THE POWER OF ONE
MIUCCIA PRADA'S CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE
Miuccia Prada is a fashion designer by profession, but she’s also an art curator, film producer, fledgling architect, conflicted feminist, avid consumer and unreconstructed socialist. Meet the modern woman.
It had gone dark by the time I found the shop in Milan that belonged to Miuccia Prada’s grandfather. Near the Duomo and housed in a glass and marble walkway called Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the shop is now like a beacon in some modern Italian fantasy of style and wealth. Outside, there might be industrial decline and migration, but here the lights are fantastic and the people are drawn to it like moths. In the opening scene of Visconti’s classic movie “Rocco and His Brothers,” the Parondis come from the south to seek a new life in Milan. They look out from the tram as it goes through the dark city and all they can see is shops. “Rocco,” says one of the brothers to Alain Delon, “look at those shops and the lights. It’s like daylight.”
Mario Prada made leather goods. In 1918 his collection included a lizard bag with marcasite and a buckle of lapis lazuli. The highlight of 1927 was a wallet in toad skin and silver. When he died, his daughter took over, and eventually she brought in her youngest daughter, the smiling Miuccia, who was known to the family as Miu Miu. In 1978, she designed a black nylon rucksack that would later take the world by storm. With her husband, Patrizio Bertelli, she transformed the company from being a much-admired, eccentric retailer of luxury goods into a contemporary design powerhouse with sales of over $5 billion. The famous Prada brand, which includes women’s wear and men’s wear, is much copied — “The job is to do something interesting with ideas,” Miuccia told me, “and if it is copied I couldn’t care less” — and the group includes other brands like Miu Miu and the English shoe company Church’s.
Courtesy of PradaThe original Prada store, opened in 1913 in Milan.
Mrs. Prada, as she is known, who stands at about 5 foot 4 inches, usually gives little away, but when I met her I found her just about ready to open out of her enigma. Some designers are seekers of trends, but Prada actually is the trend, season after season, leaving others spinning at her heels as she unfolds her singular vision of what a woman can be. People keep saying: “How does she do it?” And the secret may lie in how she connects to the spirit of the age: she is a curious capitalist philosopher with a brilliant instinct for modern desire. She is a designer not afraid to reach into what makes people human, asking odd questions, then coming back with very elegant answers.
“Fashion is about the way we compose ourselves every day,” Mrs. Prada once wrote. This was on my mind when I met her at her headquarters in the Via Bergamo. The rain was coming down heavily when Prada arrived in a dark blue Audi and quickly dashed into one of the gray buildings. She was charming from the moment we sat down, and filled, you might say, with the easy laughter of strong conviction, the mirth of certainty. And yet Prada is pleased to live within her contradictions. It may be the thing that makes her able to create menacing, interesting work: in her core she is equally unafraid of failure and success.
“When I started, fashion was the worst place to be if you were a leftist feminist. It was horrid. I had a prejudice, yes, I always had a problem with it,” she said. “I suppose I felt guilty not to be doing something more important, more political. So in a way I am trying to use the company for these other activities.” She later added, “I’m not interested in the silhouette and I’m not able to draw. It’s complicated.
I am trying to work out which images of the female I want to analyze. I’m not really interested in clothes or style.”
Nacasa and Partners; courtesy of PradaThe Herzog & de Meuron-designed Prada store in Tokyo, which has a faceted green glass exterior that resembles an emerald; a runway look from Prada’s seminal spring 1996 collection, for which she designed clashing prints that made a statement about conventional beauty.
We talked about how her sense of style might become an instrument of even greater change. Why, for instance, do women behave as if age is a prison? Isn’t our era’s obsession with youth a form of mass hysteria? “It is much more of a drama for women, the business of aging. No one wants to age, and I really think we should find a solution. Especially because we live so much longer,” she said. “It used to be that a woman would have only one life, one husband, and if you were bored that was that. Now, you can have two or three lives. So even the concept of family is changing. I think this question of aging will define the society of the future.”
“So why not use older models sometimes?” I asked.
“Mine is not an artistic world, it is a commercial world. I cannot change the rules.”
“But you change the rules,” I said. “If you put an old lady on the runway, other people would do it too.”
She laughed. In that light her eyes were green; before I asked the question they were brown. “Let’s say I’m not brave enough. I don’t have the courage.”
Courtesy of PradaPrada’s Transformer, in Seoul, designed by Rem Koolhaas’s OMA firm in 2009. The mixed-use building can be rotated into four different shapes: a hexagon, rectangle, cross or circle.
Yet courage is what she does have. When you take on the fashion world and ask it to reconsider the meaning of beauty, that’s courage. She is not, as insurance men say, risk-averse. I asked her what is the power of ugly?
“This is a question close to the meaning of my job. Ugly is attractive, ugly is exciting. Maybe because it is newer,” she said. “The investigation of ugliness is, to me, more interesting than the bourgeois idea of beauty. And why? Because ugly is human. It touches the bad and the dirty side of people. You know, this might have been a scandal in fashion but in other fields of art it is common: in painting and in movies, it was so common to see ugliness. But, yes, it was not used in fashion and I was very much criticized for inventing the trashy and the ugly. ”
“The novelist Flaubert hated the rituals of bourgeois life. You do, also, don’t you?”
“For sure. And we have to define what these rituals are.”
“Ah, for sure,” she said. “By definition good taste is horrible taste. I do have a healthy disrespect for those values. I don’t want to sound like a snob, but it comes very easy to me. I have to say that, although I rejected those values for a lot of my life, it was not for very noble reasons. Let’s just say that. I have to be honest. I don’t feel it was very good or very noble to feel more cultured or superior.”
Prada pleases herself, and she does it with dedication. She makes what she wants to make, which may be why other designers are not only touched by her aesthetic but appear to have graduated from her school of thinking. “Prada’s designs stem from an inner vision of herself,” said the New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn, “and plainly it’s filled with images from Italian films and conflicts involving beauty. But the upshot is a tangled, what-a-woman sexiness.”
Brigitte Lacombe; Fondazione Prada Ca’ Corner Building + Arte PoveraA still from a short film, directed by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola, featuring Léa Seydoux, for Prada’s new Candy fragrance; Prada’s Fondazione art space in Venice, which will feature a reconstruction of an important 1969 Arte Povera exhibit this summer.
Yet there may be an essence in Prada’s work that says no to self-satisfaction. It doesn’t say: “You’re lovely. You deserve this. You’re worth it.” It says something more like, “Who are you? Dare to find out. And dare to be otherwise.” This essence has a broad tendency to inflect the moment we are living through. A generation has come about that believes in the virtues of self-invention. I put it to her that she is one of the people who gives lessons in this.
“I had never discovered the real reason for my job, and probably what you are saying is very true,” she said, “that you can choose your life. You can change your mind and change your clothes. We have to talk more because maybe now I know one of the reasons why I do my job.”
“I am a novelist,” I said. “I invent people for a living. But so do you.”
