One can’t help but think that the designer’s enduring influence on fashion derives from her seemingly endless curiosity, thirst for knowledge and passion. There are no rules, safe answers or pat, prepackaged responses.
During the conversation Prada often questions herself, which clearly doesn’t reflect an uncertain nature, but rather her pensive and inquisitive personality. She certainly knows her own mind, but shuns any arrogance. Discipline is a pillar of Prada’s talent. She isn’t a designer tucked away in her ivory tower of creativity: She shares the CEO’s title at Prada Group with her husband, Patrizio Bertelli, with whom she has built a fashion company that last year reached sales of almost $4 billion and that is listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. She’s aware of the tough economy and the volatility of the financial markets, which impacted the group last year, as well as the ever-expanding customer base around the world and the power of social media and instant communication. But she stays true to her own impulses, perspective — and continual drive.
Prada designs a constant flow of womens- and menswear collections — and all their accessories — each year for the group’s signature brand and Miu Miu. She remains one of the few designers who can have a major impact on fashion for both sexes and her men’s runway shows in Milan remain among the most anticipated of the season. Menswear is playing an increasingly important role in the group, now accounting for 30% of sales.
Her fall collection was, in WWD’s view, the best of the season and its inspiration evolved into a spectacular women’s collection shown a month later. In January, WWD’s review said Prada’s take on the naval theme, tailored suiting, oversize outerwear and rich textures made for an “exceptional show, one of her best menswear outings in years. Finally some edge-of-your-seat fashion and a collection that was not only diverse but thought-provoking and captivating with its strong emotional tug.”
Sitting down with WWD at her headquarters in Milan, the designer, wearing a long-sleeve white shirtdress belted at the waist and chunky tassel loafers, discusses her vision for menswear, her personality, her interest in the Big Questions — and what irks her about fashion.
Your menswear collection for fall was one of the most influential in Milan, reflecting the brand’s evolution in the category and its growing relevance. You never seemed to listen to the tug of marketing or commercial constraints. I read that you believe you “know when you are doing something interesting.” Did you realize this was the case with your fall collection? Did you expect such a success?
I must say that more than any other time, I felt the need to express general problematic issues — because sometimes you can and sometimes you can’t. But this time, the sense of questioning was strong. It’s all so dynamic now. Everything is changing in politics — we don’t know where and we don’t know how — in society, in the new means of communication. So the idea was very important for me to ask myself who we are, where we come from and where we are going. Hence this excursus. And then the position of women, I really care about this. After all, unfortunately women still don’t count that much in the eyes of the world. There are two trends — those that have given up and just want to be married and be kept, but luckily there is also a new apparent feminism in the new generation.
Have you been putting more emphasis and attention on menswear? We’ve been seeing a common thread between your mens- and womenswear collections.
Since forever, when I was designing menswear, whenever I would find myself looking for ideas, I would pick from womenswear. I would ask myself: If I were a man, what would I wear? I tried to open the possibilities for men, but without reaching the point of being exaggerated or unwearable. I think it’s more useful to start with something possible and then people will slowly accept more, rather than [presenting] exaggerated looks that could be simply rejected. This has always been my point of view, then sometimes I do a little bit more. I remember once a few newspapers were scandalized by a short skirt, but that was actually a high belt [laughing]. But always under the appearance of something classic.
Fashion must do its part, but infiltrate the spirits, rather than making big declarations with no result.
What I am interested in is changing things without being too provocative or obviously political. Politics and fashion too directly linked, I don’t like that, or to make statements on clothes, [such as ] “no to war.” That is too serious. Maybe I’m wrong, but I like to be subtly political. Fashion must do its part, but infiltrate the spirits, rather than making big declarations with no result. When I do men’s — I never end up doing that part that is more masculine or more serious, which I am really interested in, I really like it. But I can’t develop it for women’s. I end up adding heels and this and that, creating a strong feminine contrast. There really are many interactions.
You have been showing womenswear on your men’s runway. Would you consider showing the collections together? Your husband suggested it years ago.
I am against it. To do two creative shows in one is a massacre. And it has to be a huge show, if you want to do it seriously. Last time, someone complained that there were too many women [in the men’s show] and that it distracted from the menswear — and this is somewhat true, because women are showier and swallow up the rest.
Together it could be very beautiful but I would shoot myself [laughs]. The way we work, at the last minute, with things arriving the day before if not the same day. … Many designers have things ready ahead of time.
What do you think of the see-now-buy-now trend? In February, you presented a few handbags, for example, that were readily available for purchase.
We’ve thought about it a lot, but journalists need to see [the collection], buyers need to buy it. So far, we don’t see any sense to it. In six months everyone knows everything. Surely, the way we work, with fabrics made for us, it takes two months for the fabrics, two months for the production … it takes around four months from the presentation to the store, to do it well. You can do it anyway and take it out at the last moment, pretend it’s just been done, but with a collection that you know by heart — what kind of enthusiasm can you have to show it on the runway? You freeze it? In the meantime, I have moved forward. It’s a bit strange. And then, you buy only safe [merchandise]; it’s less creative and less interesting. It’s true that creativity is at risk. Or else you have to block out communication, but this is against the trend. Everyone should be silent for four months, from producers of fabrics to buyers, journalists? I have yet to understand how this can work.
The Italian and French fashion associations have already expressed a negative view on this issue, while the Americans have a different. take, but they are still evaluating different ideas.
Yes, it’s one thing to say it, but then when you really think about it …
Earlier, you spoke about exaggeration on the runway — perhaps this is to get attention. Is this a mistake in fashion?
