In a system that demands simplicity, Miuccia Prada offers complexity without apology

Document editor-in-chief Nick Vogelson meets with Mrs. Prada to discuss the art of subversion, ditching politics for fashion, and why success isn't the key to happiness.

She’s spent four decades reigning as one of the most influential designers in history. Each season, her collections are pored over—practically with jeweler’s loupes—for indications of where fashion is headed. Books have been written about her work. Museum exhibitions have been devoted to it. What could there be left for Miuccia Prada to say?

Plenty, it turns out.

Mrs. Prada met me in her offices at Prada’s headquarters on Via Bergamo in Milan the afternoon after she showed her women’s Spring/Summer 2019 collection in the breathtaking new performance space at the Fondazione Prada. If the weeks of preparations leading up to the show had left her tired, she didn’t show it. And, let’s face it: This is a pace she has grown accustomed to, designing four collections per year for Prada women’s, two for Prada men’s, and four for Miu Miu. The following week, she would depart for Paris to prepare for Miu Miu’s Spring/Summer 2019 show.

In the past, Mrs. Prada has spoken about her design influences and objectives. And she is a famously private person. But she approaches the world with an insatiable curiosity—she’s an avid reader—and is constantly asking questions of everyone she encounters, from fellow designers to the children of her friends. As such, her interests are constantly developing, as well. She always has something new she’s thinking about (often quite unrelated to fashion) and something new she wants to say (often, and with unrivaled complexity, through her collections).

I was honored to sit down with Mrs. Prada to find out if it has been this curiosity, this questioning of the world around her and evolving of her interests, that has allowed her to stay several steps ahead of her peers in an industry whose present scale would have been unfathomable to her when she first began designing.

Nick Vogelson—Congratulations on the show last night. It was really spectacular—so surprising and challenging and subversive, in many ways.

Miuccia Prada—Thank you very much. I like to work between freedom and conservatism. It’s what I think is happening now in society—there is this kind of freedom and will of freedom, fantasy and so on. But the world is becoming ultra conservative at the same time.

Nick—It is.

Mrs. Prada—It’s the clash of the two. That’s what is really happening, in a deep way.

Nick—One of the ideas I wanted to start off talking about is subversion. I think that with everything that you do and everything that you touch, there’s a level of subversion about it. And I think that’s really fascinating. To be able to operate on a commercial level while still being very creative and subversive I think is really special.

Mrs. Prada—It’s something that comes very naturally. Last night was a stupid example. [Laughs] I had a champagne glass, and we asked for red wine. They wanted to change my glass, and I said, ‘No, pour the wine into a champagne glass.’ Somebody said, ‘What is that?’ Because nobody understands if you have something red in a champagne glass.

All my life, I’ve been trying to change the rules, starting from something that is normal. That’s why at the beginning of my career, I’ve said it before, no one liked me. Because for the so-called avant-garde, I was obviously not avant-garde enough. And for the brands, there was always something deeply disturbing [about my work]. I like disturbing with subtlety more than trying to be exaggerated. And what I like most is to make something simple and banal wrong. For instance, in this show, there was a twin set in cotton jersey, but actually it was a white t-shirt with a beautiful bag. It was my favorite—pretending to be super chic, but it was a t-shirt. It’s something that comes to me naturally, to work opposite to what I have, what I have to do, what is normal. What I like to do most are things that are simple, so that it’s subtle.

“I never have certitude. That’s why, for instance, I don’t like to speak in public. I’m always doubting, always contesting, always trying to twist it.”

Nick—I think that’s what makes it even more subversive, in a way—that it could potentially appear very simple or very classical, and it’s not. I also think the collection is very much aimed at a younger generation. I feel like it spoke to youth, whether or not that was intentional.

Mrs. Prada—No, because to decide which is your audience is something that I have never done. To be honest, I never think about who’s going to be the [audience]. I like that after [a show], my pieces have an independent life, and each one wears them or buys them in different ways. I do something I think is meaningful, is right, and after, who knows the life it will have.

Nick—Sure.

