Miuccia Prada, Designer of Possibilities

Miuccia Prada, Designer of Possibilities

Miuccia Prada’s final solo shows – sold in collaboration with Sotheby’s – were as groundbreaking as her clothes, says Colin McDowell.

I have long suspected that the traditional fashion show was doomed. It was over 20 years ago that Helmut Lang streamed his shows online, and a decade ago that an online Burberry show gave a potential global audience of 100 million a chance to buy the clothes as they were on the catwalk. Such technology, as Greta Thunberg and her climate warriors have reminded us, makes the idea of flying a decadent circus of designers, models and photographers from Milan to Paris to London to New York, not just obsolete but totally head-in-the-sand.

The fashion show, if not quite dead, is certainly on life support. And now, I suspect, the pandemic could, if not kill it altogether, change it radically.

This year, London has held its first entirely digital fashion week. More will follow. Who will ever want to go back? Will I miss the shows? A handful live long in the memory as rarefied occasions where fashion, art, craft and performance came together in a vision not just of where we are but where we are going. Anyone who has witnessed such epiphanies could only mourn their passing.

Miuccia Prada at the autumn/winter 2020 show. Courtesy Prada.

That is something appreciated by Miuccia Prada, whose career has been distinguished by a clear-sighted ability to anticipate the zeitgeist since she inherited her family’s leather luggage company in 1978.

Having announced earlier this year that she will henceforth be joined by Raf Simons as co-creative director, Miuccia’s final individual shows for fall and winter 2020 were a typically inventive response to the constraints of the moment: a season entitled Tools of Memory that produced, simultaneously, a streamed event, an auction catalogue with Sotheby’s of the clothes and a glimpse behind the scenes into the unique circumstances of creating a collection at a time when the fashion world has been hollowed out by the pandemic. Sotheby’s will auction clothes such as the water lily silk print pyjama, photographic prints of the final clothes fittings and other ephemera including show invitations to raise money for global educational projects run by UNESCO, to which Prada is a long-term donor. The sale even includes catwalk decor, such as two statues, of Atlas and an unnamed “anti-hero” respectively, designed by Rem Koolhaas.

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What such an approach acknowledges, it seems to me, is that this moment in fashion history – and indeed in global history – demands to be chronicled. And, of all the world’s designers, I think only Miuccia is capable of such vision. The spirit of the endeavour reminds me of the US government sending artists and photographers to catalogue the effects of the Great Depression during the 1930s, creating the mythology of the event alongside the event itself.

Designs from the Prada autumn/winter 2020 collection. Courtesy Prada.

That Miuccia should conceive of presenting her collection as a series of prints in an auction catalogue, as though the pieces have already been hallowed by time, comes as no surprise. She has previously experimented with how she presents collections – her offshoot label, Miu Miu, has used a series of short films by female directors – and she is also constantly aware of her own fashion past. Having visited her home, I can attest to the truth of her claim not to have thrown away a single outfit she has worn since the age of 13.

That home is full of a striking collection of avant-garde sculpture and paintings, and books that have clearly been read (an oddity among most designers), revealing Miuccia’s real interests, which are artistic, intellectual and political. Having studied for a PhD in political science, she became a mime artist at the Teatro Piccolo in Milan and a member of the Unione Donne Italiane (Italian Women’s Union). Partly because of her political outlook, she is drawn towards materials, colours and textures often ignored by fashion – most famously the nylon, normally used to protect or line leather luggage, that was the main material of the utilitarian black backpack that swept the fashion world and made her name in 1984, seven years after she had entered the business founded by her grandfather.

“Ugly is exciting,” was one of her more memorable comments in a world in which elegance is the norm.

The “must-have” success of accessories such as the nylon backpack and the nylon tote led to the creation in 1988 of a womenswear line, followed by the spin-off Miu Miu and a menswear line, both in 1993. A sportswear line, Prada Linea Rossa, was launched in 1997.

Miuccia quickly established herself as eager to understand and annex changes in art and living around the globe through her clothes. She rejected the overt sexiness of the 1990s to dress women as what she called “a vision of themselves”. While contemporaries such as Rei Kawakubo produced outfits that were often – frankly – unwearable, Miuccia’s approach, although deliberately brutalist and anti-fashion, was also based on putting the needs of the wearer first.

The Prada autumn/winter 2020 womenswear show. Courtesy Prada.

“Ugly is exciting,” was one of her more memorable comments in a world in which elegance is the norm. She never set out to follow the fashion moment, although she frequently moves it on, showing clothes that are so different from those of other designers as to cause bewilderment. Using materials such as nylon, plastic and rubber, and unfashionable colours such as avocado, her clothes are anti-sexuality almost to the point of dowdiness. She designs by eliminating elements. In awe of her uncanny commercial instincts, other fashion houses are quick to rip off the radical originality that often anticipates “the next big thing”, even with anomalies such as a transparent plastic mac, long socks with skirts or a military khaki cape with red lining.

Miuccia makes no bones about the fact that she does not set out to create fashion, but to sell clothes. In those terms, she has been hugely successful, helped by her husband and CEO Patrizio Bertelli. Although on paper, Bertelli runs the business and Miuccia has creative responsibility, she is far more involved in the financial side than most people understand.

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It was she who realised that a visit to a Prada shop should be more of an occasion than simply a chance to try on clothes. She set out on a programme of developing stores in prominent fashion streets across the globe with sympathetic architects such as Rem Koolhaas – they remain models of the designer shopping experience. At the same time, subtle logos, from the triangular black plate on the original bags to the eponymous red line of Linea Rossa, have made the Prada name so desirable as to achieve the dubious acclaim of being one of the world’s most copied brands.

What Miuccia sends down the catwalk exerts a powerful influence on fashion across the globe. There is always something that is a jump ahead of other designers’ suggestions for the next season, such as her commitment to recycling nylon from plastic waste taken from the oceans or extracted from old textiles as part of the Re-Nylon project.

Simons’ arrival heralds a new chapter for Prada. Like Miuccia, he is as interested in ideas and attitudes as he is in aesthetics, and the match promises well, particularly given that he has previously worked for her when he was creative director of Jil Sander.

Miuccia’s coming collaboration with Sotheby’s is another promising step into the future by a woman who is keenly aware of the past. In uncertain times, she remains a steady hand on fashion’s tiller.

Prada: Tools of Memory will take place online, 2–15 October. The exhibition will be on view, 16–23 September in London, and 18 September–1 October in New York. Enquiries: +44 20 7293 5392.

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