“You are right. I always thought it was an escape, and ‘to dream’ was something I didn’t like. But this is very true and very good also, that you can use the clothes to reinvent yourself. The first thing a poor person has is her body. People talk about luxury — and fashion is more or less expensive — but it is nevertheless democratic.”
“One of the cheaper ways of changing yourself.”
“It is one of the first levels of emancipation.”
She relaxed as the hours passed. When we began talking, she kept making as if to take off her coat and then she would put it back on again, not sure if she felt comfortable. I chose to see this as part of her nature: not getting too comfortable. Yet you can see how enlarged she becomes, comfortable or not, with ideas and with the invitation to search her feelings. For someone so dedicated to change, every day another change, this 64-year-old woman loves the idea of being delighted. From her third-floor office she has a slide that winds down to the ground floor, an artwork by Carsten Höller, that allows at least one burst of delight whenever you feel like it. She doesn’t collaborate with artists in her designs — like the slide, they are a fascinating diversion from it — but her art foundation, supporting and exhibiting art, film and architecture, has made her another kind of impresario, a person who gauges the culture’s stories and stimulates investigation. She has supported a clutch of filmmakers, like Roman Polanski and Wes Anderson, through short films for various Prada ventures and her friends say she is poised to enter the world of feature films in a meaningful way. A wide range of artists, including Francesco Vezzoli, Cindy Sherman, Baz Luhrmann and the architects Rem Koolhaas and Herzog & de Meuron, feel connected to her vision of personal transformation. “I once asked Louise Bourgeois why people were so interested in fashion,” Prada told me, “and she said, ‘In the end, people want to seduce.’ But I don’t think this is enough. I believe it is more complicated.”
The complication is that the people the Prada consumers often want to seduce are themselves. We want to test who we can be in an atmosphere not bloated with obvious effort. Prada’s clothes make you feel you are appearing at your most calm and your least demonstrative, which is a kind of freedom for people who yearn to look good but don’t want the yearning to show.
Niemeyer Building © Kadu Niemeyer/Arcaid/Corbis; courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery, photo by Roberto Marossi, MilanoThe Oscar Niemeyer-designed Communist Party headquarters in Paris, where Prada once threw a Miu Miu fashion party; Carsten Höller’s ‘‘Scivolo n. 5 (Slide No. 5) (Miuccia Prada)’’ (2000), at Prada’s Milan offices.
Prada trained as a mime, and she performed at La Scala and other places when she was young. She was a communist who believed, like many of her 1960s generation, that change would come not through commodities but through revolution. Well, there was a revolution, but it was, as those who remember the hours after the Berlin Wall came down, a revolution of blue jeans. People in East Berlin were desperate to get to the shops. Prada is one of the brands that came to life around the same time. But Miuccia floats between knowing the truth of this and wanting to discover other truths that might contradict it. “When you create something that is ‘out there,’ ” I asked her, “like kitchen utensils hanging on a skirt, do you tend to know in advance that this might not be commercial?”
“Yes. But I have to do it. There is an understanding that, when I do a show, no one will tell me what to do. Once, at the beginning of my career, I tried to listen to others and it was all wrong. I have to do what I think is right, and now everybody is happy that it is like this. We might later decide to do something more wearable that is based on the original ideas, but, you know, some collections are easier than others.”
“Can too much democracy hurt fashion? It used to be so elitist and that’s what people liked about it.”
“It’s like when too many people go to a museum, does it destroy the level of the museum? I choose a wider audience. I also think when I’m doing the shows I try to be more obvious, more loud, more clear.”
“Because I think if you don’t scream, no one listens. If you are too delicate, too subtle, your voice gets diluted. But you don’t have to give up the sophistication. The last two days when I’m doing a show, the work is, for me, complicated, but then in the final moments I think, ‘What is the title of this show?’ And then I try to make it more clear, so that it appeals to people who maybe know less about fashion as well as appealing to people that are fixated with it. There are different levels of understanding. You have to touch people. It’s probably like a song: you have to touch something deep. I’m now trying to open myself much more. In the ’90s, I was considered minimal and this was because I was hiding myself and my ideas.”
“You were nervous of criticism?”
“Yes. But now I give more of myself. You have to go deeper,” she said. “At the beginning, I didn’t want to give up myself and that was a big problem. A bag is exterior to you, but with clothes you are getting nearer. I knew I would have to give more.”
THE DOUBLE CLUB
AN ART PROJECT BY PRADA FOUNDATION
Located in London, in an old Victorian warehouse next to the Angel tube station. The Congo tribe hub.
he Double Club is a Carsten Höller art project by Fondazione Prada.
Located in an old Victorian warehouse just beside the Angel tube station, The Double Club opened on 21 November 2008 and closed on 12 July 2009, offering a unique approach to entertainment and hospitality, as well as creating a dialogue between Congolese and Western contemporary music, lifestyle, arts and design.
Open for a limited duration, The Double Club was not only a vibrant new public space in London but also an alliance of two cultures in real life that facilitates cross-pollination without any attempt of fusion.
The Double Club consisted of three spaces: Bar, Restaurant and Disco. Each space is divided into equally sized Western and Congolese parts on a decorative and functional level, generating an inspiring perspective on double identity as well as on cultural coexistence.
The different sections were conceived and designed to represent the most challenging elements of both cultures, encompassing music, food and visual aesthetics.
The project, which was fundamentally experimental in character and with 50% of the profit donated to City of Joy/UNICEF, challenges the artistic content and its positive contribution to the understanding and dialogue with contemporary expressions of African culture, which is of critical relevance in this moment.
Carsten Höller (b. Brussels, 1961) is a German artist working and living in Stockholm, Sweden, whose recent installations include Test Site, the giant slides at Tate Modern in London (2006-07) as well as Revolving Hotel Room at the Guggenheim Museum in New York (2008).
Clemens Weisshaar, Reed Kram
Carsten Höller invited Clemens Weisshaar and Reed Kram to join him in the design of the Western sections of the Double Club. Their office, KRAM/WEISSHHAAR engages in the design of spaces, products and media and their work is included in design collections worldwide such as the Museum Of Modern Art, New York and theCentre Pompidou, Paris.
Jan Kennedy has been consulting on special projects for Prada for over ten years. In 1995 he opened the acclaimed Michelin starred restaurant Quo Vadis, before opening the seminal Pharmacy with Damien Hirst in 1998. He was the co-founder of the legendary dance music club We Love Sundays at Space (Ibiza).
Operating partner food—beverage, music:
Mourad Mazouz is the Operating Partner and host of The Double Club. He is the founder of successful restaurants in London such as Momo Restaurant Familial and Sketch, as well as 404 in Paris and Almaz by Momo in Dubai. He is also founder of Mo'Zik, an innovative record label.
Richard Mortimer, Mathieu Massadian
Reginal Kudiwu, Popol Mukelenge, Stern Music
The Double Club endorsed a non-membership policy and there was no entry charge.
