Mrs Prada’s earrings aren’t distracting until she starts getting animated. And then they start moving around. She’s animated now, because, this morning, the Italian government that should have been a government couldn’t form a government. The country is without government. It’s a mess but that’s nothing new. Of the 28 prime ministers who have served since the Italian Republic was formed in 1946, six have served under a year in term, 12 under two years and the remaining 10 have formed a total of 42 cabinets between them. It’s bust and then not, and it’s infuriating.
We have about an hour of Mrs Prada’s time, to talk about “all sorts and general things” and obviously Prada. Her house. This terrific, moving, beautiful, huge and powerful house. First up, nylon. We’ll come back to Mrs Prada’s earrings and politics.
The Black Sheep
Type “Prada nylon” into Google now and see a whopping 23,100,000 results come in. That’s about half compared with when you type in “Lenin” (42,200,000). Love Island comes in with a disappointingly huge 296,000,000 results. Morons. Prada nylon became “a thing” when fashion people started buying the brand’s rucksacks in the very early 1990s. After that, the non-slub, waterproof – strike that – shower-proof fabric used to make rain macs and bags, wallets, keyrings, trousers, shirts, shorts and shoes has become, and is, everything Prada. It’s not a luxury designer fabric, though, and never has been. It’s nylon.
It’s not like cashmere or vicuña or fur; these, at least, feel expensive. There’s no slubbing or ageing or patination. It’s made in bulk in factories and made from chemicals. It’s from somewhere in the future and at the same time really very now. Luxury peddlers in the industry hate this. Chemicals are way off the old luxury script, they say. Nylon is neither “combed from the chin of a… ” nor is it “handmade”. It’s not “crafted” or “tooled” or “made by artisans” in a remote village somewhere hot.
Nylon Isn’t Luxury, It’s Just Wrong
Picture the kerfuffle then, when, in 1978, a young Miuccia Prada – a recent politics grad – entered the family business bearing some rather novel ideas. The young Prada took a match to that old luxury script and, with it, the “old order”. “Back then, I didn’t really like anything I saw,” says the designer. “It all just looked so old and bourgeois and boring. Back then, I just wanted to search for the absolute opposite of what was already out there.”
In 1990, Mrs Prada summed up her new order at the house, telling The New Yorker: “I want always to mix the industrial way of doing things with the patrimonio of the past, with the artisanal tradition.” It’s that brass neck that got the house to where it stands now: all folded-arms intransigence; a change- obsessed thought-factory, ready to wrestle with itself and everything else. Black nylon was only just the beginning.
Inside the Prada store now on London’s Old Bond Street, it’s a goth convention of black-nylon everything: shoes, bags, skirts, the lot. It’s Mrs Prada’s autumn treatise on fashion’s most unlikely luxury cloth. Wearing black gives up all obligations to take part in trends. It’s great. You can retreat into black, too: it’s fashion’s “safe space”. It fits. But in between all the rails of black coats and shorts and skirts, there’s bright nylon: neons! In all kinds of shades of fizzy pop.
Neon is the super woofer way of doing colours: it’s so voluble it affects your face. And if it smells of anything it smells like static. And tarmac! Definitely the city at night when it’s rainy and threatening, but exciting and also poison. You see neons in a graphic novel. How about a skirt in “sickly lipstick pink” or a cagoule in a “bridesmaid peach”? In the window is one hell of a big bag in something approaching “angry limeade”. This shop is as eccentric and colourful as an old parrot.
The nylon mixologists behind these really pretty eyesores work in the Prada labs. It’s a top-secret place, where the designer and her team conjure super-cloths and new stretchy compounds, show after show. It’s all very hush-hush, too, and very “trade secrets”, but we do know the staff wear lab coats.
Not that Prada nylon comes cheap. “Back in the 1990s, I found a company that was spinning a very specific type of nylon,” says Mrs Prada. “It was more expensive than silk because the thread is really thin and very precious.” Does she wear nylon, too? “Yes!”
Today, though, it’s a robust satin skirt and matching-jacket combo. The skirt is shaped like a funnel and the jacket is cropped and boxy; both come in a kind of off- bronze. A pretty, soft white shirt underneath lifts Mrs Prada’s tanned skin. And she stares like a headmistress. Her hair is tied back and out of the way; it’s neat and functional, never dressed and sprayed in place, as with many women in the luxury trade. Only two triangles – “Dal 1913” – attached to the skirt and jacket, tell you she is a lady who knows. Oh, that triangle – it’s the brand-within-logo that is known the world over. It means fine and designed and, of course, knowing. Your bank manager hates it. You, however…
Mrs Prada says of her first experiments at the house: “I wanted to mix nylon with crocodile back then and do luxury my own way. At the beginning [of her career at Prada], everybody hated everything I did. But then it became a success.” And what a success. As of October 2017, Forbes valued Prada Group, including Miu Miu, Church’s and Car Shoe, at $11.4 billion. And the house sits alongside Apple and Sony in the respected Best Global Brands report by the luxury consultancy Interbrand.
