Some brands are faithful to timeless classic fashion; others love change and start new trends. Prada belongs among this second group. Already in the last century it sketched out the direction that fashion would take in the 3rd millennium, and it maintains the position of trendsetter still today.
Prada is one of the most successful, most luxurious and most progressive fashion brands of the present. It is a synonym for luxurious avant-garde fashion. Its history began being written in 1913, when the brothers Mario and Martino Prada established the company Fratelli Prada, focused on the production of quality leather products, and opened a store in the luxurious shopping centre Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan. They came from a wealthy family of state officers and learned the leather craft and put the production of their shipping trunks, travel bags, purses and accessories into the hands of top craftsmen.
They arranged the shop in the style of an aristocratic English library, and in it sold their own products and luggage, shipping trunks, bags as well as shoes from England and luxurious watches, accessories from silver, buckhorn and crystal brought from around the world. The elegant shop soon became a favourite of the Italian and European aristocracy and the Italian royal court, for which Prada became in 1919 an official supplier. Although Martino left the firm after the First World War, the shop flourished. Prada purses and trunks were of high quality and their popularity grew. After the Second World War, Mário, too, gradually lost interest in the family business, but he had no one to sell it to. The women in the family didn’t occur to him. Mário was very old school and didn’t believe that they could run the company. In the end, he had no choice. His only son had no interest in working at the company, and so after Mário’s death in 1958, his daughter Luisa took over the business. It was unusual in conservative Italy for a mother of three children from a wealthy bourgeois family to run a business. For Luisa the family business was only a “little side dutyˮ and her eccentric husband didn’t help her with it at all.
It was unusual in conservative Italy for a mother of three children from a wealthy bourgeois family to run a business.
“Mama took our company and boutique only as a matter on the side and left the two businessmen to run it. After twenty years of her leadership, we fell from very wealthy people to those who were only doing well,ˮ recalls her youngest daughter Miuccia Prada. Meanwhile, revolutionary changes were occurring in the world of fashion. In the 1960s new, light PVC materials entered into fashion, and youth, playfulness, lively colours and modern forms became fashionable. No wonder, then, that the Prada company was on the edge of bankruptcy in the 1970s. It urgently needed fresh air, innovation, a creative spirit and a modern view of the world.
Luisa’s youngest daughter Miuccia, actually named Mária, was born in 1949. On one hand, she was very shy, on the other very strong-minded, assertive and rebellious. She always wanted to stand out, to be first, the one who gives directions. She first studied political science, then pantomime at the Teatro Piccolo in Milan. In the 1970s she was a member of the Communist Party and a battler for women’s emancipation, but in this she used all the conveniences of a wealthy bourgeois child. She wore luxury clothing from Yves Saint Laurent, Bibo and Courrèges, and her friends called her an “aristocommunistˮ. She had never worked, and she only looked into mama’s boutique once or twice a week. It was not customary for wealthy children to work while studying.
In 1978, fully unprepared, she inherited the family firm; she had no designer education, no managerial experience and no practice in business. Her only experience with fashion design was that which she wore. She loved nice dresses, but she had no desire to become a fashion designer. After a year managing the company, she wanted to throw in the towel, but luckily she met her future husband Patrizio Bertelli.
This successful businessman in the field of leather goods had established his own brand as a seventeen-year old, and when he met Miuccia he had his own factory in Arezzo for leather products and was a very capable manager. Miuccia says that were it not for him, perhaps she would have then sold the company. Bertelli proposed cooperation with her, and Miuccia made him the business manager of Prada. He managed the production and running of the company, and she ran the creative side of the products. He immediately convinced her to stop importing goods and to sell exclusively products with the brand name Prada, and he supported her fully in her innovative visions. Their meeting was fateful for the Prada brand, which began to blossom. Through their combined efforts, they turned an old-fashioned brand on the edge of bankruptcy into the story of a strong modern avant-garde brand that for decades has set fashion trends and is number one in the world. They were married in 1987.
Thousands for a Piece of Nylon?
Thanks to Bertelli, Miuccia grew wings. She gained the courage to express the creativity within into things which she had never done before, and into things that she didn’t really want to. For example, the production of shoes and dresses. Bertelli had excellent tactics. He always said to her: “Then we’ll do it without you.ˮ And this worked. It was clear to her that the company needed a total change, modern material, unconventional designs.
Her first great success was a collection of black waterproof nylon purses and rucksacks in 1984. This was a risk, because nylon was not considered a luxury material, and the prices of Prada purses were too high. But Prada rucksacks were soon flooding the streets of not only Italian cities and became a worldwide hit. Nylon thus became an iconic material, typical for the Prada brand. Although the rucksacks made it famous in the 1980s, the special type of nylon from a light firm skirt with velvet brilliance, impregnated with a unique technology, had been developed by her grandad in the 1950s and used in shipping trunks. Prada’s first collection of women’s shoes was presented in 1984, and in 1985 its second sensation was put on the market – the classic practical modern Prada women’s purse. In 1983 Miuccia Prada opened a second boutique on Via della Spiga in Milan, which was the embodiment of the brand’s new image. In it traditional elements were combined with modern architecture, and for the first time they used the pale green colour that later became typical for Prada shops around the world. In 1984 the company began to export its products to all of Europe and the world. In 1986 it opened boutiques in Madrid and New York and soon after in London, Paris and Tokyo.