Mrs. PradaBut in fact, I always think if you are in touch with reality, if you’re interested in what is happening, whether in politics, in art, in movies…if you’re interested in the now, eventually you touch the young. Older people never really liked Prada, because somehow it’s too strange or disturbing. It’s never classic enough. So in general, I think that the young generation understands it more.

Nick—I get the sense that a lot of your thought process involves asking questions.

Mrs. Prada—Ah, yes. I have many questions to answer. [Laughs]

Nick—How does the idea of asking questions influence the work or dictate your practice as a designer?

Mrs. Prada—I never have certitude. That’s why, for instance, I don’t like to speak in public. I am fine with interviews, because it’s a dialogue. But to talk in public, you have to have a clear idea. I’m always doubting: ‘This? No…isn’t it better the opposite?’ ‘It’s this…but why is it true?’ The moment I say red, I want to say black. And again, it’s an instinctive process. ‘Ah, that’s beautiful.’ After, I think, ‘Too beautiful?’ Always contesting, always trying to twist it—this probably is my nature.

All my life is a complete contradiction, because I started being a fashion designer when I was doing politics. But I like beauty so much that I finally became a fashion designer, hating it for most of my life but [also] liking it. So I, myself, am a living contradiction.

In a system that demands simplicity, Miuccia Prada offers complexity without apology

Miuccia Prada photographed in Milan.

Nick—There are so many details in your work, so many layers of meaning, and I think part of that comes from the fact that you’re asking yourself a lot of questions throughout the design process. These can be about ideas of identity or politics or sexiness—any of these different things. And I think the way you communicate that is really interesting. For example, you famously introduced nylon into your signature accessories in the ’80s and into your ready-to-wear collections in the ’90s, recontextualizing it from a utilitarian staple to a sort of luxury canvas. I’m curious: Do you feel like there are times when people don’t understand all of the references or the ideas behind things?

Mrs. PradaYes, it’s always a problem. Mainly today, there is simplification: Brand X is sex. Brand Y is love. Brand Z is confusion. Every brand is very clear about what it is. And Prada is not clear, because it changes all the time. Sometimes I say, ‘Listen, let’s promote the complexity,’ because you can’t reduce Prada to something simple. It’s impossible.

How much can you simplify stuff until it’s completely useless? You can simplify, simplify, simplify, because of the orders [from buyers] or because of the internet—they want everything simple. But that is something we have to resist, because simplicity becomes nearly zero. That is always a discussion between us. I say that you have to embrace complexity and make it a value, but the communication with people, this instrument, apparently wants to be simple. But life is not simple—so why this simplification?

When people understand all the layers, I’m super happy, but you also have to speak in a simple way for the ones who don’t care. But my work is complex. I’m not able to change. I propose complexity.

Nick—What do you find has changed about yourself over the past four decades in designing?

Mrs. Prada—Basically, I always more or less did the same job, attacking different subjects, updating the subject that at the end is talking about life. It’s also a lot about pure fashion. I don’t know if many people know or not, but I am very interested that fashion is fashion. It’s what you want to wear next—that’s probably what made me work in fashion. If everybody was wearing long, I wanted to be wearing short. I always wanted to be the first to wear something different. Of course, many years ago, it was easier. Now, there is so much fashion that the differences are less evident.

Nick—You’ve said the idea of success does not mean happiness to you. How would you define happiness? What makes you content?

Mrs. Prada—It’s all very personal. When you’re in love, you’re happy, for instance. It’s all for a reason that leads to love, family, and friends, so that when something good happens for you, it’s something that is part of your family and your friends.

Nick—Most people think of happiness as success.

Mrs. Prada—Oh my God, no.

Nick—[Laughs]

Mrs. PradaI think it’s a fake. You see very often that even super-famous, successful people have problems, just because of the stress that fame brings in general.

Nick—They’re miserable.