So how does Mrs Prada create? “Sometimes it just doesn’t happen at all,” she laughs. But the fluoro did: how and why? “It was one night long before the show. I remember I was walking alone in the street and it was really dark… ” Mrs Prada begins to tell a designer’s tale of how she walked through the rainy streets of Milan. In the puddles at her feet she saw strange intersections of commercial signage and retail opportunities; it was these stylised reflections that birthed the beginnings of the autumn collection:
Rooms to Let
“I was walking and walking and kept walking… and I suddenly thought to myself, ‘I actually don’t feel safe here.’ Obviously, I wasn’t naked at the time but still, I just didn’t feel that safe. So I started to think about how women should, in fact, be free to go outside into the city and feel completely safe. To go outside naked, even, or super-sexy, and still feel safe. That, basically, was the thought process behind the fluoro – of going out at night and dressing aggressively sexy, or colourfully, wearing neons to fight fear.”
So fluoro is a protective colour for women? Because she’s dangerous in fluoro? “She’s dangerous.” And brave? “Clever, brave, provocative.”
Mrs Prada has talked in the past about “the struggle for independence”. Is that the struggle for equality? “No, the struggle for independence – it’s a serious thing. It’s the idea of challenging yourself and fighting for the possibility of doing that. As a woman you want to be free and independent. For a woman, the first thing you need to do is earn money, because if you don’t earn, there is no freedom. That I learnt when I was really young, when I had to ask my mother for money. The struggle is the struggle – it’s for your soul and for your independence. And also the struggle for the things you believe in. At least, that’s how I see my life.” She’s looking down at her desk now. And then looks up: “It’s a struggle for what I want to achieve, for what I believe in, whether that’s fashion, or the Fondazione, whether that’s my friends or my family. It’s always a struggle for achieving what you believe in.”
Is it more of a struggle for women now than before? “In the 1960s there was a great moment, and I have to say, we got a lot of results.” Mrs Prada famously marched in the student protests of May 1968 in Milan. “Afterwards,” she says, “what we achieved became part of common thinking, and so some of our achievements back then were permanent.” Have we achieved much more since then? “There haven’t been any real moments of excitement. Now, let’s hope, it’s the right moment again. Because I’m not so confident that, suddenly from nowhere, all women will agree and understand that this – the struggle and fight – is important for women’s lives. No one gives a woman freedom, no one gives you anything – everything you achieve, you achieve by yourself. So it’s your rise and you have to struggle for it.” It really is a genuine struggle, then? “You wait around to get freedom from a man and from society – why? You have to struggle and find your own path in life.”
The New “Female Gaze”
We talked briefly about the female gaze and the new influence of female fashion photographers in a once-male-dominated genre. The likes of Harley Weir, Collier Schorr, Cass Bird, Zoë Ghertner and Petra Collins have all pressed refresh on photography, seeing other women through female eyes.
“I think this is very complicated,” says Mrs Prada, “because, very often, women try to enter into the eyes of men. I’ve always tried to help women express themselves, to be free and do whatever they want. And be free from the judgment of men. Be free if you want to be free, because sometimes you want to please [men]. It’s very complicated, but it always has to be your decision. I always say you can go outside naked or in a really provocative dress – if it’s your choice. But never for finding a rich husband.”
A woman has to be able to choose her dress and what it communicates? “Whatever you want, you have to be totally free, but it has to be your choice. So your choice is not to care or to care. If you want to seduce, maybe then you wear a dress designed for seduction… You know the clichés of men… And then decide if you want to go with them or go the opposite way, and so on.
“So, in fact, clothes are an instrument in the hands of a person – either a man or woman. But it has to be really free. And it has to be a game. I always treat [fashion] like a game, and then see how it works with people, in society. Because clothes aren’t only about dressing for sensual reasons, they’re also about dressing in order to decide which group you want to feel part of. Or if you want to look rich, half-rich, intellectual rich, poor rich… If you have fun with it, it’s really interesting.”
Not that fashion is serious, is it? (Just to add here that Mrs Prada, certainly smarter than the average designer, can be intimidating, so you ask a question like this and accept the consequences.) “In general, who could care less about clothes? But also about homeware, that isn’t serious either. A new car isn’t serious. All these things that complement life, like decoration, embellishment, are extra instruments. Just like you choose a nice sea to swim in, a nice place for a vacation, maybe a nice home that you dream of… And clothes are just part of that extra stuff,” she says, “but for me it’s all extra stuff. The real problem is what you do with your life – what interests you, what are you doing and why? And then all those other things are extra. I don’t think that clothes are worse than a chair or a table or a home. It’s exactly the same. Actually, I have to say that, probably, they are all part of your choices, of the description of yourself, of the things that you like, that are all definitely extra.”
