MILAN, Italy — On a sunny Milan morning in February, Miuccia Prada arrives at the office in a sporty navy two-piece with a tracksuit-y edge, hair straight from the shower, like maybe she has just come from the gym. The very idea makes her laugh. I should have known that exercise wasn’t on the agenda from the Byzantine-looking jewelry she’s wearing, a necklace and matching dangly earrings, gold and tourmaline, 18th century. Miuccia hates the idea of appointments for anything as structured as a fitness regime. Ten minutes every four days if she’s lucky.
Jewelry, on the other hand, is something she can get enthusiastic about. “I want to know who owned it, what happened to them,” Miuccia says. “I enter in other people’s lives.” Like the life of the woman who once owned a pin she currently treasures: a rose and a spider web on one side, on the other, a sailing ship, enameled. “Can you imagine who gave this pin to this woman?” she muses. “Some man going to sea, knowing he would be gone so long. And she would wait and weave.”
Miuccia finds such a notion romantic. “The romance of life excites me,” she goes on. “There are so many different lives. The subjects of the world are so numerous, you have to choose which one at the moment means the most. But romance and love are always needed.” Maybe now more than ever, if the tone of her collections for Autumn 2019 is any indication.
Of course, she serves up love in her own very particular fashion. She recently insisted she was a punk at heart, and the men’s show she staged in January closed with an indelible image of punk romanticism. Attached to the final looks were hearts pierced with safety pins (cf. Patrik Fitzgerald’s lovelorn punk classic “I’ve got a safety pin stuck in my heart for you”). One of the collection’s visual motifs was Dr Frankenstein’s monster, a creature stitched and pinned together by its creator and, for Miuccia, a consummate symbol of the outsider. The monster craved love. Instead, he was rejected and isolated for his otherness. Attach to that any contemporary political analogy you choose.
For the women’s collection, she has taken a different approach to romance. Miuccia is always thinking about what different elements of fashion symbolise. lace, for instance. Or dresses, which remind her of what she calls “deep moments of women’s lives.” They seem to be particularly cinematic ones, like falling in love, or travelling across oceans, or needing to escape, or even dying. As she’s talking, I’m picturing Camille or White Russian princesses fleeing into exile or Bette Davis in “Jezebel.” Something grand anyway. There’s the rub. Lace, Miuccia loves. Those kinds of dresses, not so much. Naturally, that’s the challenge she’s set herself.
“So now I’m trying to work on dresses — fantastic, beautiful evening dresses — and everybody’s laughing. I didn’t want to make them, but I can do it if they’re an example for me of being able to work on something I can’t stand in a way that is intellectually acceptable for me. When it enters into clichés of femininity, I can’t, even if I respect them. Every morning, I see those dresses and I strip away a piece of beauty. When they are too beautiful, there is an instinctive force in me. I have to make it somehow nasty or rough or different. That is beyond myself. So, who knows what’s going to happen?”
I’m deeply against cliché or the usual or what everybody else does.
That’s a textbook example of Miuccia Prada’s contrariness. “Instinctively, I go the opposite way to consensus,” she agrees. “I’m deeply against cliché or the usual or what everybody else does. If I see a black dress, I want to do red, if I see red, I want to do black. The opposite of beauty is ugliness, so I’d do ugly… That I do sincerely, because how can you still dream about the beauty of the past? It’s so attractive but….” Her voice trails away as she reflects on the irrelevance of gorgeousness. “That beautiful elegance made sense for privileged people, an isolated group of princesses and the noble and rich, but today to follow that kind of beauty? You can refer to it as a symbol of the past. But it’s totally out of reality.” And “reality” is her lodestone. “I think if I did something in fashion, it was introducing reality.”
But reality bites, as Prada learned late last year when its Pradamalia accessories range used monkey figures with black faces and big red lips that were disturbingly close to racist “blackface” depictions of people of African origin. It’s hardly the first time that fashion has caused cultural offence. It certainly won’t be the last. Think of Comme des Garçons with its striped suits, or Miu Miu with its yellow stars, or Loewe with its Andean images, or Gucci with its Sikh turbans and, more recently, its own blackface balaclava sweater.
But more and more brands are finally waking up to the problem. Prada, for its part, has created a diversity council, including Miuccia’s friends, artist Theaster Gates and filmmaker Ava DuVernay. “We’re trying to organize a group of relevant people, including academics, to take care of the argument in a scientific way,” explains Miuccia. “It’s not the right answer to say something superficial. You have to take this to a serious point where you’re educating to differences. First of all, it’s international. Secondly, it should be a group of serious experts who are prepared and experienced to confront these matters. And this should include people of all cultures. What is very important is to understand how to do it seriously. This is not public relations. We’re searching universities, the United Nations…we’ve already been doing it with Fondazione Prada in the art world. Education comes from culture and ethics and the solution is through trying to unite people, not to divide them.”
The key word there is education. The goal, according to Prada, is not crisis management. It’s to evolve the design culture of the company towards an organic diversity, with internships and apprenticeship programmes. That’s a pragmatic way to address the problem that, until now, there just hasn’t been someone internally who could tell Prada what’s not to do. “I agree with the need of a whole new education,” says Miuccia. “What I don’t know is how to solve the problem. It’s difficult to put it in place. Racism is a very complicated and deep-rooted issue, and we need to understand how fashion can contribute to the conversation.”