Mrs. PradaActually, success tends to make you unhappy, because you have to live in that image. For example, an actress has superfans, and then she starts becoming old. Or a super-successful football player or a singer—mainly, professions that require you to be young. For a movie director, an architect, or a designer, you can be good for a long time, but these other professions don’t always bring happiness. Maybe one second you win an Oscar, but after…? Life is long. That’s why I always say you have to give a reason to your life. Whatever you do, that’s what you have to do to give a reason to your whole life.

Nick—That’s really beautiful.

In a system that demands simplicity, Miuccia Prada offers complexity without apology

Miuccia Prada photographed in Milan.

Mrs. Prada—That’s what I teach to young kids, you know? That’s the only thing that counts. Because in a difficult moment, the only thing that makes you resistant is that you didn’t do anything that is a waste or useless, when you can say, ‘I always tried my best to do something relevant, for me and the others.’ Then even if you have bad times, you’re fine. At least you don’t say, ‘I’ve thrown my life away after stupid stuff.’

Nick—I really wish that were more of a guiding principle of society today. Everyone’s chasing success, but they’re chasing the wrong thing.

Mrs. Prada—Also, if they really get successful, sometimes it’s the beginning of their problems.

Nick—Absolutely. I wanted to ask you about media today. What do you think is the role and responsibility of media in general and magazines specifically?

Mrs. PradaI think it’s a very tricky problem at the moment. Now we tend to say, ‘Okay, let’s do what we believe in or what we like,’ because if you want to try to please the readers, you don’t even know who they are. Maybe you can have a big number—but a big number of whom? The world is so complicated, and everything is so uncertain. In the media, everybody has a different point of view; what is good for one company is bad for another, and so on. The only way not to make a mistake is doing what you believe in. And after, you will see. I don’t think there is a system except being loyal to your beliefs.

In the beginning, we were criticized because we were not present enough on the web. So now we’ve arrived at the conclusion that we have to do what we like. There is not a formula. Each [company] has its [own] formula, and numbers are not necessarily equivalent to sales. There are companies that are not successful on Instagram and they [still] sell a lot.

Nick—Are you on social media?

Mrs. Prada—Personally? No. Not at all. I’m very [protective] of my own life, and to make yourself public? No way. [Laughs]

Nick—[Laughs]

“To make achievement in theoretical discussion, you have to be free to say anything that passes through your mind. If you start censoring things, the discussion goes nowhere.”

Mrs. PradaI like being with people. I could spend my life in a bar, talking with people. If somebody who knew me [professionally] saw me [outside of] work, then they would think that I was a different person, because your work is such a big responsibility. I feel that more recently than I did before. [It takes] so many people to run such a big company, so you have to be more responsible. But outside of my job, I’m a very nice person, and I have a lot of fun.

Nick—I think people often think about privacy in terms of a trade-off. For example, people trade their privacy for safety or security. Or if someone posts a résumé online because he wants to get a job, or if he wants to find a partner and goes online to find that—there is a trade-off there.

Mrs. PradaMaybe I never had the necessity. I think that one thing that bound me is that I had my old friends, and I’ve seen them every single night for 30 years or more. I like simply to be a normal person, and I like to be with my friends in a very simple way. I also like to be with people. I never want to go out, but if I do go out, I’m the last one to leave.

The other thing that is very relevant for me is that if you want to say something interesting, you can’t go and talk about it everywhere. As a joke, I say I’m in favor of “secret society.” Everything has to be politically correct. You can’t say anything politically incorrect. You can’t talk about your competitor; you have to be decent. So then you have to be superficial. But if you don’t say the truth, even if it’s bad, or if you can’t say incorrect things, then the process and the understanding don’t progress. To make achievement in theoretical discussion, you have to be totally free to say anything that passes through your mind. If you start censoring things, the discussion goes nowhere. Finally, you can say anything, you can think anything you want, because you know that the other people are in the same position. That is a trade-off! [Laughs] Now I am with you, and you are with me. It’s a mutual trading.

“You lose your life if every moment you have to take pictures. You can’t enjoy life if you’re thinking all the time about how to represent it—you’re representing or you’re living. I prefer living.”

