The architecture of Milan is a strange, senseless mess, a hodgepodge of classical and modernist, its robust Renaissance palazzos and 19th-century homes jostling against Brutalist concrete edifices. Plenty of those were thrown up during il boom, the Italian economic miracle of the post-war years: lots of old architecture had been blown up during Allied bombing, making ample space for shiny new factories and tower blocks.
That architecture always reminds me of the collections of Miuccia Prada—probably because it’s not only in the back of my mind, but in the corner of my eyes the four times a year I travel to Via Fogazzaro in southeast Milan to see how Mrs. Prada will change the fashion world, again.
It reminds me of Prada not because she’s senseless, or messy. No. But because she is strange. Because she, too, has a disregard for conventions of taste, for the constraints of history, for putting things in their proper place. She wildly thuds together old and new, beautiful and ugly. Her collections, both in themselves and in their chronological sequence, are alarming in their flagrant indifference to conventional rationale. She has always had this sense to her work.
My favorite word she throws out during our conversation is “disturbing.” Miuccia Prada likes to disturb. In doing so, she’s shifted the axes of fashion and transformed how we view the age-old ideas of taste and beauty, and in turn their relationship to the clothing on our backs. She bombed out the old and built the new.
Plenty of profiles of Mrs. Prada focus on what she is wearing when she meets with a given journalist. Instead, I thought I’d talk about what I was wearing. That was largely nondescript, mostly black. The temperature outside Mrs. Prada’s ferociously air-conditioned, clinically cool white office topped 38 degrees centigrade, 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It was Milan, in July.
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But anyway. I was carrying a black nylon Prada backpack. It wasn’t a sycophantic gesture; it is simply the bag I use every day. Coincidentally, it’s also the bag Mrs. Prada built her fashion empire on. Fittingly, it’s also the bag that best summarizes her inversion of long-held value systems, her destruction of centuries-old notions of luxury. Her fashion revolution. The great nylon renunciation.
In the Renaissance, monarchs passed sumptuary laws in an attempt to restrict the conspicuous sporting of fine stuff deemed suitable only for a tiny, aristocratic elite. They failed. Mrs. Prada has succeeded. She’s got the fashion world in the bag.
Or rather, her bag.
Alexander—Which relates to the thing I loved with your Miu Miu Pre-Spring  collection—the invitation prints, with the dates and time, on the clothes. It was so much about what was happening in the here and now. That what you’re doing is a reaction to the world now, as opposed to something you cooked up six months ago.
Mrs. Prada—When I work on Prada, we work for one month. Already there are so many ideas that maybe we don’t do for Prada, so I know. I say, “Please, let’s spare something for Miu Miu!” Let’s have something to start! Also because we had a little time, and there was the perfume. We said, “Let’s do a mix of Miu Miu ideas.” And after, everything was different. But you need, when you have such a short time, you need something to start with!
Alexander—The show was kind of about best-sellers, but not. Twisted. More risky. Because I think there’s that danger that if you design to please people too much, it can end up being quite banal.
Mrs. Prada—Absolutely, and the world tends towards banality. A lot of my consideration is that, in a world that is getting bigger and bigger, the idea that people like less and less. That’s why the last shows were about animal prints, symbols—because that’s what people want. They want animal prints, pink bows. The list of what people like is more and more reductive. This is the problem of culture. I remember the polemic since the 60s, that museums are enlarging, enlarging culture, and people go to the Louvre eating ice cream, just looking at the Gioconda. Is it better?
Alexander—It’s difficult to appeal to the masses without becoming a part of the masses.
“When I started, everybody hated what I was doing except a few clever people! Because it was not for the classic ones–there was something disturbing. And for the super trendy avant-gardists, it was too classic. I always like to move in that space, never please anybody.” – Miuccia Prada
Mrs. Prada—I always say that I like to do something so the front, what appears…is attractive and easy. But after, depending on the culture or the sophistication of people, they often feel something else.
Alexander—Like a Trojan horse?
Mrs. Prada—A sophisticated person looks at everything; someone who is superficial gets only the façade.
Alexander—They get the print?
Mrs. Prada—It’s a very, very interesting subject. Mainly it is this subject I am interested in at the moment, for one year. Tell me why people are obsessed by animalier, for instance? I don’t know. Pink? Pink! I love pink, but sometimes I say “Please don’t buy pink!” I forbid to even mention it! I love pink but otherwise…a color? Pink! I did it [for Fall/Winter 2015]! I did this, not as polemic, but as a point of discussion. That’s what deep down interests me, at the moment.
Alexander—I loved that with the Fall/Winter  collection, you talked about what women want. Backstage I heard you say something about genetic modification, in the fabric, and for me the whole show was like genetically modified femininity, mutation.