The Double Club, a temporary nightclub set up in London in 2008 by Carsten Höller
There is something industrial about Prada’s headquarters, something that chimes with the outlying areas of Milan, the housing projects and factories shot by Visconti, whose films have long been a reference point for the designer. It is all of a piece with the clothes actually, marrying form and function, the ugly and the beautiful, to make something that redefines the meaning of glamour. Some designers simply put a shine on desire and then issue the appropriate sunglasses, but Prada is busy finding a whole new way of thinking. You’ll pay for it, certainly, but you won’t pay for it by cashing in your powers of thinking because that’s what she does, consistently imbuing her designs with a personal mindfulness.
“Would you say selling is as important as making?”
“Yes. If people take money out of their pockets, it means that what you are doing is relevant to them. I hope they don’t just buy because there is a logo but because the object is relevant to them. To sell is to prove that what you are doing makes sense. I’m completely against the idea that we do fashion for an elite — that would be too easy, in a way.”
I believe there is a small anxiety in Prada. She worries, perhaps, as a feminist, as a thinker, as a person who loves art and culture — with a Ph.D. in political science from Milan University — that the fashion world might be bent on trivializing the world’s problems. She might also worry that a rich fashion designer is disqualified from addressing such problems or talking about ordinary life. But in fact she has pushed consistently for fashion to address some of the more searching aspects of the times. Fashion follows her, and artists love her, because she is properly responsive to change. Most iconoclasts become bigots for their own program: not her. She is ready at all times to be proved wrong.
‘How important is it for people to love themselves? I mean women.”
Her smile grew. She called for Champagne. “Now that you ask me, I ask myself,” she said. “What do you think?”
“I think it’s overrated.”
“Bravo!” she said. “This is great. This is something I can tell my friends. What a liberation. You can hate yourself!”
She asked me to give her the card with my question on it. She wanted to save it for later. A tray of the world’s most delicate sandwiches arrived, cucumber squares and triangles with small curls of anchovy set at the corner. Prada’s beautiful, beaten, brown Miu Miu leather coat was now off her shoulders; she was wearing a light brown jumper underneath. She wore a silk, off-white skirt and a pair of burgundy-colored sandals encrusted with fake jewels. Everything she had on her body was invented by her. I told her that if I was in her shoes I’d sometimes be desperate to get away from the brand.
“I’m never in the brand,” she said.
“That’s not where you live?”
“No. I want Prada to be successful. But the idea of the brand doesn’t interest me, and I never think about it.”
“Is your work a self-portrait?”
“What makes you so sure?”
“It comes from me. It’s my soul. It’s my life. My work and my life are more or less the same thing, and I never consider that the work is something different,” she said. The job, the foundation, my personal life, it’s all one thing.” You can believe that when you see how her big stores, or “epicenters,” have become not just marketplaces but zones of concentric culture, where a film might be shown and the shop — often built by Rem Koolhaas — might revolve and you might attend a gig by the Hours. This is the position she has created, where a great modern designer can be a mogul, a curator, a lightning rod and a fan. Imagine Andy Warhol at his height with 461 stores operating in 70 countries. And to think that Prada’s grandfather didn’t want the women in the family to be involved in running the business.
Courtesy of PradaPrada’s 2001 print campaign, photographed by Cedric Buchet, which began a pattern of using younger, lesser known photographers.
One of her friends told me she liked Elizabeth Taylor, and I thought of the late film star when I saw Prada’s sandals. Prada admits to a trashier side, and she lit up when I said I wanted to talk to her about Elizabeth Taylor’s diamonds. “Is it O.K. that she got them from men?”
“Yes,” she said. “Sometimes I still feel that women don’t appreciate their position in society. That we are not strong enough to impose our thinking. We don’t like businesswomen: we go against women who appear to be like men. And I always wanted to have aspects of character from everywhere, and not only be one way. I had friends who said, ‘No men, no children, total independence.’ I chose a compromise, a complete compromise. I chose a bit of avant-garde, a bit of fashion, and for me it works. I don’t want to reject my past because I have it so deeply inside myself. To be nice with a man, I don’t think it’s so bad.” (She is also the mother of two sons in their 20s.)
Prada was the natural choice to dress the girls in Baz Luhrmann’s movie “The Great Gatsby.” In a contemporary way, she understands the conjunction of money and romance and dreams, American or otherwise. She didn’t need a commission: the style of the film could have taken itself from the Fitzgeraldian contradictions and investigations into selfhood that have for years been the hallmark of her work. By the time Prada met Luhrmann and the film’s star, Carey Mulligan, to discuss a possible collaboration, they had already tested some of her clothes on screen.
“You like diamonds?”
“I’m interested in jewels,” she said. “I know what it is: I only like antique jewelry because I like the stories attached to them. I like to know who was wearing them. It’s the life of people that interests me. Also, they are beautiful. Flowers and jewels are part of a woman’s history. I like to look at these jewels and wonder if the woman was happy. For instance, I have a brooch which features a boat in the sea and on top there is a little gold rose and over this a spider. And I wonder who gave it to the woman? Was she a lucky woman? What does it mean?”
She’ll go on thinking. People will go on buying. And one day we might wake up and find that our everyday reality was actually made by shy and pivotal little geniuses like Miuccia Prada, half-capitalist, half-communist, searching for the next big idea and often finding it very close to home. When I left her, she was still waving the little notecard with the question on it about whether a woman must love herself in order to be happy. As her car sped away under the low, gray Prada sky, I guessed that her answer might be that loving oneself is irrelevant. What’s important is to know yourself. “If it’s fake, it doesn’t work,” she had said. “It has to be true to yourself first and then it might be successful.”
On a gray afternoon in Milan, while models, electricians and seamstresses scrambled with last-minute preparations for that evening’s Prada show, several dozen elderly women attended Mass across town at Santa Maria Annunziata in Chiesa Rossa. A working-class parish church, behind a glum brick facade, Chiesa Rossa was designed in 1932 by Giovanni Muzio, a noted Novecento architect, and it’s an airy barn inside, whitewashed and classically detailed. A decade ago, fluorescent tubes in different colors were discreetly installed, blue along the apse, red across the transept and yellow making a kind of halo out of the high altar.
A warm glow bathed the murmuring women scattered through the pews. The brainchild of Dan Flavin, the American Minimalist sculptor and light artist, the tubes were a gift to the church and neighborhood by the Prada Foundation. Begun in 1993 as PradaMilanoarte, the foundation is, like Prada’s clothes, something of a fixation in the art world, with a high-end reputation for perspicacity and openhandedness.
Over the years the foundation has presented shows of Walter de Maria and Louise Bourgeois, Anish Kapoor, David Smith, Michael Heizer, Sam Taylor-Wood, Steve McQueen and more than a dozen others, accompanied by lavish catalogs. It has delved, with notably less success, into symposia on philosophy and festivals of obscure Italian films or of Chinese and Russian cinema. As money has flooded the art scene, would-be Medicis have emerged everywhere — from Eli Broad, who used his collection as a draw to build a home for it at the Los Angeles County Museum then announced he wouldn’t donate the collection, to Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin, who built a kind of Kunsthalle, where she sometimes shows her collection and brings traveling exhibitions. But the Prada Foundation shares with American institutions like Dia in New York and the Menil in Houston the aura of being at once chic and slightly arcane, notwithstanding that the artists it has embraced clearly come from — or, with Prada’s beneficence, have since moved into — the higher echelons of the contemporary art scene.
