Miuccia Prada is the director of design for Fratelli Prada, the Milan, Italy, fashion design empire. She is the youngest granddaughter of Prada founder Mario Prada. She and her husband Patrizio Bertelli took over the family's luxury goods company in 1978 and turned it into a trendy fashion powerhouse which posted revenues of $1.4 billion in 2000.
Born Miuccia Bianchi Prada in a large apartment on Milan's Corso di Porta Romana, Prada is the second of three children. Her father headed a company that made mowers for putting greens, while her mother, Luisa, was the second generation descendant of the Fratelli Prada fortune. Founded by Miuccia's grandfather, Mario Prada, in 1913, Fratelli Prada sold "oggitti di lusso," or "luxury objects" to the very wealthy—the Italian royal family was among its clients. The company competed with the French houses of Hermes and Louis Vuitton. Many of Mario's designs were based on a movement called Stile Liberty, the Italian version of the Arts and Crafts movement. "He was very eccentric," Miuccia Prada told Financial Times writer Alice Rawsthorn. "If you look at his work from the 1920s, there are lots of strange images and details. It was very adventurous for the era."
Prada grew up in relative luxury and comfort in Milan, although the Prada firm had fallen on hard times by the end of World War II. Under grandfather Mario's watch, the female Pradas were not allowed to work in the shop "My grandfather said women should stay at home," Prada explained to Forbes writer Nancy Rotenier; but when Mario died in the late 1950s, his son wanted nothing to do with the company and let his wife assume the helm. Under Luisa's direction, the Prada business was revived and maintained a semblance of success over the next few decades.
Meanwhile, young Prada led the life of the daughter of a wealthy Milan family. She skied in Switzerland, bought her clothes in Paris, and studied political science at the University of Milan, graduating in 1973. There she became active with the Italian Communist party, and often participated in political demonstrations after becoming a card–carrying member. She also studied mime for a number of years at Milan's Teatro Piccolo, eventually joining the troupe itself. Despite her rather bohemian activities, Prada always felt a pull toward stylish clothes. "I'd always loved fashion," she recalled for Rawsthorn in the Financial Times. "Yves Saint Laurent was my favorite. I wore his things all the time in the 1970s—even to political protests. People looked at me strangely when I handed out pamphlets in my expensive clothes."
Always independent–minded in politics and fashion, she was known for mixing flea market finds with high–end designers Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent. "For me, the thing that is most important about fashion is expression," Prada said in an interview for Vogue. "Because in your clothing you express not only social things and the aesthetic of your time but also who you are."
In her day–to–day life, Prada's professional achievements are irrevocably intertwined with the personal. She and Bertelli live, with their two young sons, in the same large apartment compound where she was born. Family members are nearby at home and at work—brother Alberto can be found in Prada's financial executive offices, while her sister Marina is in charge of coordinating special events for the growing number of Prada shops. In her spare time, Miuccia collects modern art and glass, and haunts flea markets for more inspiration for her designs. She also appears at fabric stores that are going out of business, buying up their large bolts at a discount. But then Prada is too hesitant to cut them up, instead draping their swaths artfully around her Milan home. Such acquisitions are more important than others: she's driven the same dark blue Fiat for almost two decades.
In 1978 Luisa Prada decided to retire, and she cajoled her daughter into taking over for her. At the time, only the original shop in Milan's Galleria Vittorio Emanuele remained of the house of Prada. Miuccia's sole experience in the business was a stint managing this store that primarily sold luggage and handbags. Almost instantaneously, the 28–year–old Prada injected a jolt of Eurochic style into the staid company with her first product: a small bag made out of military–tent nylon, "with a glitzy gold strap that made it look like a post–modern parody of the classic Chanel bag," as Rawsthorn described it in the Financial Times. Within a few years the $450 bags had become ubiquitous status symbols toted by the stylemakers in Europe and the United States and "put life and prestige back into the business," wrote Sischy in the New Yorker. Years later, replicas of the same bag, made from similar industrial strength nylon, could be found in department stores from London to Los Angeles for $10.
Though she saw fashion as "women's work," as she later commented in Vogue, Prada found herself designing more and more. Though Prada told the New Yorker's Sischy that she "wanted to be something more" than a designer, she admitted, "... I am what I am. Not everyone can be Albert Schweitzer or Karl Marx."
The bag attracted more and more customers and the attention of Patrizio Bertelli, a fellow bag maker from Florence whom Prada had met at a trade show. He had started his business at the age of 17 making beaded hippie bags, but the company had grown into a well–regarded manufacturer of leather goods. The Prada company contracted out some of the manufacturing of their own line of bags to Bertelli's well–run factory. Upon meeting, Prada commended him on the workmanship and quality of his company's products, and the professional relationship between the two firms flourished. Gradually, Bertelli became Prada's business mentor of sorts, and the relationship turned more personal. The couple formalized their partnership in a 1987 marriage; by that time Bertelli had brought much of his expertise to the Prada company. One of the first issues on the table was a natural step after the success of the nylon bag: to modernize the company's line, make it more exclusive, and rid the store of anything but Prada products.