They are projections of what you believe in? “But none of those things are important for me.”
The Question of Creativity
The designer rarely, if ever, talks about her creative process. The feminist writer Nawal El Saadawi loosely describes creativity as a bringing together of different disciplines to see what happens. The bringing together, for example, of the normally separate disciplines of history, politics and religion to create something new. What’s creativity for you? “I agree it’s a mix of everything. But the problem is how to mix them. So, if you are able to, mix them in a way that is an idea, or you just put them together in a scientific way or in a political way. So, anything you do, you have to mix in what is happening around you – ideology, politics, history, pop, whatever. But how to mix it? You can mix it in different ways. One way could be scientific, one could be just rational.
“Probably this question is one of the impossible questions. Basically, I’ll try to answer you according to what El Saadawi has said – you have to add something new and unknown. Creativity is when whatever you touch, even if you touch everything from the past, you must add something that creates something new. And that’s difficult. That’s why there are so few great artists, so few great designers, so few great architects, so few great writers. Because it’s a very rare thing. You can do the job, but the real creative person is the one who puts something ‘wrong’ into the mix, something different or an extra level of understanding.”
So you work with the unexpected, incorporating politics, religion, and so on. And asking, “Who are we now?” And then you throw something unexpected into that mix? “That’s what I try, but it’s not often. If you’re lucky, you have maybe one good idea per year. Maybe not even that. But that’s what I try to do the whole time. But it’s not that I try, actually, it’s an impulse that I have. I have to do it. That is my struggle, my battle – to always go forward. It’s not that I sit down and I have to think about something clever. I’m always thinking, I’m always trying to do something that makes sense, or something that’s different, or from a different perspective. So it’s not a duty, it’s what my instinct brings me.”
But you must feel the pressure. I know it’s instinctual, but there’s pressure from the out-there to produce collection after collection. “Yes, of course. There’s the pressure of the others, and then there’s the pressure of yourself. So, both.”
It’s exhausting? “Not really. Because it’s also my fun and what I chose. I get energy from the ideas.” You said that sometimes you just don’t have any ideas. What happens then? “Whenever I don’t have an idea, I always think about what has really, deeply interested me in the past two or three months. Sometimes it’s something that has nothing to do with my job. I have to attach myself to something that, in reality, took my attention. And then from there, I try to understand why that thing interested me. And after that I think, ‘How can I connect it with my job?’”
At all costs Mrs Prada avoids the cliché, and her work refuses to communicate what has already been said. Design clichés can and do get “a treatment”, however. Her “femme fatale in lace” line-out of autumn 2008 came about after she realised how much she hated lace. Spring 2012, and the golfing collection for men was a sickly, somewhat camp series of cowboy shirts with rhinestones stitched together with golfing checks. After the show Mrs Prada told journalists how much she “detests golf”.
“From a fashion point of view, I’m always trying to do something new – a new silhouette, a new combination,” she says. “Basically, I know what I don’t want to do. That is actually my starting point – no this, no that. It’s a lot about ‘the no’ and what I don’t want to do.”
And avoiding clichés? “Absolutely – what is done already, what is too trendy. That’s always a starting point. And after, I know more or less a direction, we discuss. But after, I always have to infuse a story, a reason for all of that. This season, it was this excitement on a local night. It came out very easily, and it was coherent with the aggressive level of strength of the women. So, after, you have to fuse all of that. Sometimes it works better, sometimes it works worse.”
Throughout our conversation Mrs Prada talks of “protection” and “armour” and “being seen”. Indeed, the usual Prada show slot of 6pm was changed, this once, to show autumn/winter at 8pm instead. It was a darker then. And outside, as you approached the show, this time held at the Fondazione Prada art gallery and exhibition space in Milan, were neon bananas and light-up cartoon dinosaurs, some flashing triangles, monkeys and cartoon-flame shoes. All Prada motifs used in the past and now were asking us to enter like the shop signs Mrs Prada saw on that rainy night.
And then it began. Section one: an extension of the men’s collection with black nylon sports shapes; then on came the fluoro and that kicky pleated tulle. The abstract prints on the dresses were, says Mrs Prada, “flowers I had seen through rainy windows that night”. And those strange drawstring fluoro gaiters, some of which snapped over shoes and boots, were plays, she said, “on protection”. They snap on and off, as do the fluoro coats, so a woman can come and go and protect herself with ease. The prints in the show, a mix of archive and new, now came with added flames.
We’re getting animated now. The earrings are off. “You know sometimes I ask that a show has a super-sophisticated feel, and people who really like and understand fashion love that,” points out Mrs Prada. “But then, you have to simplify and simplify and simplify and simplify for people who are not so interested and judge with a glance. But how far can you simplify without sacrifice? But I think politics are the same – how can you discuss politics with a hashtag?”
At this point the conversation ends. Mrs Prada has hijacked our minds.