I believe the catwalk is 50% reality and 50% imaginary, entertainment. I don’t know if this is right or not, but surely because communication is so wide-ranging, you need to exaggerate or nobody understands what you are doing. Nobody knows what is right and what is wrong at this moment. I can reason, say: “We must think about what women want to wear; we’ll do a simpler, more normal show, with wearable clothes.” But then we have the entire world, journalists coming here, and already they get bored with that idea. If you know how to do it, a show is important; you have to tell them something. People are stimulated by so many things — cinema, television, social media — how can you make yourself heard? With this show, I realized I must give more, or I bring out my theoretical, intellectual part. I am 50-50. Actually, I am more human than intellectual and people don’t know this because I have tried not to show that.
It’s a form of reserve.
No, maybe that, too, but I don’t think so. Yes, I think that by hiding things, it’s a form of self-defense.
Especially now, when we all know everything about everyone…
Yes … I am happy this way, but I understand that
at work I must externalize my passionate streak. Maybe this is why the shows were well-received; they were more personal, I gave more of myself. I pushed my limits more in what I am and what I think.
This comes from your own needs: You silence what is around you — financial results, store performance — and you listen to yourself?
Always. I’m interested in the economic part because I’m interested in knowing what people think. I challenge myself because I want to verify if I’m in sync with people. My problem is to be sure I am in sync, even when ideologically I’m against fashion.
But if you are ahead of the curve, how can you realize if you are in sync with people?
That is my problem and my husband says we can’t be too ahead. I always am, then people copy us. For example, with the Hawaiian shirts, we did them three years ago, and everyone started doing them, so I decided to put them back on the runway [laughing].
When I let my intellectual or political side loose, I censor my work and it’s a harm to myself. Then there are periods in which I’m more generous with myself and others. I express myself in a way that is more understandable and people like it. When I do something that is fundamental, pop, it always works, maybe because there is some irony.
There is more pride in talking about fashion. In February, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi for the first time unveiled Milan Fashion Week, there are government investments in fashion. Do you see the changes now?
Yes, I think now surely fashion is seen in a more positive light, but not entirely. In fashion, there is always something that attracts and something that turns people away. Perhaps this is what has most interested me. I have always tried to understand [the reason]. I’ve asked great intellectuals and artists. One person said that it’s because “it’s stuff for women.” This is really tough [giggles]. I hope it’s not that, but it may be, deep down there is a certain diffidence [toward fashion].
Also, fashion touches personal, intimate issues that people have a hard time recognizing, embracing or talking about publicly. Imagine a room filled with people — men, they talk about the pharmaceutical or tire industries, but not fashion. Fashion touches you, your body, your fears, your most intimate things; it’s a very delicate subject. You can no longer say it’s superficial. Fashion is very difficult. You need to catch an atmosphere — it’s like recording an album. Perhaps that’s the right comparison — you must capture a feeling, the imagination. It’s never only a technical job. This creative, dark part annoys many people. The difficulty to recognize oneself in a sphere that touches your individual sensibilities, your physical and personal weaknesses in a relevant way.
Is there anything really wrong in the fashion system, something that bothers you?
It annoys me when something that has no value is successful, I confess. I have never been jealous of those that are talented — on the contrary, I appreciate them and recognize them. But when someone or a brand that I don’t respect is successful, that bothers me.
Maybe because they take shortcuts to attract customers?
Because I regret that people don’t understand the differences, or the superficiality. I like a risk, I like intelligence. In fashion there are many good designers, some less, but when people talk in negative terms about fashion, what’s wrong with it. I need to think about it. Perhaps at this moment it’s that there is a little too much work, with precollections, post-collections, specials, etc.
Also, we must engage with the world of the Internet. In addition, what is tiring is that you have the entire world to think of — the races, religions, the complications of the world make it more difficult to give a more complex, not superficial reading. You can’t show the legs there, you think of the smaller bodies in China, the bigger ones in Germany, you can’t show the nipples in America. This is what would be more fun, very interesting, if you had the time to analyze and rethink the collection for different worlds.
Does it bother you when you are copied?
It depends. If a copy is sly, it bothers me. Otherwise it doesn’t create any problem.
Perhaps one of the faults you object to the most is slyness? You’ve mentioned it a few times.
Yes, I really think so. Marc Jacobs says he loves me and says that he copies me, but it’s not true. He says it, but actually he doesn’t at all. Then there are the sneaky ones that copy from me and from others and nobody sees that. That irks me. Those designers that have spent their life copying a little bit here and a little bit there and pass as creatives, well, that bothers me. Whether they copy me or others, it’s the same.
Do you think a wave of new designers can change things?
You can’t expect fashion to revolutionize things; revolution happens in society. The miniskirt came [to be] because of the women’s liberation. New comes from the change in society and fashion reflects it. Fashion is attentive to changes; maybe now the real revolution is the closeness between mens- and womenswear.
Is there a certain boredom in menswear?
Yes. Before, men dressed up much more than women. I just saw this wonderful movie from Roberto Rossellini on Louis XIV, or the Sun King. He dressed himself to control politics, he forced people to come to court, spend huge sums; they were poorer that way and he controlled them. It was a strategy.
Have things changed in that sense — the way men dress for power?
Maybe a little, but men are not free to dress and embellish themselves like in the past. Just look around — men wear normal clothes.
Luisa Zargani is the Milan Bureau Chief for Women’s Wear Daily.