In 1988 Miuccia Prada began designing women’s dresses and introduced her first women’s luxury clothing line. Initially, there was little interest. Her minimalistic look and pure lines rid of any unnecessary decorations were in sharp opposition to the glittering kitsch of sexy fashion in the 1980s. She got noticed only in the mid-1990s with models that were completely out of fashion with what was then considered sexy. Her fresh, cultivated and youthful elegance shocked with its simple cuts, inspired by clothes from the 1950s and 1960s and the use of nylon and robust sandals without heels. In short, a style which didn’t make seductive sirens of women but more modern reserved intellectuals. Fashion editors quickly found the name “ugly chicˮ for it.
She got noticed only in the mid-1990s with models that were completely out of fashion with what was then considered sexy.
The designer herself said about her work in 1995: “I make ugly clothing from ugly materials. Simply bad taste. But in the end, it all looks good.ˮ She later added: “I always thought that Prada dresses look normal, but not completely normal. Maybe they have something upsetting in them, or something not totally acceptable. Prada is not clothing for the bourgeois.ˮ Her “ugly chicˮ found faithful fans, especially in the ranks of intellectuals and artists, for whom being sexy didn’t mean revealing as much skin as possible but being more stylish, secretive and unique. In 1993 she established a less expensive fashion line Miu Miu, intended for young women with a sense for the avant-garde progressive aesthetic, which included dresses, purses, shoes and accessories. In 1994 she added the men’s prêt-à-porter line to her portfolio.
Typical Prada Style
Miuccia succeeded in creating a new authentic Prada style, which is a mixture of intellectual minimalism and eccentric excess but based on the traditions of polite Italian elegance and top craft. Miuccia discovered a new modern sensuality. Her woman does not provoke with outrageously tight dresses, but in that she doesn’t respect the well-established rules of “good tasteˮ. The essence of her style is eclecticism. She courageously combines historical and futuristic elements, disparate fabrics, patterns and colours which hardly seem to go together. On the one hand, she prefers purity, absolute reduction, and on the other hand romance, femininity and opulent to even Baroque adornment.
The Miuccia Prada models contain the magic of contradictions; they are both elegant and extravagant, classic and kitschy, simple and luxurious. They represent the style of a modern bohemian, who has a weakness for luxurious materials, clean lines, special details and unusual colour combinations. They are like avant-garde pictures in a gallery which provoke, cause confusion and questions: “How did it ever occur to her to combine these material, these forms and colours and to use this hat or those shoes?ˮ
Miuccia was always close to art and the theatre, to contemporary avant-garde artists. She considers clothing as a form of communication. “You present yourself to the world with what you wear. Especially today, when contact between people is often short and fast, fashion is a brief direct language.ˮ she always stubbornly pushed her own aesthetic, despite the risk that people would laugh at her. This courage to risk, experiment and combine what others don’t dare to do is her strongest side and what has turned her into an avant-garde trendsetter. Each season she shocks with the “impossibleˮ new items that a season or two later will become the standard accepted by other designers. Miuccia Prada paved the way for modern eclecticism, which is the engine of contemporary fashion. She laid the foundations of avant-garde fashion trends, and in the 1990s she set the trend for fashion in the new millennium.
From a Declining Brand to a Global One
In the 1990s Prada became one of the most influential fashion brands in the world and synonymous with luxury. The Prada Group has gradually expanded its range of new product lines and has opened new fashion houses in Japan, the United States and other countries. She bought the debt-ridden fashion house Fendi and the fashion brands Helmut Lang and Jil Sander, which she then later sold. In 1999, she bought the British brand Church’s, established in 1873 in Northampton, which specializes in handmade luxury shoes. In 2001, she took control of the Italian brand Car Shoe, founded by Gianni Mostil in 1963 and known for its moccasins with a stylish outsole. Today the brands Prada, Miu Miu, Church’s, Car Shoe and Marchesi 1824 are all under the Prada Group.
In the 1990s Prada became one of the most influential fashion brands in the world and synonymous with luxury.
Thanks to Miuccia and Bertelli, over the past 40 years the family-focused luxury leather business has grown into a billion-dollar global brand whose portfolio includes fashionable clothing, shoes, perfumes, cosmetics, accessories, jewellery, wines and furniture sold in sixty-five countries.
Although Miuccia Prada is no longer designing dresses, she remains the creative director of the company, overseeing the work of a team of designers, approving their designs and correcting with them all the details of the collections. She collaborates on various projects with leading world artists and architects, such as avant-garde animated and feature films, theatrical costumes, exhibitions and installations, the interiors of new boutiques and restaurants, book publishing, and saving of historical monuments. According to the magazines Forbes and Life, she is among the most influential women and is the world’s wealthiest businesswomen.
Text: Zuzana Šujanová-Gregušová, Photo: Getty images, www.prada.com