The foundation commissions, on average, two artists a year to do large-scale or otherwise ambitious works, the kinds of things they dreamed of doing but had neither the resources nor the opportunity to do. Save for installations like Flavin’s, the results have for some years been mostly presented in the industrial space on the Via Fogazzaro, where Prada also holds its fashion shows half a dozen times a year.
Now a future home has just been acquired, a concrete-and-glass complex, like a campus, of austere turn-of-the-century warehouses in a fairly obscure corner in the south of Milan; new exhibition spaces are to be designed by Rem Koolhaas. When it’s completed, some three or four years hence, the site should transform the Prada Foundation into a full-fledged museum and cultural center, with room for its collection, or part of it, to stay on view. For a while at least, that may placate Miuccia Prada, who says she started commissioning art as “a learning process” and never really considered herself to be amassing a collection, “although now we have one.”
When I went to see her last month at company headquarters, she was sitting behind a long, pristine table in her top-floor workroom. A broad wall of windows opened onto a leafy balcony. The room was characterless save for a curious metal chute in the middle of the floor — a slide that spiraled three stories down to the courtyard. It’s a playful, quasi-architectural work by Carsten Holler, one of the artists the foundation has sponsored.
In a white-collared shirt, buttoned to the neck, black skirt and heavy-heeled shoes, Prada looked a little like a cross between a matron and a naughty schoolgirl. A notorious workaholic, she is courtly, almost flirtatious, likable, at least when she chooses to be, and serious. “Anything you learn makes you more open,” she said, by way of recounting how the foundation evolved. “Art is more or less my second career. You meet people by chance. Mariko Mori, for example, in New York. She had a dream. I was pushing artists toward big projects. That was then. For two years we did movies. We tried a convention with artists and philosophers. That didn’t work. You know when you’re doing something relevant or just doing something.”
Patronage is generally an act of public service or private obsession, but it would be naïve to call it selfless. Until lately, Prada insisted art and fashion were distinct enterprises. She kept the openings of the art and the fashion shows separate and kept art out of her stores and out of advertisements — and out of the clothing. Prada rolls her eyes at the mention of Saint Laurent’s Mondrian dress or Louis Vuitton’s Richard Prince handbags. She also used to like to say that fashion is fun but frivolous, and fundamentally commercial, while contemporary art is serious and intellectual. It’s the mind-set of the 1968 generation: well-to-do, educated Europeans proving their modernity by prizing innovative art but disdaining fashion, notwithstanding that they were, and still are, as clothes-obsessed as anyone.
You might argue that Prada has the current art-fashion equation exactly the wrong way around. In any case, her stance (and who can say just how uncalculating it is?) has reinforced her status as a highbrow designer and a fashionable patron, playing to fashion’s endemic insecurity and to the art world’s eternal yearning for fashionability. As the New Yorker writer Michael Specter once phrased it, the clothes, shoes and handbags promise people “a better, hipper version of themselves,” which, for many of today’s Prada-clad art collectors, is the promise of acceptance in the art world, where Prada and her husband,Patrizio Bertelli, are like royalty.
At the show that February evening, models in peekaboo lace dresses and archaic bloomers negotiated a sloped runway in ornate high-heeled shoes that made them seem as if they were walking in flowerpots. From the first few rows, artists gazed: Holler, Mori, Francesco Vezzoli, Thomas Demand, all of whom, not incidentally, have done some of their best work for the foundation. Alongside was the architect Jacques Herzog. Not an Armani crowd.
“How she thinks is very close to art,” Nathalie Djurberg said. Blond and round-faced, Djurberg, who is 30, has developed a reputation for her Claymation videos of murder and mayhem. She is slated to do the next show at the Prada Foundation. In lieu of the figurines she ordinarily animates, she’ll be making large sculptures for the first time.
“I came up with the concept a little too fast and then got scared,” Djurberg recounted. “So I made changes, which we discussed, and either you understand the process or have to have everything explained to you, and Mrs. Prada calmed me down. I felt I was talking to another artist.” When quizzed about this, Prada shrugged, saying that if you ask artists to stretch, you have to accept uncertainty, even failure. That’s the creative part.
Thomas Demand, meanwhile, chatted with Holler about the evening’s outfits, summing up its theme as “Spanish widows in their underwear.” The conversation, turning to the creepy-funny, vaguely S & M vibe of the clothing, focused on whether the shoes brought to mind the work of the artist Matthew Barney. Demand shook his head. “You can say that, but with Miuccia the transfer from art is never straight. She’s never trying to play the artist.”
Holler interjected, waving a hand toward the runway. “We’re not so naïve as to think that we don’t contribute to this business.” He clearly didn’t want to seem like a pushover. “But it’s beyond money. Above all, I think, it’s about the fact that she’s afraid of being vulgar.”
The director of the foundation, who curates all the exhibitions, is the barrel-chested, white-haired Germano Celant. He was in a pair of black leather jackets. The power behind much of what has happened here in art for 40 years, Celant was enlisted by Prada and Bertelli with some reluctance. “They were suspicious of me, and I was suspicious of fashion,” he said about the prospective clash of egos. “I wanted to make clear that if they were really serious and wanted to create a unique collection, they should think large-scale and do one-of-a-kind projects, which can’t be repeated, and so we went to see huge works out West in America by Michael Heizer and Walter de Maria.
“I told them, ‘There, that’s what it means to be ambitious.’ So from the beginning the idea was to produce art and to collaborate with artists on new ideas, big ideas, not just to buy or show things.”
Prada said, “I was scared Germano would impose his vision, but he insisted on a level of quality.” Now they’re all friends.
Celant added that the new home for the foundation “means we can borrow a Kandinsky or show a Canova along with our collection, provide a context for what’s new. A lot of people now can do what we have been doing, commissioning art, because money is not an issue anymore. So what distinguishes us will be new ideas.” A museum isn’t exactly a new idea, but fashion has its ways of repackaging old ones.
“Let’s say we were stuck,” Prada said. “We tried philosophy and movies. Now we’re working with Francesco on another film. For me, they’re all about ways to escape routine.”
Huge packing crates filled the factory building at the new site. On a visit one morning, I saw that they were scrawled with names like Koons and Tom Sachs and Marc Quinn. Even on a cloudy day, light poured through clerestory windows.
“In the last few years I have come to understand the value of fashion,” Prada reflected, when asked about how she sees the foundation, and herself, today. “I always felt guilty about being interested in it, but now I can say that it’s creative work and it relates to the world, and people buy it because it means something to them beyond the logo, I’m sure. I appreciate that the business part of it is an honest transaction. I wouldn’t have said this 20 years ago, but to be an entrepreneur is to be creative. Why be a fake moralist and say you don’t care about money — although to say I do it for money is crazy.”
