Since becoming an industry in of itself, fashion has been dismissed by many as a shallow field that’s only interested in the pursuit of outer beauty. It mostly started in the later decades of the 20th century, when fashion had become a commercial phenomenon and glossy magazines became too discriminatory with regards to defining beauty and what’s trendy. Academic professions dismissed the idea that fashion is another form of art, where craft and design challenged both the wearer and spectator in their own views of beauty. However, in recent years, one brand defied convention and the fashion industry’s standards, injecting intellectualism in their many designs. It’s none other than the famous Milanese label, Prada.
The Birth of Prada
Like many Italian brands, Prada started as a leather goods company specializing in trunks and luggage. It was founded in 1931 by Mario and Martino Prada initially named “Fratelli Prada”, and had their first store in Milan, Italy. Mario became the head of the brand for many decades, overseeing all the aspects of the company including the manufacturing and the imports of material. A lot of their early products heavily involved various animal skins, such as crocodile, walrus, and turtle shell for their bag handles. Initially barring women from ever working in the family business, Mario eventually gave the reins to his daughter Luisa, after his son turned down the position as head of the brand. She worked on the label until the 1970’s, when her daughter Miuccia took over.
Miuccia Prada was born on May 4, 1949, christened with the name Maria Bianchi (she would officially change her name to Miuccia in 1980). She graduated with a doctorate degree in political science from the University of Milan and went on to train as a mime in the city’s Teatro Piccolo. It was there where she formed her allyship to Communism and became a political activist. After five years in the Teatro, she then decided to work in her family’s leather goods business, inheriting the leadership of the brand in 1978.
1980’s and 1990’s
By the 1980’s, she reinvented many of brand’s classic products, introducing lighter and more technologically-advanced materials. In 1985, she introduced her now-iconic black nylon handbags and backpacks, complete with the company’s new and current triangular logo. She ventured into womenswear by 1988, debuting in Milan fashion week. Her first collections received universal acclaim, and from then on, she became one of the leading female fashion designers of the new generation.
A lot of her designs were simple yet refined, usually geared towards the modern working women of the time, and had a bit of subversiveness that she would eventually become known for. She would also frequently mix prints and textiles that usually wouldn’t go well together, propagating a sort of chic ugly-pretty look that has become her indelible signature. Her strays away from the conventional ideas of style and fashion were political stances against an industry that pushed women to conform to a singular idea of beauty. She would send out the most popular supermodels of the time dressed in mismatched and at times unflattering, outfits, which were so interesting that they instantly became fashionable in their own right.
In 1992, she also opened a diffusion line called Miu Miu, named after her nickname, which was more affordable and based on the clothes and styles she herself personally wore. The succeeding year, in 1993, she was awarded the Council of the Fashion Designers of America’s International award, one of the first of many recognitions she would receive throughout her illustrious career. From that point on, she started showing her collections in both New York and London Fashion weeks, before eventually going back to Milan in the late 90’s.
She introduced her menswear line in 1995, showing in the Milan Menswear Fashion Week. That same year, her husband Patrizio Bertelli, started managing the business aspect of the brand, collaborating with Miuccia for the advertising and talking to various retailers about their products. Under the couple’s leadership, Prada grew into a fashion empire worth $30 million, far from the modest leather goods shop it used to be.
Also that same year, the company established the Fondazione Prada, an art institution dedicated to uplifting new and emerging contemporary artists. Located in the company’s headquarters in Milan, it has since hosted numerous exhibitions for artists like Sam Taylor-Wood and Anish Kapoor. By 1998, the company had opened its first menswear store in Los Angeles, USA as well as new ones in New York and Las Vegas.
Around the end of the 20th century, they briefly became a retail group, having bought labels like Jil Sander, Helmut Lang, and footwear brand Church & Company. They also owned a 25.5% stake in the famous Roman label Fendi, sharing the brand with the French retail group, LVMH. However, by 2006, the company had sold all its ownership of these brands to various businesses, now focusing primarily on Prada and Miu Miu. Aside from their ready-to-wear lines and leather goods, they’ve also established their own eyewear, perfumes, and watches, as well as a few mobile phones in partnership with LG Electronics.
Such has been the impact of Prada in fashion that in 2012, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City held their annual exhibition in honor of Miuccia and her similarities with another legendary Italian fashion designer, Elsa Schiaparelli. It was entitled Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations, exploring both women’s relationships with art and fashion and their unconventional yet iconic designs. It even featured a video of an imaginary conversation between the two where they talked about the preconceived notions of beauty. To this day, Miuccia Prada has been part of a small list of designers who’ve been alive when the Met celebrated their designs for their famous annual gala.