A cut above the rest Feel it, know it, make it

Annalisa Barbieri on the serious talent behind fashion's most idiosyncratic label; profile; Miuccia Prada

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In Milan, two well-dressed women race each other to the shelf displaying the last pounds 200 nylon bag. In a few minutes they will fight. In London, a girl shyly unrolls a pounds 70 plain black umbrella and confesses, "I bought it because I just loved it." Somewhere else a woman, too unsure of parting with several hundred pounds for a simple casual jacket, ponders for a day too long and finds the style sold out. For days she talks about it with the sad air of a fisherman who let the big one get away.

The bag, the umbrella and the casual jacket are not mere wardrobe fillers; they were designed by Miuccia Prada. The Prada label, which started out as a "secret find" by those in the know, has become the most sought-after of this decade. Prada clothes are recognisable by having no distinguishing features unless you know what to look for. Nothing screams Prada, as it does with Chanel or Versace. "If you don't want to be recognised in Prada you don't have to be, but if you do want to be recognised in Prada, you can be. This is very important to me," explains Miuccia.

Last week Miuccia's husband and business partner, Patrizio Bertelli, announced the privately owned company's plans to develop worldwide: 35 new shops will open to add to the existing 61 at a cost of around pounds 37m, 70 per cent of which will be raised internally. To support this an extra 25 per cent will be spent on advertising, an estimated pounds 16.6m in 1997. Projected sales for this year are more than pounds 500m, rising to pounds 730m in 1997. In 1998 cosmetics, perfume and lingerie will be added to the clothes and accessory lines and in 1999 there will be a home collection.

Miuccia has no worries that growth will detract from the Prada exclusivity or that the family will have to relinquish the manic control it now exercises over all its shops and merchandise. "It is necessary for the company to grow. It's either that or close in five years. But there is a misunderstanding about growth because in some ways you can have more control. When you are richer you can hire better people and better machinery and have better organisation. Growing doesn't mean losing quality, on the contrary."

The success of Prada is due to two things: with uncanny instinct Miuccia gives people what they want before they know they want it; and she does what she pleases, fearing neither press reaction nor other people's ideas of what will sell.

Lucinda Chambers, now fashion director of British Vogue, worked with Miuccia for four years from 1989 when Prada launched its first womenswear lines. "Those were fantastic days. That whole bombshell, Versace thing was very in. Miuccia didn't do anything like that. But now that Prada's so big I do wonder how she will keep its preciousness, she loved that preciousness, the idiosyncracy of the label."

"She's very clever, an intellectual," says Lisa Armstrong, associate editor of Vogue. "She has a real feel for knowing what people are going to wear. She doesn't think about how many units she'll shift, she'll think about what's happening in the world and how people are feeling. She's fearless."

MIUCCIA PRADA was born in 1950, daughter of comfortably middle-class Milanese parents. Despite her famous remark at the opening of the London shop last year that fashion was "frivolous", she has always taken it seriously. "My mother never dressed me in pink dresses or red shoes. All my life I was the first to be dressed in a certain way. Evidently that is my quality. I was like that at school. Maybe then it was a little silly but I always liked to be dressed differently and before the others. Now in my work it is an advantage but people really used to laugh at the way I dressed." This included maxi- dresses, miniskirts ("My father only complained if they were too high"), space-age clothes inspired by the French designer Courreges. Always clear of exactly what she wanted, she had children's clothes made up in her size: "That was one of my more dramatic ideas."

The Prada business already existed and even then had a reputation for quality. Miuccia's paternal grandfather Mario ran two luxury leather goods shops in Milan (one, in the Galleria Arcade, still exists). Miuccia's father had no interest in the stores and when Mario died he left the business to her mother, an unexpected development since Mario had not approved of women in his shop. "Not that he wouldn't let them into the store, but he had the idea that women should stay at home," explains Miuccia.

Miuccia herself had little interest in the shops. Graduating in political science from Milan University in 1973, she went on to study mime. The Prada business went into decline until Miuccia took over, grudgingly at first, in the late 1970s.

By then, she was involved in the feminist movement and in politics, of which she now says, a little regretfully, "I did not finish my work.

"I didn't want to go into fashion, but I have always been ambitious to do a good job and maybe be the best. But I started slowly, doing handbags. It was not complicated."

She resolved to bring the Prada name back to its former glory. It was while visiting a handbag factory in Arezzo, near Florence, that she met her husband Patrizio, then the factory's owner. (Today he owns the company that manufactures and distributes Prada.)

They married in 1987 and live in the Prada family mansion in Milan, built around a courtyard. One huge room with floor-to-ceiling windows dominates her home. It is the family's living space and the room where her sons, Giulio and Lorenzo, play. Miuccia's wardrobes take over entire rooms, though this seems less driven by vanity - she claims never to look in the mirror - than by being unable to throw anything away. She loves cloth and has bolts of fabric strewn around, and collects work by the early 20th-century painter Cavaglieri. "There is a painting by Cavaglieri with striped chairs in it. I was mad for those chairs, so I copied them for my dining room," she says.

She started designing shoes to add to the Prada range in 1985 but the defining moment came in 1989 with the decision to launch into women's wear. Her debut collection was criticised. In the New Yorker magazine, Ingrid Sischy wrote "She used conventional Seventh Avenue solutions... The clothes were overdesigned and it seemed that commercial considerations and self-consciousness - not the articulation of her unconscious - were leading her." Miuccia was unhappy, not with the review but herself. "I hated all the people around me and I told them it was the last time others would push me to do what I didn't want to do. You know, when I started, people in the company wanted to make sure it would sell. They thought my ideas wouldn't sell so they were trying to make me do things that were more commercial."

From then on she ignored them and started listening to her instincts, designing what she wanted. "I have nobody in mind when I design, only what I like and what I think is right, and very often it happens that a lot of women think the same. I never think of whether it will sell." Today, Miuccia's belief in her work is unshakeable. "I can be insecure about many things but in my work I am 100 per cent secure. People around me can say it's shit but if I think it's right, it's right. I'm really strong in what I see. In the end I go by instinct. Evidently, so far, it's led me the right way."

AND it has. Most of Prada's clothes are beautiful: chiffon dresses so sheer a child's puff would blow them away; trouser suits that are classic but have that something else that you can't quite put your finger on. You wanted a simple jacket but then you saw a Prada one and never realised that you wanted a pocket just there, a seam just so.

The latest ad campaign, recently shot in Milan by the photographer Glen Lutchford, will appear in September. It continues Prada's theme of challenging conventional ideas of beauty - girls looking like refugees wearing coats with geometric hotel carpet-inspired patterns, lacy woollen tights and clumpy scuffed leather shoes.

David James is the art director for the campaign. "I can count on my thumbs the number of people I've met like Miuccia. She has incredible vision. She would come along to the shoot but she wasn't so much controlling as very sure of her direction. She would say something and Glen and I would look at each other and think, yes, that's exactly what we were thinking."

Praise appears to cut little ice with Miuccia. At the opening of her London shop last year she seemed bewildered by it, shocking her admirers with that famous remark: "Fashion is not really very important. It's a bit silly and frivolous." Today she qualifies this and adds, "Of course fashion as a business is a serious thing, but health, love, and politics are much more important. What is important in our work is that we know what is happening. So the fact that you have people living in Japan or Germany or England all liking Prada means that we are aware of what's happening."

And we have no reason to doubt that had she stayed in politics, what she calls her "unfinished work", that too would have been a serious thing.

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