“The position of fashion is like songs, because it’s kind of popular,” she continues. “You have to touch different subjects, but touching different subjects without being superficial is very difficult. I’ve said many times, fashion until the '70s and '80s served a narrow group of people, in the majority white, Catholic, European or North American. You knew who your clients were, society was very small. But now in front of you, there are different races, cultures, religions. You don’t know them all well anymore. I am seriously interested in the world from all different angles. I hope that when I’m working all of this process in my mind will somehow come out and make sense to people, but you don’t know exactly who the people are anymore. They’re very different from when I started when the fashion audience was very precise and limited. It’s a learning process every day to try and know all the cultural differences in the world because it’s such a vast arena.”
The major subject I am facing intellectually is the lack of honesty. In politics, in fashion, in art, there’s too much pleasing.
Miuccia is a force in two worlds – fashion and art. As much as she insists fashion is her first love, it’s easy to see how she might feel more comfortable in the art world. She’s conflicted by the confines of luxury fashion. “Art can deal with a serious issue much better,” she insists. “Fashion is a commercial work. And how political you can be is key. I’m very sensitive to how much I can refer to social issues.” Given her famously leftist leanings (she drolly refers to her student days in the Communist Party as “the big myth of my youth”), Miuccia has clearly been living a double life her entire time at Prada. “The contradiction with luxury has always existed. All my life, I’ve been split like two people. How do I translate that into my job? That’s why I never wanted to work with artists. They’re my best friends but I refuse to do collaborations.” Of course! She’s been collaborating with herself, in that real WWII sense of the word “collaboration.” Sleeping with the enemy! And she’s not 100 percent happy about it. “For 15 years, I’ve said no to everybody. Probably I was wrong. Commercially I was wrong for sure!”
Opening at Fondazione Prada, her Milan-based art foundation, in April is a show by artist/filmmaker Ryan Trecartin. Three years ago, when they met up in New York, Trecartin’s definition-defying video work had made him an art world golden boy. Miuccia asked him to do something for her on the condition that he start completely from scratch. Since then, he’s been holed up, far from the madding crowd, working on his Prada project. Miuccia sounds gratifyingly awed that Trecartin would feel so passionate about what he did that he would be prepared to turn his back on success to do it, to run the risk of people forgetting him. She claims he was kind of fed up with what he was doing anyway, but it makes me wonder if there’s a vicarious element in her respect. Had the idea of stepping away and coming back with a fresh perspective ever appealed to her? “In my work, that would be impossible,” she counters instantly. “My process is an everyday process. If I would step away, it would be for something completely different and I probably wouldn’t come back.”
“An artist is an artist, it’s a different profession. I don’t think fashion is an art. The key point of our job is that, at the end, we create product. But the expectation of people, or the way we are exaggerating and proposing ourselves looks like we should be doing more than just making objects to wear. We should become philosopher, politician, social observer and so on. That is good and bad because superficiality is just around the corner.”
Interesting how Miuccia enlarges the scope of the fashion designer’s role. That’s what she wants – and maybe expects – from her job. She is fiercely demanding. She is also dismayed by the divisions she sees opening up in the world, which threaten a return to more conservative times, not only in politics. She notices in restaurants more men sitting with men, women sitting with women. “But the major subject I am facing intellectually is the lack of honesty. In politics, in fashion, in art, there’s too much pleasing, too much naiveté, and no one realizing it.”
What has stood out for me in Prada’s most recent shows is Miuccia’s simmering anger. There was a clutch of seasons where the ship drifted, where it seemed safe to assume that art — her Fondazione — had consumed her focus. And then it snapped back. She likes a fight, and now she has a combatant. Ignorance. When she was a student, it was the bourgeoisie that exercised her activism. “That’s over for me. I’m entering a phase of thinking about now, using references that make sense now. The obvious, the superficial, the simple pleasing. I notice, more and more, the tricks for being commercial. You know what you have to do to be commercial, and it’s a bit too easy and not what I am interested in.”
It’s always been my goal to make intelligence appealing and attractive.
Instinct kicks in. Miuccia trusts hers more than ever. She feels instinct is like a fantastic computer that distills your entire experience – everything you’ve ever lived or learned – into a response, an awareness of what really counts. Work, love, friendship. “And it’s always been my goal to make intelligence appealing and attractive, in my job and in what we do at Fondazione. To go against some current trend that considers that knowledge is not a value. How do you teach young people your life is made by your culture, make them understand how important knowledge is? I am what I am because I learned from books ,movies, history, art… That’s what upsets me, that any kind of morality or knowledge looks old. Where do people learn principles and morality? I think museums are so successful because people recognize in museums some kind of authority and morality and the values that exist in an institution.”
Miuccia pauses, as she occasionally does, almost as though she’s surprised herself by what she just said. “I’m only guessing, of course. But I am optimistic. By choice, and also, at the end, by instinct.” I would never have taken her for a champion of tradition, however much she loves her diamonds. On the other hand, simple human curiosity — call it humanism — has been called into such question in this testing era that her conviction is inspiring. But I can’t follow her on her next journey.
Now that she no longer dances, Miuccia says she’s become obsessed by football. It’s sort of physical fitness by proxy. She got envious of the good times the men in her life were having every Sunday, the excitement, the sense of freedom and community they found in football fandom. “I was educated to hate football, professors at my school told me sport was like religion, the opium of the people. So, it’s a bit subversive for me to like it. But it’s so much genuine fun, which at my age I miss a bit.”
On Sunday afternoon, you’ll find Miuccia parked in front of the television like fans all over the world. Maybe there’ll be ten or fifteen guys, her sons and their friends. There’ll be lots of food. Or maybe she’ll be on her own. She’ll still watch the game. Her team is Milan. A few days before we met, she’d been talking to publishing nabob Carlo Feltrinelli at a party and found out he was obsessed with Juventus. There’s kinship in guilty pleasures. “It’s such a beautiful feeling to be so passionate about something that you forget everything.” Miuccia’s found her bliss.