She went on: “I say all this because it was a little ridiculous how I wanted to keep entirely separate the art and fashion. In the end, I’m the same person. At the moment I’m very happy to be a designer because some women like to put my dresses on, while many people in art are frustrated with all the money and they are asking what does it mean.”
What does it mean? I asked.
Prada hesitated before venturing to answer. For a second, she looked uncharacteristically uneasy. “I’m searching.”
JOHN BALDESSARI: “For Miuccia Prada.” The Los Angeles-based artist has been a friend of Germano Celant, the curator of the Prada Foundation, since the early ’70s. “I was showing a lot in Europe, and he would stay with me out in Santa Monica,” Baldessari recalls. “He was a well-known critic even then.” And having recently visited the Prada space in Milan, he is now working on a potential project for the foundation. “I’m interested in the gradual fusion of high and low culture, and fashion and art,” Baldessari says. “The project I have in mind will address that.”
CARSTEN HOLLER: “One Night in Paris” was part of the research done in preparation for “Prada Congo Club,” an installation by Holler, a Stockholm-based artist, scheduled to open in fall 2008 in London. Photographs by Bellou Luvuadio Bengo, Carsten Holler, Josué, Miriam Backstrom, Edouard Merino and Patrik Stromdahl. “We agreed to meet Saturday in Paris to see the two biggest Congolese bands playing, Koffi Olomide and Werrason. Koffi and Werra (photographed here at their homes in Kinshasa) are fierce competitors, and there was a good chance one of them would not show up, just to ridicule the other. Bellou was sending me constant updates from the concert venue, L’Elysée Montmartre. Everything seemed fine. I put on my best sape clothes and went to Paris.” “Long faces when I met up with the others at Chateau Rouge. Werra and his band didn’t show up, and the concerts were canceled. Now I looked ridiculous in my flamboyant clothes. Miuccia joined us a bit later at Bolon, the Congolese restaurant, where we ate larvae, ndunda bitekuteku (vegetables) and mbisi ya kotumba (fish). Koffi was shown on TV. We decided to make it into a Congolese night anyhow, as we were already halfway there.” “Bellou took us to La Terrasse, which turned out to be a huge empty parking lot somewhere far out north of Paris. There were plastic chairs and tables, and there were beer, brochettes and several speaker towers playing different kinds of Congolese music. As far as I could tell, there were only Congolese around. Some were dressed in sapeur-style, and one woman had a monkey on her shoulder. It got very late. Edouard took a souvenir photo.”
FRANCESCO VEZZOLI: “The Kinsey International,” a conceptual remake of the Kinsey Reports on human sexual behavior, produced by the Prada Foundation. The prototype for a cabinet designed for this project by Ettore Sottsass is installed in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, a museum in Northern Italy recognized for its collection of Italian paintings. According to Vezzoli’s plan, additional cabinets will be installed in similar museums around the world, and visitors will be invited to enter and take a sex test. Vezzoli has been granted a residency at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles to further research this aspect of the project at U.C.L.A. “My hope,” says the artist, who is known throughout the art world for the stellar casting of his video performances, “is to get Gloria Steinem on board.”
NATHALIE DJURBERG: Still image with crayon from “Johnny” (2008), a claymation film for the Prada Foundation
QUENTIN TARANTINO: In 2004, with the sponsorship of the Prada Foundation, the Venice Film Festival set up a retrospective of Italian genre films of the ’60s and ’70s that the director Quentin Tarantino was asked to help curate. “It was called ’The Italian King of the B’s,’ ” Tarantino says. “It gave respect and long-overdue recognition to many Italian genre film maestros — Sergio Martino, Umberto Lenzi and Ruggero Deodato among them. However, if the retrospective had one goal above all others, it was to give the writer and director Fernando Di Leo his proper place as the king of Italian crime films. In this regard, the festival was a huge success. The Prada Foundation followed this up with the beautiful DVD releases of his pictures. But I wasn’t aware just how successful Prada, Marco Mueller, the Venice Film Festival and I had been in promoting Maestro Di Leo’s career until last year, when on a trip to Japan I found this gorgeous Japanese DVD box set of Fernando Di Leo’s films. It made my heart swell with pride.”
THOMAS DEMAND: “Redo” of the backstage scene at a Prada fashion show. In 2007, the Prada Foundation presented two Demand installations, “Yellowcake” and “Processo Grottesco,” on the Isola S.G. Maggiore during the Venice Biennale; Previous spread, from left: The artists John Baldessari, Carsten Holler, Nathalie Djurberg and Thomas Demand; Prada’s Patrizio Bertelli and Miuccia Prada; the curator Germano Celant; the artist Francesco Vezzoli
REM KOOLHAAS: Concept for Prada Epicenter Shanghai Store. Rather than designing a new building, or moving into a fashionable east-side colonial, the idea is to invade a found space, in this case a parking structure and pedestrian boardwalk near the Huang Pu River. Shallow miniboutiques, connected by a back corridor, will be embedded within the existing strip of shops, not only providing the brand with ample display frontage but also creating what the architect calls a “populist” Prada model, where even those who are not inside the store are invited to participate in its retail and cultural programming.
SHE HAS THE TALENT REQUIRED TO CREATE A TWO-BILLION-DOLLAR GLOBAL FASHION BRAND. MIUCCIA PRADA AND PATRICIO BERTELLI ARE THE UBER MOVERS OF THE FASHION SCENE.
Patrizio Bertelli, the 6-foot, white-haired chief executive of Italian fashion house Prada, is a shouter, and this afternoon the yelling is directed at Dallas-based department store chain Neiman Marcus. Bertelli has just met Neiman’s 72-year-old chairman Burton Tansky, who flew in for the day to smooth over differences about how the chain displays Prada clothes, handbags, shoes and perfumes in its stores.
“I told Tansky: Don’t come in here and play the Texan with me. I don’t give a s— about your John Wayne act,” bellows Bertelli, a large aquiline nose twitching between the black rims of his glasses, as he puffs with every thickly aspirated c that marks his distinctly Tuscan accent. (Tansky later described the conversation as a “passionate” exchange between two people who are “proud and intense about their business.”) As manager of one of the world’s leading fashion brands, Bertelli is still smarting after U.S. retailers slashed prices of designer goods at the end of 2008 in response to the economic crisis. To get rid of inventory, Neiman Marcus, Saks and others discounted $1,500 handbags and $750 footwear by as much as 70 percent, causing European luxury-goods firms to worry that their customers would never pay top dollar again. As the economy starts to recover, many fashion executives are trying to wrest more control over department-store sales—and Bertelli is taking up the challenge with particular zeal. “I like Tansky. The real problem is that America is so f—ing egocentric.”
Bertelli, 63, is the mastermind behind a label most people associate with his wife, Miuccia Prada, the avant-garde designer who over the years has created global sensations out of industrial nylon black backpacks, wallpaper-motif pleated skirts, tiedyed dresses and thick high-heeled wedge shoes, to name just a few.
