inspired by the table tops of American diners to the return of the haute bourgeoise in all her stolidly glamorous glory, and from funny bowling bags to footwear that might best be described as orthopaedic, Prada's twice-yearly offerings continue, at times, to leave even the most fashion-knowledgeable bewildered. Few would dare to disagree with the pronouncements of Miuccia Prada, however. Time and time again, once even the most challenging collection arrives in store, six months after it was first shown, it is just exactly what the customer always wanted - even needed - to make their life complete.

"Usually I want to escape the convention of what is sexually appealing. For many years I've tried to work with an idea that you can be sexy without being obvious." She also claims to find her job most interesting when she works against her own taste. "I mean, it's very easy to know what I like and it's very easy to do what I like. But I tend to have, let's say, good taste. This is very boring for me. So, basically, I have to work with what I think is bad and wrong. In my company they're always worried about that, everyone is always complaining."

More recently, and in this the designer gives the impression of having been brow-beaten into submission, she has, in fact, worked in a way that is more obviously, as she puts it, "appealing. I'm fed up of hearing people - basically my husband - saying that I am not able to do sexy clothes. You know, maybe a different label did a pair of trousers which make you look better from behind than ours. But that's hardly difficult. So now I want to do clothes that are more appealing. I want to prove that I can do the most appealing clothes, that I can do trousers which make you look better from behind than anyone else's."

ANY TEMPORARILY people-pleasing compromise aside, Miuccia Prada is, at heart, "a risk-taker" as American Vogue's editor Anna Wintour once observed. Today, the Prada Group is a multi-billion dollar concern. As well as the eponymous label, Prada Sport and the Miu Miu line, it owns and controls Jil Sander, Helmut Lang and Azzedine Alaïa. Despite the company's debt - and Prada's debt has been the subject of much insider speculation - hugely expensive, ground-breaking "epicentre" stores have opened in New York (designed by Rem Koolhaas) and Tokyo (courtesy of Herzog & de Meuron, architects of Tate Modern). Through their work at Milan's Fondazione Prada, which opened its doors in 1995, meanwhile, Prada and Bertelli continue to invest in and showcase modern art.

At the heart of it all, however, is Miuccia Prada, a woman who continues to wrestle with her position in the world. "You know, any disturbance in the clothes is not deliberate because that's exactly what I am. It's a reflection of myself. Because I like different things and also because of my politics - being a designer but having thoughts that are not allowed if you are a rich person - it means that I am always struggling with myself."

So, where others in her world seem all too happy to offer themselves up as nothing more than media-friendly caricatures, Miuccia Prada tries, both personally and professionally, to express herself in a rather less patronising and more heartfelt manner. There is, in particular, a restlessness at the core of this woman which makes her the perfect fashion designer for our time. "In the end, I like the changes," says Miuccia Prada, as our interview draws to a close. "In fashion, once you've got something, you're already thinking about what's next. Maybe it's a little hysterical. Now every day I'm thinking about change, it's a constant anxiety and probably a reflection of society's anxiety in general. The big deal about fashion is really very recent, this hysterical pursuit of newness. It may be a good thing, or a bad thing, but it's really defining this moment."