Mrs. Prada—Yes, absolutely. Because everybody now has a fake…. [Mrs. Prada gestures to her face]. So many girls have a lot [of surgery] when they are very, very young. But with a sense of total normalcy. So those dresses looked fake. Maybe you don’t notice, but that “fakeness” only was given by the fabric. Like a kind of skin.
Alexander—It was that idea of moving from reality to “fakeness”—if it was in duchesse satin, then it would be totally different. It would be too close to the reality, the cliché.
Mrs. Prada—Yes, absolutely.
Alexander—When I look at a lot of your work, there is a lot of play with ideas of cliché. I loved ‘Sincere Chic’—the whole idea of it being sincere, it being called “sincere.” Because it wasn’t sincere, at all. As a fashion statement, it’s pulled out of its context. It’s not reality. It’s fake, again. But that’s kind of fashion.
Mrs. Prada—But that is what is really interesting: how people are perceived—what people relate to, what fascinates them, and how the fusion of fashion and culture makes people react.
Alexander—I read a fabulous quote from you where you said that you thought beauty was “bourgeois.” I thought that was a good communist quote!
Mrs. Prada—When I started my work, when I started working, I did this show that was a scandal. Everybody hated what I was doing except a few clever people! Because it was not for the classic ones—there was something disturbing. And for the super trendy avant-gardists, it was too classic. I always like to move in that space, never please anybody. There is always something disturbing, which is probably what I am, and I like.
They thought it was in horrible taste—the famous show about ‘Ugly Chic’, which I think is a terrible phrase, but that’s how it came out. In fashion, what was well-developed in literature, in movies, in art was badness. It was so normal. In fashion it was not accepted.
Still now, I think that a part—the more conservative part—of the fashion world think that they’ll stick with the idea of glamour and beauty that is so obvious, so old. Even now, it’s not so much different.
Alexander—Talking of the past, I was curious…knowing you were interested in politics, knowing that your interests were outside of fashion, I wondered what it was like growing up in Milan in the 60s and 70s, when it started to become a fashion center. Was that how you became interested in fashion?
Mrs. Prada—No, I think I was interested in fashion because of my mother and because of my family. I loved clothes, mainly, more than fashion. Fashion was not the word. I always say it was the worst place for a feminist in the 60s.
Alexander—A feminist communist!
Mrs. Prada—But [communism] was very common back then. Every young kid who was vaguely clever was leftist, so it’s not that I was so special. For sure, I decided to be part of a group. Probably, I liked [fashion] so much that it prevailed on my negative feelings about doing it as a job. Dressing myself, I always loved and still love and I think there’s nothing wrong with that. I always wanted to be the first to have everything, to look different from the others. It started at a very personal point. So that I don’t dislike, I don’t reject…. I don’t disown clothing. I always accepted my love for clothes, but I didn’t want to enter into the fashion business. But I did it, I think, because I probably liked it. And the liking of doing it was more than the theoretical dislike.
Alexander—Looking at your work, it’s interesting because there’s an idea of “fighting fashion,” because fashion is about, until recently, making yourself look “beautiful.” And I think in your work there is that fight against this kind of idea of “beauty.”
Mrs. Prada—Completely. It’s against any cliché, for so many reasons. That, I never thought about. But I can run through the list. First of all it’s because there is the political side, which is rejecting that idea, because simply, it is wrong, it’s not dignified for women, so you have to be a doll to be beautiful, always the same. That’s why I hate bias cut, everything that people think make women beautiful. I’m against that, in principal, from a personal and human point of view.
The other reason I am against it is because it is banal. I want to be more clever, or more difficult, or more complicated, or more interesting, or more new.
Alexander—I once made a glib comment, saying there are only ten designers in the world that actually matter, and that everyone else follows what they do. It’s an old idea; I stole it from John Fairchild. But out of them, you’re probably the one other designers follow the most. You’re the one everybody copies; you’re the one everyone references. In a sense, I always imagine you looking at that, seeing people very superficially pick up what you’ve done. It must be odd to see your ideas adopted so superficially, without any kind of meaning behind them.
Mrs. Prada—It’s very common. I don’t know why I have this fixation in thinking, analyzing….
Alexander—It would be much easier if you didn’t. It would be much easier if you just said, “Let’s just do a pink dress! It will be great, it will sell well.”
Mrs. Prada—That is an idea, for the next show! No thoughts! See, I make it into a concept! Always as a concept!
