MILAN, Italy — The invitation from Prada was cryptic. Please come to a press conference at midday on Sunday. There was a caveat that read, in essence, “Don’t tell anyone else.” Which was the best way to spark a brushfire of speculation in the lowlands of fashion. Best bet: a confirmation of the durable rumour that Raf Simons was going to Prada in some capacity.
And that is, as everyone now knows, exactly what happened. The brushfire bloomed into conflagration on social media. There isn’t much in fashion that could stir the imagination as much as a complete cojoining of two of its most singular and influential talents: Miuccia and Raf, co-creative directors of the Prada brand, with equal responsibilities for creative input and decision-making.
“It’s the first time in the history of fashion that two individually successful designers started to work together and collaborate,” Patrizio Bertelli, co-CEO of Prada and husband of Miuccia, pointed out in his introduction. He described a shared cultural, human and design viewpoint dating back to 2005 when Simons joined Jil Sander, then owned by Prada. “It’s not just a professional relationship but a human relationship.” Later, he added that it was “a perfect way of working for people who aren’t selfish and ego-centred.”
The traditional vision of the designer is someone who is necessarily an Ego, usually with a hearty slug of Id. The model Prada is proposing is, as Bertelli said, unique, to the point where Miuccia acknowledged, “We don’t know where we’re going.” But can we at least speculate about what might happen when collaboration co-opts two such unique individuals?
Three and a half years ago, the duo sat down together for System magazine, the Paris-based bi-annual that manages to get the Garbos of the fashion world to open up. Their deep connection was obvious. “If I could do a show with him, imagine how much fun we would have,” Miuccia rhapsodised, while Raf conceded that he felt “a healthy competition, while also really curious to share experiences and emotions."
On Sunday, it sounded like the sharing came easier to him. She said she’d never been into collaborations and admitted she’d taken some flak for that. He, on the other hand, said he believed in open dialogues with other designers: “I think collaboration strengthens the result.” Simons also has in his back pocket the collection he worked on with his artist friend Sterling Ruby for Autumn/Winter 2014. I remember him dancing around the word “collaboration." It didn’t strike him as strong enough to communicate the intensity of their joint activity.
True, the compatibility between designer and artist was astonishing then. It offers an interesting counterpoint to the stuff that Miuccia and Raf have in common now. Among them, an intellectual hunger, a passion for contemporary art and design, and a distrust of all things orthodox. The last thing you’d want is for their collaboration to become an echo chamber. Simons’ history with Ruby – a moment, admittedly, albeit momentous– suggests reasons why that won’t happen. “When we both believe in it, we will do it,” Simons offered on Sunday. “If only one does, we won’t.”
Ever since the announcement, I’ve been fishing for analogies from the ornamental pond in my mind. Given that Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons have long been fashion benchmarks for me, it seemed fair to pluck ideal pairings from other hats. Art already gave us Picasso and Braque for real. But imagine Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch working together. Or David Bowie and Kate Bush. Of course, last season had Dries Van Noten and Christian Lacroix collaborating on a collection that was a perfect synthesis of their different aesthetics: 1+1=3, the dream destination in any coupling.
In each of those scenarios, there would be a moment when the personalities would compete to the point of abrasion, sparks flying. It’s an image that thrills me when I think of Simons and Prada facing off over a sketch or a fabric sample. Miuccia told System she made her mind up at the last minute when she was working on a collection. Simons said he had The Idea three months before a show, and he stuck with it till the very last. And there is the fabulous rub. It can’t all be blissful compatibility if the final product is to sustain the uncompromising vision we’ve come to expect from both designers in solo mode.
One thing that stood out in the System story was how much time Simons and Prada spent detailing their frustrations with the fashion business. “It has recently stopped exploring its own possibilities,” said Simons. “It should become much more liberated once again.” Miuccia agreed. “It is absolutely time to rethink these systems and structures that have come to define us.”
Leap forward 44 months to Sunday’s press conference, or, more specifically, its accompanying press release, to read the following: “If the notion of a partnership is to work jointly, the result of that conversation may not only be product but also the propagation of a thought and culture. A pure vision of creativity, with the product a vehicle for those thoughts.”
And that’s where I think things could get really exciting. Between them, Simons and Prada have been responsible for some of the most inspiring shows, clothes, soundtracks, ideas and imagery of the past few decades. Fashion has been the medium through which they chose to communicate, but their communications have opened up other worlds. I will always use David Bowie as my go-to god in such situations. One single song could be shaped from so many levels of meaning that it was making myths as it played. And that was how you propagated a thought and culture.
These are pre-revolutionary times. A moment to be fearless. I loved the fact Miuccia shot down speculation about succession. “Don’t make me any older than I am.” And she laughed. She wants to be here when the revolution comes, like she was last time. And, hey, Raf’s no spring chicken anyway. In an odd way, I wish he wasn’t hanging on to his own label. That’s almost like he was hedging his bets. Because these two are such seasoned veterans, survivors, cultural figureheads, that now, as they’re joining together to reinvent Prada, I feel they’re going to show us all how it’s done.