Interview Italy

Don’t call her the bag lady

Miuccia Prada on conceptual fakes, Italy’s cultural backwardness and what she plans to do with her own arts centre

A plain, long-nosed face, almost without make-up; a dark blue dress, also plain, but perfectly finished; beautiful legs and very high-heeled, artfully ugly shoes; two PR minders listening in at the other end of the plain, white room. You are made to feel that interviewing Miuccia Prada, 60, head of one of the most famous fashion brands in the world, is a privilege, although she unbends enough for the journalist to feel taken into her confidence.

Prada is more than a fashion house; it is a whole design and cultural outlook. Suzy Menkes, the International Herald Tribune’s fashion editor, says: “Miuccia captures the Zeitgeist. She is a conceptual fashion person who realises which way the wind is blowing. She took the family bag company and made those nylon bags in the minimalist 80s. Then she became the leader of the ugly aesthetic of the 90s.” The main stores are not called shops, but epicentres and are by world famous architects Herzog & de Meuron and Rem Koolhaas, who also does Prada’s fashion shows.

Works of art—not to mention the movie, “The Devil Wears Prada”—have been created around the brand. In 1997, the photographic artist Andreas Gursky produced a series of sleek images of details of Prada stores. Then in 2005, the Scandinavian duo Elmgreen & Dragset made a Prada store (unauthorised, and with no sales) in the middle of the desert at Marfa, Texas. Now the Chinese artist Cao Fei, who specialises in installations about consumerism, wants to open a fake Prada factory in China. “A brilliant idea,” says Ms Prada, “but one that could be dangerous for the firm because the question of fakes is a hot topic”. Not so dangerous though as to cancel out the useful synergy between art and brand, brand and art.

To understand Miuccia Prada, you have to know the haut bourgeois Milan in which she grew up. On her mother’s side, she belongs to an old family firm that made luxury leather goods. She was educated in the revolutionary 1960s and 1970s to be an intellectual at a time when the Italian intelligentsia was almost exclusively left wing. No surprise, therefore, that she was a communist and a feminist. It also explains why she does not hang out with celebs; she is simply too cultivated and too grand for them to add anything to her life.

She had been learning mime with the Teatro Piccolo of Milan for five years when she was called to enter the firm, aged 29. She says she now realises that the world of fashion, despite its absurdity, does contain many open-minded and creative people. She used to be annoyed when intellectuals sneered at Prada’s involvement in art, which began in 1993. “Now I’m very interested in the power of brands, of celebrity, in the absurdity and scandals of that world, because I realise that I can play on many levels, for if culture isn’t appealing, it has no impact. When it’s too high-faluting and fails to communicate with young and ordinary people, it’s equivalent to not speaking at all.” She enjoys the money that comes from her work, but also the fame, which opens doors to her; China is allowing the Prada Foundation to restore old Chinese films precisely because they adore the brand. 

In 1978 she met her future husband, the Tuscan leather goods manufacturer Patrizio Bertelli, who is an explosively dynamic entrepreneur, marketing genius and the person who has internationalised the brand. Even though she is the main creator in the firm, Miuccia Prada freely admits that he is responsible for a lot of the cultural mix. It was he who got them involved in art after a friend who was looking at their industrial spaces thought of using them for his sculptures. “That practical experience—very much my way of operating—led me to create the Prada Foundation [1995]. Its activities have become vital to me and my work. It’s a question of learning, of knowledge, of curiosity. My husband asked the art critic Germano Celant, who taught me quality, to become the foundation’s curator, and we took a wonderful trip around America. It was then that we met James Turrell and Donald Judd.

“For two or three years Germano and I were rather suspicious of each other because he didn’t want to work in the fashion world and I didn’t want him to limit my freedom of expression. Now we’ve become friends and we complement each other. He likes the preparations for the exhibitions, the discussions with young artists; we provide the institutional framework.”

From time to time, the two of them draw up a list of artists and ideas to consider. While earlier exhibitions at the foundation were mostly of heavyweights, as though the foundation was proving that it was not fashionable flim-flam—including artists such as Anish Kapoor, 55; Walter De Maria, 74; Giulio Paolini, 69; Louise Bourgeois, 98; Marc Quinn, 45; and David Smith (d.1965)—its

recent shows have been less solemn: the campy, satirical videos of Francesco Vezzoli, 37; the violent, clever animations by Nathalie Djurberg, 31; the architectural jokes and slides of Carsten Höller, 48.