Always when I work I say, “Yes, it’s beautiful—but who cares? What is the reason?” First of all, it has to be a concept. And after, when I get to the concept, very often I will say, “Oh, let’s go home!” Because for me, the work is done. But the transformation of the concept to the reality, that’s the tough part. Also kind of boring, but difficult. You say, “Okay, the dress should represent that idea, but how can we do it? Represent that idea?” For me it’s easier because when I get to the concept, I relax. But after, to translate the concept into reality is much more boring. But where you really learn more. Translating an idea to reality. That’s probably the most difficult part.
Alexander—In terms of fashion, you’ve emphasized before that you work in a commercial world and not in a creative world.
Mrs. Prada—No, no. I make a difference, that fashion is not art. It’s creative, it’s very creative. The only thing it has in common is the creativity. But it is completely different because…well, there’s all the polemic that the art world is more commercial! But art is working on absolute ideas, conceptual ideas in general.
First of all, my work is commercial. It requires a lot of creativity. And my other point, or objective, or scope, is to introduce intelligence and culture in the work. To demonstrate that intelligence and even culture helps the commerce. But not in the sense that you put a few things in the shop, no. If you are cultivated, you do a better job. It’s not an extra.
I want to be clear because I don’t want you to misunderstand.
Culture, in any case, is very important for a company in general. If the people in your company are educated, it’s much better. And I refuse that art, or culture, is something that embellishes the company and that’s all. I want it not to embellish, actually I hate the idea of using the Fondazione [Prada, the art institution Prada started in 1995,] to embellish. But culture helps a company deeply, not as embellishment. Culture is necessary. This is the role of the Fondazione, to demonstrate that art is part of your life.
Culture, it’s such a horrible word for some people—culture? Ugh! It’s needed, it’s necessary, it helps your life, and it is very personal. Everything I learn in life I learn from books, from movies, from art. It was my way of becoming more cultivated, because I had to answer personal questions. I’m very attached to the concept that people should understand—young kids and so on—that culture is not something, out there, that is useless.
Alexander—You’ve always kept your interest in art quite physically separate from your work in fashion. You’ve never done what other people do—to put art “on fashion.” There was the collaboration with Damien Hirst, but when I wrote about that, I saw them as art objects, not fashion objects.
Mrs. Prada—Damien is a friend of mine…I said, “Listen, I don’t want to do a bag.” So I did a bag that was so repulsive! It was so repulsive that no woman would put a hand on it!
Alexander—So is that very conscious? Because you do collaborate—with Rem Koolhaas, with Michael Rock and 2×4—in creating the show spaces and building the [recently opened permanent home of the] Fondazione and designing the shops. I wonder why the line was drawn at art. Because I’m sure people would love to do something….
Mrs. Prada—This is the cleverest question you could ever ask me, because I ask it also to myself. I think because it’s the most obvious. And everybody does it. Because in theory, sincerely, there is no limit.
The line is: I don’t want to do what the others do. Also, at the beginning—coming from the fashion world—I was so afraid. I wanted, really, to be part of the art world, and for people to trust us.
I think I am the most conservative, old-fashioned one left! Because the others have collaborated with anybody and with everybody! But back then, I was afraid, because it was a new world…I wanted to be part of that world, and be respected by that world, but basically working according to that world. We didn’t have the problem of the Prada world; for me it was just something else.
Alexander—Art should engage with other people, but that engagement shouldn’t mean putting it on a t-shirt. It doesn’t have to be on your back, but I want you to go, see, and engage with it.
Mrs. Prada—I collaborate with art, but in a different field. My official answer is: I want to be good by myself. Which is part of the whole thing.
Alexander—I like the official answer! Personally, I don’t think fashion is art. I know you have said the same. I think so many people call a dress “art,” because they don’t know any better words to describe it, when it’s a great piece of design….
Mrs. Prada—Exactly, which is enough in itself. You’ve touched another point where I am very polemic, which is the species of the artist. They are only thing in the world to be protected. And also, you know, a beautiful dress is sometimes better than a bad piece of art. But don’t even make comparison.
Also, is it easier to do a dress than a chair? Already, the design is more respected. Which is another whole thing, about how some people dislike…actually, it’s my impression that people dislike fashion, because actually if you investigate, no one dislikes it. But still, there’s a snobbery.
“Everybody has a taste. How can you say what is sexy in general? Everybody has a point of view. For me, a beautiful woman with a bias dress with diamanté is the least sexy woman alive. I hope, also, to some men.” —Miuccia Prada
Alexander—A lot of people call you an “intellectual designer.” How do you feel about that?
Mrs. Prada—I don’t know. It’s not so wrong that I protest. It’s a cliché—so the moment they say that, I want to be the stupid one! Because I always go for the opposite!
Alexander—An intellectual designer is better than a stupid designer!
Mrs. Prada—Honestly, yes! But at the same time that cliché means that you’re boring, that you’re serious, that I hate! So probably after a comment like that, I want to do a show that is so stupid. Be queen of the stupid!