Prada debuted with a bohemian schoolgirl theme that would reappear in subsequent collections. Prada told Sischy in the New Yorker interview that the uniforms embodied the attitude she always dreamed of having. "I tried to be bad, but I couldn't be as bad as I would have liked—not as bad as the girls I really admired, and not as bad as the ones who are in my dreams."
Bad girls may have been her inspiration, but her designs quickly became known for quietly exuding "timelessness," "confidence," "quality, luxury, and style," according to Entertainment Weekly. Prada's fascination with different materials, processes, technologies, and eras influenced her designs. The couture dresses, the progressive sportswear, the one–of–a–kind items—many from the radical clothing–design days of the 1960s and 1970s—were; sitting in her extensive closets inside the family's Milan apartment compound. Prada's mother is also afflicted with the same need to archive, and together their collection of classic clothes served as the inspiration for Prada's first line of ready–to–wear in 1989. According to Forbes, the clothes "look like something you owned 20 or even 40 years ago, only updated ..."
"I never actually decided to become a designer," Prada told New Yorker magazine. "Eventually, I found that I was one." As a young woman and Communist, Prada thought of fashion as "basically silly," she said. To the daughter of one of Italy's great luxury goods houses, Fratelli Prada, the idea of working in fashion was unthinkable. But, over time, she found herself reconciling her political convictions with her developing fashion design sense and becoming more involved in the fine leather goods business. In the late seventies, Prada took over the company, and introduced her own line of men's and women's clothes that "[at] first glance ... looks plain and undesigned," said writer Ingrid Sischy in the New Yorker, but which, according to Time, became "the most cherished name in the fashion apparel industry."
By 1995, there were already 47 Prada stores worldwide and dozens more planned, and the name was a staple in the fashion world. But Prada came into full view that year when actress Uma Thurman wore a one–of–a–kind Prada gown to the Academy Awards. The following day, the Prada switchboard was overwhelmed by calls. To accommodate the widespread interest, Prada introduced a line of clothes that cost less than the Prada line—Prada dresses cost $800 to $3,000; suits, from $1,200. Miu Miu, as the collection was called, appealed to a younger, hipper crowd and allowed Prada to play with her bad girl ideal more freely. She also expanded into men's clothes that year.
Under Miuccia Prada's helm, the house of Prada has become one of the most successful European stylemongers of the 1990s, a feat that used her good mind for business and perpetual creative flair. Items bearing Prada's discreet triangular logo are donned by stylish women—and beginning in 1995, stylish men—around the world and praised by celebrities and the movers and shakers of the fashion industry for their unadorned yet timeless style. Clothes and accessories made by the company are the domain of the fashion elite, with hefty price tags but a classic, clean look that lasts from season to season.
Chronology: Miuccia Prada
1913: Family business started by grandfather Mario.
1950: Born in Milan, Italy.
1973: University of Milan, Ph.D. in political science.
1978: Took over family business from mother.
1987: Married business partner Patrizio Bertelli.
1995: Added men's clothing to the fashion line.
2001: Announced plans to go public.
Social and Economic Impact
Twice in 2001, Prada postponed plans to go public due to global economic downturn. There were whispers that the company may have lost some of its elitism by expanding to 150 stores, five alone in Manhattan. But in December 2001, Prada hosted a lavish party to celebrate the opening of its 24,000 square foot Soho store, with guests at the event as diverse as actor Kevin Spacey, New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, and actress Milla Jovovich. The company's stated goals are to reach $5 billion in sales by 2010, moving up to the ranks of Gucci and LVMH (Moet Hennessey Louis Vuitton).
"With her long brown hair, no–makeup looks and unassuming manner, Miuccia Prada has more the air of a Bohemian art student than the head of one of the fastest–growing names in the business," commented Footwear News writer Sara Gay Forden about this successful Italian designer and head of an international fashion label that bears her family name. "Part of her secret is that she really loves fashion." Prada's astonishing success came despite the fact that she never really planned on entering the family's upscale leather–goods manufacturing business. Nevertheless, she is responsible for turning it into one of Europe's most sought after ready–to–wear labels, prized by fashion critics, and comprising a veritable empire of luxury stores located on some of the world's more stylish streets.
For her fall 2001 collection, Prada, "that most restless of designers," as New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn called her, returned to sixties–era designs. The move sent the fashion world into a "delicious panic," Horyn wrote. "For better or for worse, [New York] has become a city of Simon Says, and Ms. Prada ... is Simon by default."
Sources of Information
Contact at: Prada
50 W. 57th St., Fl. 12A
New York, NY 10019
Dolan, Kerry A., et al. "The World's Richest People." Forbes, 9 July 2001.
Guyon, Janet. "Prada Steps Out." Fortune, 1 October 2001.
Kahn, Jeremy; and Brian O'Keefe. "Best & Worst 2001." Fortune, 24 December 2001.
Trebay, Guy; and Ginia Bellafante. "Prada: A Luxury Brand with World–class Anxiety." Toronto Star, 26 December 2001.
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