If Prada is one of the most influential designers in the world, Bertelli is the driving influence behind her. Ever since 1977, when the couple first met at a trade fair in Milan, Bertelli has encouraged his wife to take risks that have transformed the company into a global fashion conglomerate with $2.4 billion in sales, four labels—Prada, Miu Miu and shoemakers Church’s and Car Shoe—and 267 stores from San Francisco to Seoul. Bertelli pushed Prada to open the brand’s first store in New York in 1986. Two years later, he urged her to start designing women’s clothes and five years later he got her into menswear. “He’s far more of a provocateur than I am,” Prada says. “With him, you’re always questioning yourself. He and I have a little rule of three. If he says something more than three times, then I need to think about it. Sometimes I don’t want to listen, but I do.” Now, for example, he is insisting that she pay more attention to marketing via Hollywood celebrities—an approach she has traditionally eschewed. “He says that we are snobs and that we don’t understand pop culture,” Prada says, of herself and her creative team. “He is the mind, we are the arms.”
The Bertelli–Prada partnership is the heart of a firm that has thrived for the past quarter century as a distinctly family-run enterprise—with Bertelli as paterfamilias. Bertelli, Prada and her siblings own close to 95 percent of the company. Bertelli and Prada serve as chief executive officer and chairman, respectively. He brings the same intensity to the business side of the brand that she does to the creative. Past and present executives describe him as an indefatigable and charismatic boss with intimate knowledge of the company, from the stitching of shoe seams to the color of the walls in Prada boutiques. But they say Bertelli can take on too much. He has the last word on everything from hirings to how many precious skins to order for a line of handbags. When a top manager leaves—and several have after clashing with the boss—Bertelli often takes over the position in an interim capacity. Executives are loath to make decisions without his approval, and few dare contradict him. “It’s the law of the jungle,” says Gian Giacomo Ferraris, chief executive of Versace, who worked at the Prada group earlier this decade. “He expects a lot from himself, and therefore from others. Either you play at his level, or he writes you off."
Bertelli is known for his temper, which is partly shtick. “I always tell Bertelli: You like this reputation, or you’d change it,” says Prada, who always refers to her husband by his last name. When he was overseeing the decor of a new Miu Miu store in Manhattan in 1997, he took issue with a mirror and smashed it. “It made people look too fat,” he recalls. He famously broke the taillights of several cars parked in the wrong spaces of Prada’s parking lot. “I enjoyed that,” he says with a laugh.
The outsize personality extends beyond the office. He likes cars, and so he owns eight, including several Porsches. An avid sailor who competed internationally in the 1970s, Bertelli bought a 75-foot sailboat in 1997; three years and $55 million later, the “Luna Rossa” entered the world’s most important sailing race, the America’s Cup, and came in runner-up. He says his temper is often used as an excuse by people who leave the company because they can’t take the pressure-cooker environment. “It’s true that I get angry with things that are banal,” he says. “But saying that I’m irascible is also an alibi for people who don’t cut it. My behavior is always correct, and I always try to motivate people.”
Bertelli and Prada’s rapport is the most volcanic of all, and the two are notorious for their violent arguments. “We work hard. It’s always an intense relationship, and it’s exhausting having to work with him. But I admire and respect him,” Prada says. “It’s a war in here every minute, and to be part of this company, you have to be trained.”
Both agree on a crucial point: that the creative and commercial needs of the brand have to be on equal footing for the company to be a true success. At many fashion houses, designers struggle to meet the demands imposed on them by managers to make clothes that will sell well or can be priced at a certain level. Clashes between the creative and business sides have led to legendary bust-ups, such as celebrity designer Tom Ford’s departure from Gucci in 2004 or German designer Jil Sander’s acrimonious exit from her eponymous firm when Prada bought it in 1999. (Sander later returned, but Prada sold the company years later.) Sander did not respond to repeated requests for comment and her namesake company declined to comment.
“For Miuccia and me, it’s equally important to make a product that pushes fashion forward as it is to sell it. If we’re not selling, then there’s something wrong. This is our fundamental philosophy,” Bertelli says. “Money is not an end for us, but I’ve always said that for all of this to work, we need to sell, and Bertelli feels the same way,” Prada adds. “He has an incredible sense of what works and doesn’t work. And when the strategy is right, you sell a lot.”
The Bertelli–Prada duo is so important to the business that when the company was preparing a stock market listing nine years ago—an initial public offering that never happened—banking advisers laid out as a “risk factor” for investors any eventuality that the two might decide not to work together anymore, according to a person who was involved in the IPO preparations. “They’re not managers, they’re owners and entrepreneurs,” says Prada Chief Operating Officer Sebastian Suhl. “They are the brand.”
Still, the way of doing business at one of the world’s most important fashion groups could soon come under strain if Bertelli and Prada revive, as both say they intend to, plans to sell part of the company on the market to raise money for future growth. “I think anyone would be interested in acquiring a stake in Prada,” Bertelli says. “But to give the company a real future, the stock market is the best option.” Bringing in outside investors—whether via an initial public offering or a private sale—could, for example, put pressure on Bertelli to hire more outside managers to help him run the firm. “After an IPO, things would get more complicated. And at that point the management issue will arise,” says a banker who works with Prada.
Bertelli’s extra-large ambitions have left the company in need of funds. During the rapid-growth years of the 1990s, Bertelli—like other luxury-goods executives such as Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy’s Bernard Arnault—spent more than half a billion dollars to buy several small fashion houses with the intention of turning them into global brands. The purchase of Jil Sander, Helmut Lang and others meant Prada had racked up more than a billion dollars in debt by the end of the decade (on sales of around $1.5 billion at the time)—a burden Prada has been struggling with ever since.
The couple are also big real-estate spenders, dishing out more than $137 million a year to open new boutiques and then having them fitted by prominent architects such as Rem Koolhaas or the Swiss duo Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. Bertelli and Prada most recently commissioned Koolhaas to build “Transformer,” a massive shape-shifting exhibition space in Seoul, which opened last year. Over the next couple of years, Bertelli is planning another store-expansion drive—30 new boutiques are set to open this year alone, many of them in the U.S. The store buildup is aimed partly at making Prada less dependent over time on its wholesale business, such as U.S. department stores, to sell its goods.
Bertelli was born in Arezzo in 1946, in the heart of Italy’s Tuscany region, into a family of prominent lawyers. As a child, he had a talent for drawing and painting, though teachers at his Catholic school thwarted some of his creative bent by forcing the left-handed boy to use his right hand. Left-handedness at the time was considered a sign of the devil. (Bertelli still uses his left hand to draw.) Bertelli’s father died when he was 6, leaving his mother to support her two sons on a high-school teacher’s salary. The family didn’t want for anything—there were regular sailing and skiing holidays, he recalls—but growing up with a single parent helped Bertelli develop a sense of independence and entrepreneurship.
