She invented the It bag, but this year, ‘distracted by easy success’, her company faced a 38% profit dip. Armed with her ‘monster ambition’, she reveals how she is fighting back
Miuccia Prada has a wonderful, warm smile and a steely stare — power and passion play a double game across her handsome face. Power, because it was she who took the idea of taste, shook it violently and shocked us into an era in which straightforward beauty is boring. The fact that there has to be a twist of the odd for something to be considered cool can be traced back to Prada and the ugly chic she introduced in the 1990s. Passion, because she is possessed of an unshakable self-belief.
“I like it when things that are simple and classic are distorted, intimately distorted, so there is something wrong in something normal,” she says from behind a white desk in her large, art-filled Milan office. As well as revolutionising taste, Prada caused a seismic shift in the business of fashion. Her simple nylon rucksacks launched in 1979. Made from the tough military-grade nylon her grandfather had used as covers for steamer trunks, they were not an immediate hit, but by the early 1990s, they had become the first It bags, propelling the traditional, bourgeois Milanese accessories house to the forefront of fashion. It also put bags at the centre of the industry, where they have stayed ever since.
Nylon, not Cashmere
That Miuccia Prada had the audacity to treat nylon like cashmere and elevate it to luxury status is typical of her oppositional thinking. She likes things that are not common or obvious. “I want to be different,” she says, as she stirs her third coffee. A lifelong feminist, one of Prada’s favourite phrases is “be seen, be heard”. She looks like a woman who is unafraid of being different, not for the sake of standing out but for the power it brings.
“I am personally interested in the new. I get bored more than anybody, so I am always searching. Mainly I am interested in what is happening in the world. I want to understand us now, but avoiding the clichés of now.” She stays informed the old-fashioned way. She breaks from our interview to take a call from her son (she has two, aged 28 and 26, but won’t even mention their names in public) on her iPhone, but she doesn’t use the device to Google something she’s interested in. Instead she uses “human Google”. “I don’t have a computer, but I can do that because I have the privilege that if I want to know something, they [her creative team] bring information to me, they talk to me, they tell me.” The biggest challenge as a designer, she says, is “not to become stupid, and to keep your individuality and possibly introduce intelligence”.
Does she think we have reached peak fashion? “Of course, for the rich there is too much of everything, too much food, too many clothes. But we live in a capitalist world, and that is what we have to deal with, otherwise there is the revolution. It’s true that there is too much, but not enough of the right things.” Her antidote to “peak fashion” is, she says, “doing things that are not stupid or useless”. By 2014, the Asian customers were buying less. Sales began to stall and profits dipped 38% in the last reported quarter. But she has a plan to turn it around. “You get distracted by the easy success, and that is the point when you say it is much more important to control sales in order to take care of our customers in the best way possible. I sell less, but we want to be more sophisticated, to give more beauty and more attention to what really counts.”
Claudine Croft / The Times / The Interview People