Alexander—Well, I remember when you did that great sexy collection, for Fall/Winter 2002—with the transparent Mackintosh, and the really high shoes, it seemed like a reaction to people saying, “Prada’s never about sex.” So you said, “Well here’s the sex, here’s the sexy show!”
Mrs. Prada—Also depends on the notion of sexy. For me all my shows are super sexy! Everybody has a taste. How can you say what is sexy in general? Everybody has a point of view. For me, a beautiful woman with a bias dress with diamanté is the least sexy woman alive. I hope, also, to some men.
Alexander—As well, it’s fighting the notion that sexy is a set of boxes you tick.
Mrs. Prada—That you see when you do the Oscar dresses, that usually I don’t do. That is the list; of the cliché…we do it. It’s important to the company.
Alexander—In a way, it’s like a uniform. You can’t fight it, you have to wear this. Like a bus conductor’s uniform.
Mrs. Prada—No, in that sense…. This is a very clever point. Maybe that’s a good idea. It’s a uniform.
Alexander—I’m aware that I’m asking you a lot of questions that other people have asked you, because you’ve been interviewed many times….
Mrs. Prada—No, not actually.
Alexander—Anyway, this is my difficult, weird question, I was really interested to hear what you thought. Do you like being a fashion designer?
Mrs. Prada—I think I answered already! I hated it until a few years ago. I love when I work, but the idea of it, I don’t like. But now, recently… with the Fondazione, the fact that somebody coming from the fashion world could add something to the art world is ambitious. Very ambitious.
Alexander—It does feel as if there is a rebellion. You rebelled against fashion—it’s not like punk, ripping up, but there is this rebellion. Against notions of luxury and beauty. “What is a designer handbag?” Proposing something different to the homogeneity of fashion.
Mrs. Prada—Deep down, there is a rebellion that I never thought about. That is probably what leads me to do all these things against. It is my way of thinking.
Alexander—Is there an awareness of what other people are doing in fashion?
Mrs. Prada—Sometimes we give up on some ideas, because somebody else did it. And sometimes we discuss with Fabio [Zambernardi, design director of Miu Miu and Prada] and Olivier [Rizzo, the stylist]. For instance, last season at the men’s show there was a checked coat. They didn’t want to show it. And… usually, I listen, but this time I said no. We showed it.
Sometimes we discuss subjects that are around. Because in principle, if I’m interested in something…. I don’t want to copy, for sure, but too many times I don’t do something because somebody else did it. And that, I think, is also wrong.
Alexander—It’s almost like reverse-copying.
Mrs. Prada—Exactly. First of all, because we want to be more original.
Alexander—When you’re working on a show—when does it become a show? You design the collection—do you always think of it as a whole vision?
Mrs. Prada—Absolutely. It’s not that we do pieces, and then afterwards we choose and put them together. We start, really, from scratch: What are the concepts we want to approach? What are the fabrics? We can say: transparent, or heavy, or modernist, or flat, whatever. When we have no ideas…some seasons I have a clear direction, a clear idea. That is easy. When you don’t have a clear idea or you have vague concepts, and you start working, you know you’re doing nothing interesting. Then, when we start getting nearer, I start getting stressed. I really think alone, in bed, at five o’clock in the morning: “What do you really care about?” Maybe one season was a white t-shirt. I was only interested in a white t-shirt. How can you show a white t-shirt? I don’t want to be a radical—if that’s what interests you, why? So, little by little, you start gathering a few things. Sometimes, for instance, Fabio tells me, “Miuccia, you have to start doing it!” I want to have the answer before I even start. And, actually, when you start, the answers come. I can’t have the title the first day, when you sit down and discuss the show.
Everything is done for the show. There is nothing that is just there by chance. Sometimes, in some shows, we have nothing left—you start to funnel. Sometimes there is nothing left. It’s not like we choose between things that are there.
Sometimes, within ten days, we do the fabric, the print—it all arrives the night before! I’m always waiting for the moment, the season, when I will go out and say “Sorry…!”
Alexander—The show, where there’s no show! For me, it’s really incredible hearing you talk about being unsure. Because when we see it, it never looks unsure, ever.
Mrs. Prada—At the end, so far, it went well! But I’m always waiting for the season when it doesn’t happen!
Alexander—Is there ever a season when you look at the show at the end, and you don’t like it?
Mrs. Prada—Let’s say—some seasons are better, some seasons are not. So far, I always get to something that for me was…decent. I think that I’d prefer to do a show of ten exits than showing something I don’t like. Sure, there is a part that I like more, a part that I like less.
But a show that I don’t like? Impossible.
This appears in Document Journal Issue 7, on stands now.