In the late 1960s, when Bertelli was enrolled at the engineering department of the University of Bologna, Levi’s jeans with flared bottoms were all the rage among young Italian men. But the thick belts that needed to be worn with them were still a luxury item. “We couldn’t afford them, so Bertelli set out to make his own,” recalls Carlo Mazzi, one of Bertelli’s childhood friends, who joined the company five years ago as Prada’s chief financial officer. Bertelli bought leather, and brass to make the buckle, and then took the pieces to a cobbler to be sewn together. The total expense was 4 percent of what the belts cost in stores—and Bertelli saw a golden opportunity. He dropped out of college and devoted himself full-time to his accessories business, which he called Mr. Robert (after his friend Roberto) and transformed over the next decade into a midsize leather-goods firm based in Arezzo. I Pellettieri d’Italia would become the precursor to the modern Prada SpA.
Bertelli was displaying his handbags at a trade fair in Milan in 1977 when he met Prada, who, at the time, was running the leather-goods store her grandfather had opened in 1913 in Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. She was a tidy, upper-class Milanese woman who wore Yves Saint Laurent skirts, studied theater and talked politics. He was a loudmouthed Tuscan entrepreneur with grand ambitions. She hired him as one of Prada’s main suppliers, and within a year the two were living together in an apartment in central Milan.
For years, the company grew within the contours of a new family life. When their two sons, Lorenzo, now 21, and Giulio, 19, were children, the couple spent most of their time in Arezzo. When the kids started school, Bertelli and Prada moved the company’s headquarters to Milan. “Our life was home and factory, and this was the great fortune of the company,” Bertelli says. When Prada opened its Madison Avenue store in Manhattan in 1993, the couple took Lorenzo, then 5, and Giulio, 3, to the Grand Canyon and Disneyland. “It was mind-blowing to see how well everything was organized,” Bertelli says, “from the lines to the pancakes with Mickey Mouse.”
Today, Bertelli says his sons are his window into what young consumers want. “You have to watch young people, because if you’re not updated with the world of today, then you might as well get the hell out of fashion.” Both parents say that they’ve never pushed their sons into the business, and that it’s too early to say whether they will join the company. “If they do, I think they’d start in the factory. It’s like a sailor has to know how a boat is made,” he says.
The 1990s transformed Prada from a niche fashion house with $50 million in sales into a $1.5 billion luxury-goods conglomerate. Prada’s shopping spree—in addition to Lang and Sander, the company also bought the Azzedine Alaïa fashion house and a stake in Fendi—was motivated by one of Bertelli’s key convictions: that fashion houses should not diversify their labels indiscriminately, including by launching secondary lower-priced lines. Many fashion houses—from Armani to Versace and Valentino—have started lower-priced collections over the years as a way to extend their consumer base.
“The rationale was that we had grown a lot for 10 years, and we wanted to diversify—but not by going into hotels or wines,” Bertelli says. “This may be considered a mistake in hindsight, but it was plausible at the time. In 1995, all of us were asking ourselves how we were going to grow. Later we realized that there wasn’t necessarily a need to expand into new labels because there were so many growth opportunities in new markets.”
You have to watch young people—if you’re not updated with the world of today, then you may as well get the hell out of fashion’
Enlargement brought big problems—notably managing designers. Sander fell out with Bertelli almost immediately after being bought out and left after a few months. She then returned, but the fashion house struggled to make money. “Jil Sander was Bertelli’s baby,” says Ferraris, former Jil Sander chief executive. “But bankers forced him to cut off the dead wood in the company and so he got to work restructuring Jil Sander in order to sell it.” Helmut Lang eventually left too. Since then, Bertelli has offloaded both Jil Sander and Helmut Lang and sold 5 percent of Prada to an Italian bank. Two more IPO attempts have been postponed, and Prada’s holding and operating companies are still loaded with more than $1.51 billion in debt. But creditor banks have extended the due date on expiring loans to 2012, giving the company breathing space. “We made mistakes. With Jil Sander and Helmut Lang, I would say that it’s 50 percent our fault and 50 percent theirs,” Bertelli says. “But now we are rid of these brands, and things are good.” Lang did not respond to requests for comment.
The day before Bertelli’s meeting with Neiman was the day of Prada’s fall-winter 2010 menswear show. Bertelli had woken up in Arezzo and, after breakfast in the city’s main square, had flown by helicopter to Milan. He was wearing gray flannel trousers, a blue wool turtleneck sweater and a blue blazer. He had eaten a lunch of prosciutto, wild chicken and red wine in one of his favorite Milan trattorias, where he had spent a good deal of time chatting with the owner, the chef and many of the diners.
As he arrived at the showroom, stagehands were checking the large loftlike hall where Prada presents her shows. This time, the catwalk had been set up as “Prada City”—a space with abstract bars, squares, parks and theaters created by Alexander Reichert, an architect in Rem Koolhaas’s studio. Prada, dressed in a long blue kilt, knee-high studded socks and vertiginously high thick-heeled shoes, was backstage, putting the last touches to the collection. Lorenzo and Giulio, who had worn Prada jeans for the occasion, hung out in the corridor with Prada’s sister Marina.
As he always does, Bertelli watched the show from the room where engineers monitor the sound and lighting system. “City life is the theme of the moment. It’s all about 24-hour, 360-degree living,” said Bertelli, as he peered into the television set, watching Prada’s models—men, joined by women—clad in high-waisted trousers, camouflage- print coats and tasseled loafers. “It makes me wonder: How do you safeguard intimacy in such a world?” he muttered, before launching into a soliloquy about how the size of women’s feet has changed over the centuries. As the show ended, Bertelli rushed backstage to greet his wife, who bounced over to him, pecking him once on each cheek. “So, did you like it? Did you see how I reintroduced the little coat?” “Yes, I liked it. I’ve been thinking about this 24-hour city thing. It’s like the negation of privacy and intimacy, isn’t it?” She looked at him quizzically and shrugged. “Don’t get philosophical on me now,” she laughed, bolting back to her receiving line of journalists, friends and hangers-on pouring in backstage.
By the time Bertelli came home after the show, Giulio and Lorenzo were sprawled on the couch watching the Sunday evening soccer matches roundup. A shaggy, oversize stuffed toy dog lay in front of the television set. “It was Giulio’s when he was a little kid, and we’ve never been able to get rid of it,” Bertelli said, smiling.
Prada and Bertelli’s apartment, on the ground floor of a building with a large courtyard in central Milan, is spacious, but with a cozy feel. A green-marble corridor leads to a large veranda that serves as a living room, a dining room—which that night had been set up to host 15 people—and a contemporary art space with works by Damien Hirst, Lucio Fontana, German abstract painter Blinky Palermo and others. A steel library filled with 8,000 books on architecture, art and design spans the length of an adjacent room. Bertelli and Prada’s predilection for modern and contemporary art took off in 1993 when the couple traveled to New Mexico with Italian art critic Germano Celant to see “The Lightning Field,” a long-term installation of 400 stainless-steel poles created by American sculptor Walter de Maria, Celant recalls. The Fondazione Prada, created in 1993 to host established and up-and-coming artists from Anish Kapoor to Nathalie Djurberg and which is now run by Celant, is one of the most important spaces for contemporary art in Italy. “Miuccia and Bertelli are both very passionate about art,” says Hans Ulrich Obrist, director of international projects at the Serpentine Gallery in London. “The Fondazione not only has exhibitions but it allows artists to produce projects that would otherwise have been unrealized.”