In Italy, where museums have not yet cottoned on to the idea of making culture accessible, attendance figures are among the lowest in Europe. A survey carried out by the think-tank Osservatorio Impresa e Cultura in 2003 revealed that the young thought museums, even contemporary art ones, were too closed, too elitist for them. Ms Prada, on the other hand, has travelled, has seen the kind of people who visit Tate and MoMA and wants the Prada Foundation to be different. To begin with, unlike most Italian museums, the foundation does not charge for entry. “I don’t have to answer to anybody, seeing that we pay for it all, ” she says. “I’m interested in art that enters into the great world of communication, such as Francesco Vezzoli’s. He did those fake reality shows with us, and his art is about the media obsessions of today. If kids are more interested now in the internet than drawing, then you should invest in something to do with the internet.” She is still waiting, though, for a good internet project to come her way.

Asked what she thinks of the city of Milan’s cultural policies, she says she had better not comment as she gets so cross: “I can say though that culture is absolutely not seen as a priority. We wanted to give a work by Charles Ray to the city of Milan, but ten years later they still haven’t found a square in which to put it.” Of the city’s proposed museum of contemporary art she says: “They don’t realise that culture doesn’t need money, it needs ideas. And they can’t even find room for a museum in memory of Lucio Fontana.”

Three or four years ago she had a dry patch in her faith in art. “I realised that instead of doing things spontaneously, we were straining to find the big idea, which was the opposite of how we started out.” She turned to philosophy, financing a number of conferences on the subject and she still funds a university philosophy chair, but what involves her most now is film. She has managed to weave this in with her architectural interests, which began with her husband, who, she says, was responsible for making the Prada stores in New York, Tokyo and San Francisco the extraordinary shopping experiences that they are. Suzy Menkes comments: “These make any conventional retailer wince because most of the items for sale are tucked away below, almost out of sight, while there are huge blank walls for projections and art events.”

It has taken the foundation four years to get permission to put up its current, temporary building called the Transformer next to the 16th-century Gyeonghui Palace in Seoul. It is a tetrahedron covered in stretchy membrane, whose four sides are a hexagon, a rectangle, a cross and a circle respectively. With four cranes its inside and outside spaces can be changed in less than an hour. It started out cross-shaped in April, showing “Waist Down, Skirts by Miuccia Prada”, a kinetic art installation involving all the designs of skirts she has ever done. As a hexagon, until 12 July it will be showing movies, and from the end of July, the animations of Nathalie Djurberg. Its inventor, Rem Koolhaas, calls it a dynamic organism, and it unites all the Prada interests: fashion, architecture, film and art.

Ms Prada looks forward to when the foundation will have its new space in Milan, including a cinema that will seat 200-250 people. This is the most ambitious project yet, the transformation of the 20,500 sq. metre industrial complex in the south of Milan into a centre for the foundation. It will house the 15 large-scale installations the foundation has collected since it started, together with the 500 or so post-1950 works owned by Miuccia Prada and her husband. Rem Koolhaas and his OMA practice are full creative partners in this, as they were given no brief by Ms Prada and Mr Celant for the first conceptual stage. The schematic design phase, working out how many buildings will be new and how many old and what they will be for, ends in August. Only one building will be a museum as such, the others being multi-purpose—for example, there will be four areas where film can be shown.

The project leader, Chris van Duijn, says that Ms Prada is very interested in the relationship between old and new, and hopes to borrow exhibitions from museums such as the Uffizi and Louvre to put with modern work. While OMA has plenty of experience of planning for museums, they have also joined up with the French museum and auditorium designers, dUCKS (sic) to add to the creative mix. They are thinking hard about how to link the complex visually with the city, however ungrateful Milan—and Italy—may have been to Prada hitherto (Miuccia Prada and her husband have not had one Euro in tax breaks since they started).

This is an expensive project to build and, above all, to run, and the brakes seem to be going on. Mr van Duijn says that the building will be finished around 2013 or 2015, which has slipped from the initial prediction of 2011. The scheme, estimated to cost €25m, was announced in April 2008, when Prada still hoped to go public, but the share launch was postponed, in part due to the financial climate, and Prada Spa then posted a 22% fall in net profit—€99m on a turnover of €1.6bn—for 2008. The company is also considered to be fairly heavily indebted, with net debt of €537m.

A spokesman for the foundation has, however, assured The Art Newspaper that the cultural complex will go ahead regardless of the financial results of Prada Spa.

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