Last year’s Met gala was a spectacle of look-at-me appearances, with guests arriving on divans, inside chandeliers, and on foot with their own head in their hands. And then there was Frank Ocean, who didn’t so much arrive as show up, looking like the valet, in all-black Prada: nylon anorak, plain trousers, and leather boots.
It was an elegant snub to the “camp” theme, totally anti-status – and classic Prada. “Doing fashion with men, I thought that they never wanted to exaggerate,” says Miuccia Prada, who is referred to reverently in fashion circles as Mrs. Prada. “When it’s too much ‘fashion,’ it’s never right.” Her contribution to men’s clothing, she says, has been “to make a little bit of fashion to free them. But not too much.” To wear Prada, Ocean’s look coyly reminded us, is to use your brain to put on clothes: to take an intellectually rigorous approach to getting dressed. If other designers chase must-have garments, Mrs. Prada chases ideas, always hunting for the next big one. We meet in Milan for an interview and photo session in a hangar-like space at the Fondazione Prada, which has recently been covered in a vast, funky palette of tiles for her spring 2020 womenswear show. That show had been only about a week earlier, but, she tells me, “I am already into something different.” After all, she says, “clothes can help to express yourself, but what counts is who you are, and what you think, and how to behave.”
For Mrs. Prada, style is the avenue to intellectual revelation. In the ’90s, at the helm of the company her grandparents founded in 1913, she began to produce women’s and men’s clothing, transforming a luxury-leather-goods business into the thinking person’s fashion brand. Recently, in addition to Ocean, a number of men wore Prada as if they’d joined a monastic order, often head-to-toe and in some cases even exclusively. Jeff Goldblum, Odell Beckham Jr., Ansel Elgort, and A$AP Rocky showed how Mrs. Prada’s alchemy of restraint and subversion, which felt like the spirit of the age in the late ’90s, is an appealing statement today, kicking back in a world where getting dressed has become such a performance.
Now, after three decades of fashion that challenges, beguiles, and delights, her relentless spirit of creative integrity is a heritage in the same way other brands tout craftsmanship. “There was a moment in the past few years that seemed like only bombastic announcement was working,” she tells me. Her fingers, with nails bare and neatly trimmed short, calmly stroke a pile of pearl strands that hang around her neck. “But now, mainly in the new generation, there appears to be just an appreciation of serious integrity.”
Mrs. Prada is one of the few current designers who make actual trends rather than viral garments. Her fall 2019 collection was definitive Prada in its conflicting conviction: beautifully thought-out clothing that looked amazing on Instagram. The cartoony Frankensteins, ghoulish roses, and grotesque neon tufts of hair on button-up shirts and wool pullovers were like a zap of electricity that brought the collection to life online months before it landed in stores. (You might say Mrs. Prada played three-dimensional chess while other designers, some of whom seem to exist almost exclusively online, played Instagram checkers.) Although she prefers to work with established silhouettes rather than developing her own signature – “I like to work in the frame of the classic,” she says – you know something is Prada when you see it. In this age, that can be bad, the sign of a meme disguised as fashion – and yet with Prada, it is simply an indicator of aesthetic clarity.
Mrs. Prada is as proactive and forward-thinking as any designer working today. She responded head-on to the controversy around a monkey key chain the brand produced in late 2018 that resembled racist caricatures like Little Black Sambo, asking director Ava DuVernay and artist Theaster Gates to lead a program that pushes the brand’s star toward a more diverse reality beyond scholarships and corporate training. Gates recently spearheaded a project in London, a kind of traveling social club, where he invited “creatives and artists of colour. And we didn’t have to call that the diversity party,” he says. The idea is to get “the Prada execs and the Prada salespeople and the Prada logistics people alongside these amazing people,” Gates says. And Mrs. Prada is open to the hard truths? “In some cases, Miuccia is also bringing difficult truths. She’s saying, ‘I don’t want to just do some kind of token thing.’”
Her legendary mind has made Mrs. Prada, who loves cinema, into something of a movie star herself, with a celebrated wardrobe that commingles power with intimacy (she is wearing riding boots and a brown coat with huge mother-of-pearl buttons over a cream slip with a lace hem), and a conversation style that demands an exchange of ideas with almost romantic urgency. At one point, a thought about fashion as self-expression morphed, over the span of a few sentences, into a discussion of why women are still subjugated to men. “Because probably we don’t like power enough, or we are not interested enough,” she says. “Or we are more human.” I suggest that men have made power look unattractive. She objects: “For the whole of history, women were attracted by power. Do you think that’s really so?” I was thinking of the past five years; she was thinking of the past 500. Mrs. Prada sees the moment and the history.