Bertelli and his sons were still fixed in front of the television when Prada walked in and plopped herself on the couch, unbuckling her shoe straps. “This is a real glamour evening, isn’t it?” she joked.
“Mom, that was a great show,” piped up Lorenzo, a lanky, dark-haired philosophy major. “I liked that you brought in women alongside the men.”
“In reality it was a women’s collection adapted to men, but I shouldn’t really say that too loudly or people will start criticizing,” chuckled Prada, munching on a piece of salami and white bread that a waiter had brought over to the living room.
Bertelli is frequently in Tuscany or visiting Prada’s stores around the world, but when the couple are in Milan, they spend most evenings at home with their sons or a small group of friends—a collection of scholars, artists and childhood mates, including a Milanese doctor who is one of Prada’s best friends. That night, Bertelli and Prada sat together at the head of their long oval table, presiding over the guests and the conversation. On the menu were spinach-filled pasta, meatballs, spinach pudding, potato puree, a cream dessert and a chocolate cake—topped off with red wine.
Food is a serious matter for Bertelli. He is an avid cook himself (earlier in the day he had spent 20 minutes explaining to a Prada executive how to cook a trufflestuffed pheasant with cream) and a restaurant enthusiast. Bertelli has a dozen of his favorite Milan eateries’ numbers in his mobile phone—including an outpost of the Asian fusion restaurant Nobu owned by Armani and the classic Milanese bistro Bice. He makes reservations himself, confident that he’ll always get the best table in the house, which, in Milan, is often the one right near the kitchen.
Over the second course, Bertelli steered the conversation toward the Internet. A few weeks earlier, a U.S. newspaper article had suggested that Prada’s Web strategy was “stodgy” compared with that of brands such as U.K. fashion house Burberry, which has a Facebook account and encourages consumers to send in photos of themselves wearing the brand’s trench coats. Prada was one of the last high-end fashion houses to embrace the Web, waiting until the end of 2007 to create an e-commerce site. Today consumers can buy accessories, find company information and view advertising campaigns and Prada-made films on the site. That day, the menswear show had been streamed live on the site and on Prada’s official YouTube channel. Still, the newspaper article had clearly hit a sore spot.
“I think it’s bulls—. Why does showing a photo of someone wearing a trench coat online mean being open to the world? What’s that got to do with anything?” Prada blurted, as Bertelli piled up generous portions of spinach pudding on the plates of the people sitting beside him.
Bertelli has been urging Prada to engage more online with bloggers and with her many fans. He now called the guests to order and put Prada on the spot: “Let me ask you this: Is it more democratic not to answer people’s questions on the Internet at all?” Bertelli bellowed, as guests stopped their chitchat to listen. “Or is it more democratic to give an answer even if it’s not complete?”
Francesco Vezzoli, an Italian artist who is a good friend of Prada’s and was sitting to her left, suggested that the designer had little choice: “You’re a star, and other stars around you Twitter.”
“Well, what if we found out years from now that Twitter is crap. Maybe years from now, we’ll all have been mistaken,” Prada retorted.
She picked up a meatball with her fork and crossed her foot underneath her on the chair, as one of her thick-heeled shoes plunked to the ground, under the table. “It’s not that I don’t want to embrace the Internet, but I don’t want to just throw random answers out there. In that case, I’d rather not answer,” Prada continued. Turning to Bertelli: “I’d like to see you get up in the morning and sit there and answer questions online. Why don’t you do it?”
“You don’t get it, do you?” Bertelli belted back. “Communications move fast and fast communication compromises quality. It’s inevitable, and you have to accept that.”
Prada flared: “Don’t treat me like an imbecile!”
“I’m not. Are you finished screaming?” Bertelli roared. “And I’m supposed to be the irascible one?” The guests laughed.
The next afternoon, Bertelli sat in a whitewashed conference room next to his office, a spacious, window-paneled room with three small leather couches, a large Alberto Burri painting and “Hi-Tech Baby,” a sculpture by Korean-American artist Nam June Paik made out of 14 televisions. It was several hours after the Neiman meeting, and Bertelli had cooled down about the U.S. department-store debate.
He turned his attention back to the Internet imbroglio of the night before. “The Internet is democratic, and so you can’t give it an elitist response. Miuccia is always moralistic about these things,” he said. “I am not more modern than Miuccia. She is more instinctive, while I have a more rational mind and compartmental way of thinking. We pretty much arrive at the same conclusions, though.”
Another dilemma occupying Bertelli’s mind at the moment is the incessant pressure on European fashion houses to lower costs, including by seeking overseas markets to produce their goods. Over the past few years, many designer brands, from Italy’s Valentino to France’s Céline, have been making some of their clothes and handbags in Eastern Europe, North Africa or Asia, where labor costs are far lower than in Western Europe. Many companies have been reticent to discuss the shift, however, fearing that without the “made in Italy” label—and the centuries-old history of artisanship it conveys—consumers will be less willing to pay exorbitant prices.
While the Prada brand is 98 percent made in Italy, about half of Miu Miu handbags are made in Turkey and Romania, and 70 percent of the sporty Linea Rossa shoes are produced in Vietnam. Bertelli’s roots lie deep in one of Italy’s artisanal heartlands, and Prada runs 13 factories with 3,500 workers in the country. But Bertelli is unapologetic about his decision to make some products abroad—as long as there are quality controls. He believes firmly that consumers should learn to trust a brand name, regardless of where it’s made, and that “made by Prada” should be just as trustworthy a label as “made in Italy.”
That’s a controversial statement in a country that has been struggling to protect its once-thriving textile industry from cheaper Chinese goods. “If a product is not made in Italy, that doesn’t mean that it’s made badly—saying so borders on racism,” Bertelli says. The real problem, he says, is that since every country has different rules regarding how to label their imports—U.S. and Japanese markets have stricter “made in” rules than Europe, for example—many companies attach different “made in” tags depending on where the products are sold.
“That’s bulls—. If a product is made in Italy, then we’ll put the ‘made in Italy’ tag; if it’s made in China, we’ll put the ‘made in China’ tag, and if it’s made in Turkey, we’ll say so. Others aren’t as honest, but you see, Miuccia and I have never thought of our public as idiots.”
After 36 hours in Milan, Bertelli was getting ready to commute back to Arezzo. That night, he ate at another of his favorite restaurants, Masuelli, where he ordered saffronimbued risotto straight from the chef in the kitchen. Though he is a gabber, Bertelli is shy when it comes to answering questions about his private life with Prada. “We are equals. Perhaps I’m a little more curious about history. Miuccia is strong but also very sweet.”
He sipped his glass of wine.
“Miuccia and I have lived very intensely for the past thirty years, even if there have been fights. Living, working and creating a family together has been a great human exercise.”