Nick—I don’t know if you remember, but we had an amazing dinner together at Lapérouse when we did the issue of the magazine with Olivier Rizzo. I remember they said that Mrs. Prada might come, and she might be there for 30 minutes, you know, very quick. And then I remember—

Mrs. Prada—I was the last to leave.

Nick—You were the last one with us. I mean, we were there until three or four. My good friend Maripol, the Polaroid photographer, had her camera, and you were taking pictures of everyone.

Mrs. Prada—Yes.

Nick—It was a moment. So you love the party.

Mrs. Prada—Yes, when I find the people that I feel [comfortable with]. The atmosphere shouldn’t be formal. When it’s not pompous, I like it.

Nick—I wanted to ask you, going back to the idea of privacy, if you felt that the age of social media poses a threat to individuality. I think the idea of privacy is also about maintaining your individuality.

Mrs. Prada—You lose your life if every moment you have to take pictures. How can you enjoy a sunset if you take a picture? You can’t enjoy life if you’re thinking all the time about how to represent it—you’re representing or you’re living. I prefer living. The funniest thing is that sometimes people at a show watch it through their phone—so it’s there, too. What do young people think [about social media] now? Because I hear that many are leaving. Do you have any idea what is happening?

Nick—There is definitely a backlash against it. I think that people in their twenties and thirties are very much into it, but I think in their earlier twenties and younger, people are trying to do less. It really is detrimental to experiencing your life and being in the moment—being happy about something, or excited, or feeling any sort of emotion—when you’re recording it.

Mrs. Prada—Absolutely.

In a system that demands simplicity, Miuccia Prada offers complexity without apology

Miuccia Prada photographed in Milan. Lighting Technician: Romain Dubus. Digital Technician: Henri Coutant. Photo Assistant: Alex Cacciabue. Production: Amazed Productions. 

Nick—Speaking of a younger generation, when you look at the youngest generation today, do you see something of yourself? What do you recognize?

Mrs. Prada—First of all, I really hate when they call them ‘millennials,’ when they [create] a kind of generic group of people to sell to. ‘Millennials’ equals ‘how do we sell them something.’ I think it’s so disrespectful to young people. Young people are of different races and religions; they’re stupid or they’re clever. The young are the young, as they always were, completely different from one to another. So that classification of ‘millennial’ is a kind of economic thievery, and so superficial. I think you can’t generalize about youth, except that it’s difficult for them to find jobs. [People] are leaving [their jobs at an] older [age], so we don’t leave the space for young, and they don’t find jobs until later.

Nick—If you were just out of university today, what would your concerns be?

Mrs. PradaIf I were now a student, probably to find a job.

Nick—[Laughs]

Mrs. PradaAnd to find what interests me in life. I think that life can be good or bad, but if you do a job that you like, whatever it is, your life is good. If you do something you don’t like, life is difficult. You save yourself. So mainly, [I would be] learning and understanding what I liked.

Nick—Yes.

Mrs. Prada—For some people, it’s clear. But for many young people, they don’t know what they like. Finding a job that you like is what worries me most for the young. I remember that there was a moment in my life that I think lasted one or two years when I knew I had something to express, but I didn’t know where. That was the only moment when I was really unhappy, because I didn’t know what I wanted. So maybe [I’d tell young people to] start traveling and approaching different kinds of people, and at some point you’ll find your place.

Nick—My last question: Do you have any advice for young designers today?

Mrs. Prada—For this kind of profession—an actor or a singer or a creative person—it’s not that you learn. If you have an instinct, you can educate your instinct, but if you don’t have the basic instinct, I am afraid there is nothing to do. You have to be a bit born for it. If you have a great voice, you can work to make it better, but if you are a singer, the voice is [only] part of it. You can be a fantastic singer without a beautiful voice—actually, with a horrible voice. It’s the spirit, it’s the will, it’s the passion.

Nick—I love that.

Mrs. PradaI see people who do very simple jobs, but with passion—cleaning, anything. There may be jobs that are considered more beautiful and others simpler, but in the end, if you do a simple job with passion, you will be happier than any profession done without passion. Passion is the real engine or motor.

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