And yet Mrs. Prada herself feels like a zeitgeist figure for a moment when fashion and politics have taken on outsize pop-cultural influence. Countless profiles mention her leftist youth, painting the image of her picketing while wearing Yves Saint Laurent. But to Mrs. Prada, you don’t use fashion to pretend. “I never want to camouflage myself into a person that I am not,” she says. “I’m not pretending to be different according to the condition.” Coveting a $980 shirt and supporting a socialist political agenda are not necessarily conflicting ideas for people in their 20s and 30s. Or, perhaps, conflicting ideas are not a problem.
Take her view of the Hawaiian shirt as a “classic.” For most menswear designers, “classic” means something that always looks good – the overcoat, the loafer, the tuxedo, my dear. For Prada, classic “represents what, besides trend and everything, stays there.” Who cares if it’s ugly, or cheap, or silly? Its endurance gives it a fashion universality that supersedes taste. This is her staying power: Mrs. Prada always comes not simply for people’s wallets, but – like the figure who inspired her fall 2019 collection, Dr Frankenstein – for people’s brains.
While she’s always been a widely celebrated thinker on womenswear – her collections are something like a seasonal self-portrait, and she has insisted that ugliness has all the appeal of a leggy blonde – her menswear demonstrates the potency of her brand. But it isn’t merely that Mrs. Prada has been making things that men really want to wear. There’s something she intuits about the gender. When she designs for men, she says, “I imagine myself as a man.” And when I ask if that is difficult, she says, “Imagination in our job is everything.” She senses something about our mood before we’re able to put our finger on it – lately, in menswear, a new sensitivity and a desire for some decorum. Her spring 2018 collection, for example, introduced a new sexiness into menswear, with its short shorts, and made the blazer feel like a casual staple again. The monster themes of fall 2019 were a message about vulnerability: “Frankenstein is the example of the monster with a big, big heart who searches for love,” she said after the show.
Even her concept of Prada’s own archival trendiness set a trend: Seasons before the archival-fashion movement began sending casual-fashion fans hunting for pieces produced by designers like Prada, Raf Simons, and Helmut Lang in the ’90s, she began integrating archival prints, like flames, roses, and tessellations, into her new work. (In 2017, Prada also relaunched its Linea Rossa line, a prescient diffusion brand born in the late ’90s that combined high design with athletic clothing.) With so many people making so much clothing, and many of them copying one another, Mrs. Prada said that she felt it was “necessary” to revive the old prints and motifs that first established the Prada agenda. It was not a need to go “back to your roots, but to declare who you are.” Sometimes, she says, she worries people believe “the last one who does something is the one who did it. No one cares. No one remembers. But at the end, it seems it is not true, because the younger generation seems to be appreciating honesty, intellectual honesty, which I always thought was most important.”
After five years of downturn, the brand saw an improved profit and an increase in sales last year. Still, for figures like Ocean and Rocky, it’s possible that the issues that were the source of Prada’s struggles have actually shaped its appeal. Unlike many other luxury brands, Prada isn’t ubiquitous. Its resistance to collaborations, to influencers, to celebrity spokespeople, to the game of the hit designer sneaker, feels like a statement, though Mrs. Prada insists it’s not intentional. As she acknowledges the company’s missteps, her tone grows apologetic. “Everybody asks us. But I always thought that those collaborations were just for selling,” she says. “I wanted to find a much deeper reason.” But wasn’t that wise in the end? She laughs. “After everything, probably yes.” Adding, “The truth is that we are seriously interested in doing things in a good way. My husband and I never wake up in the morning saying, ‘We will have to make money.’”
Mrs. Prada knows what great artists know and what many fashion designers strangely refuse to acknowledge: The commercial realities of producing fashion and the desire to make art are fundamentally at odds – but acknowledging that tension brings great creativity. Younger generations seem to appreciate this better than her own, I suggest, and men especially. “It’s true,” she says. What she wants is “to empower women and to make men more human.” She waves her hand, almost like a magician. “Or gentle.”