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LA SIGNORA PRADA

May 12, 2022

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La Signora Prada after the Spring/Summer 2021 fashion show

One of the most prominent and enigmatic fashion designers of the modern era, Mrs. Prada, once said, “I am most intrigued when a work of art is not just an item, but when it touches reality and life.” She is credited as being the originator of the ugly chic aesthetic. Indeed, Miuccia Prada, who has ruled the Milan fashion scene for 40 years, is recognized by the public as a designer who transforms the commonplace into something contemporary and futuristic. She combines the outdated and the cutting-edge, the ugly and the beautiful, the vulgar and the basic. Twice a year, she gives us a chance to see her designs on the catwalk, and each time they are fresh and unexpected. La Signora Prada, now a 73-year-old sciura (the term used to describe the elegant and confident ladies of Milan), played a crucial role in revitalizing the Prada brand after taking over her grandfather Mario Prada’s company in 1978. In fact, she turned an Italian family business into a global synonym for luxury.

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A vintage suitcase bearing the famous triangular Prada label, via Pinterest
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The original Fratelli Prada store, still open today, is situated in Milan's renowned Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, via Pinterest

The story of Prada began in 1913 when Mario Prada and his brother Martin opened an elegant boutique called Fratelli Prada in Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. In the storefront window, customers might find suitcases, evening bags, travel bags, walking sticks, and jewelry boxes. Upon entering the store, their eyes would gravitate towards the designer watches, crystal, tableware, ceramics, and porcelain. The Fratelli Prada product line would elevate the small store to prominence in upscale circles in just six years. In 1919, not long after the end of the First World War, the company experienced a significant turning point when it became the official supplier of the royal house of Savoy. The majority of the Prada brothers’ rapidly expanding clientele consisted primarily of affluent families from Milan and around Europe. Prada quickly became well-known in the leather goods fashion industry, and the second store was opened in Milan’s Via Manzoni. During the difficult Second World War years, the shop on Via Manzoni was forced to close, but the original one managed to stay open. When Mario Prada passed away in 1958, his daughters Nanda and Luisa took over running the business. Luisa, who had great organizational skills, changed the company’s style to make it more approachable. In this way, Prada was able to somewhat bounce back, but it was not until the 1970s that it truly made a presence on the global market.

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Miuccia Prada after the 1996 show, via Pinterest
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Portrait by Marc Quinn,
via Pinterest

In May 1949, Maria Bianchi Prada, Mario Prada’s youngest granddaughter, was born. Maria, better known by her iconic stage name Miuccia Prada, never planned on a career in the fashion world, and it came as a surprise when she decided to take over the family company. She earned her master’s degree from the University of Milan, where she was well-known for her fervent feminist views, and she went on to obtain a doctorate. Following her academic success, Prada decided to enroll in a mime training at Milan’s Piccolo Teatro and, like many other young members of the bourgeoisie at the time, became a left-wing activist. However, in 1978, she made the decision to take over her mother’s struggling business. This, as she says, was a significant risk, but one she bravely took.

 

Her life was suddenly torn between her political and cultural advocacy for women’s rights, which made her wish to devote her career to socially responsible work, and her love of fashion, which she admittedly no longer wanted to pursue. Her aspirations were put on hold due to family business requirements. After meeting her husband, Patrizio Bertelli—or Il Bertelli as she prefers to call him—La Signora Prada started her rise to the top of Milan fashion (and that of the rest of the world). It is common knowledge that success in creative work is almost impossible to achieve without a strong managerial hand of someone who understands how to position products on the market. Il Bertelli was and continues to be, along with Miuccia, the key figure in restoring Prada’s glory and elevating the brand to an unrivaled powerhouse in the world of high fashion.

 

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Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli, via Pinterest
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The “ugly chic” Prada fashion show from 1996, via Pinterest
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Miuccia’s first great achievement for Prada: a backpack made of pocone
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Prada Spring/Summer 2022 fashion show, put up simultaneously in Milan and Shanghai; the collection was designed by Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons, a well-known designer who joined Prada, via Pinterest

When Miuccia launched her first women’s prêt-à-porter collection, she said: “It was simple to put up a fashion show because I made the clothes I wanted to wear but couldn’t find. For ten years, I only wore vintage clothes, maids’ outfits, and military uniforms.” Indeed, the inspiration for Prada’s first big triumph in 1985 came from military uniforms. Specifically, she used pocone (military nylon) to create a range of waterproof backpacks, which immediately became a global phenomenon. In other words, Prada produced the most sought-after designer bag using what might have been the least expensive material. Nylon bags symbolized modernity since they allowed the luxury to be subversive and go beyond the obvious. She gave the idea that luxury products are no longer stifling status symbols but rather a paradigm shift in how people think about style.

But, like many artists, Miuccia Prada was not well-accepted right away. In fact, the Italian press paid no attention to her designs, which went against the dominant Italian fashion and even dabbled in the ugly. Prada, however, proceeded to the stages of New York, where people fell in love with her style and where she became an icon. She later went back to her Peninsula, made a comeback on the Milan runway, and won admirers—including those journalists who had before shunned her. Her brand quickly became a real fashion phenomenon, standing for minimalist luxury, outlandish design choices, unique color schemes, and basically anything that was deemed unusual. For Signora Prada, there were never truly fashion trends to follow; instead, she had her own fashion code, which involved mixing apparent opposites to create something distinctive and new.

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Miuccia Prada taking a bow on the catwalk at the end of the Fall/Winter 1999 fashion show
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A photo of La Signora Prada taken for The Telegraph, 2016, via Pinterest

She enhanced her appeal by launching her first men’s line in 1993 and displaying the concept of pure and sophisticatedly raw elegance. In the same year, she created a new brand under the name Miu Miu, which, in her words, is what people called her when she was a child. Today, Miu Miu is known as a brand of cutting-edge, modern women’s clothing that caters to a younger clientele and debuts its newest collections at Paris Fashion Week. Using a light, sarcastic, and naive aesthetic, Miuccia Prada picked this name to push the idea of femininity to its utmost. According to Miuccia, the brand’s goal is to provide a space for unrestricted personal expression. Miu Miu still exudes an air of vitality and vigor, which is regarded to be a spiritual rather than merely physical state. This alternative aesthetic has always been distinguished by a strong personality and independence from the well-known family brand.

 

Prada’s insight and forethought in creating a new take on chic also reinforce her fascination with contemporary art. In 1995, she and her husband founded Milano Prada Arte, an initiative committed to promoting contemporary culture through exhibitions and other events. The Fondazione Prada exhibit space, which was established in the southern part of Milan, in a building that, from an architectural aspect, encapsulates the aesthetics of the Prada brand, shows that fashion and art are not incompatible. In keeping with La Signora’s remark from the opening of this text, we can say that this is a place where art and life are one.

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La Signora Prada after the Miu-Miu 2019 fashion show, via Pinterest
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La Signora Prada after Prada Resort Collection 2020 fashion show in New York
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Patrizio Bertelli i Miuccia u tada još nedovršenom kinu u Fondazione Prada, fotografija Annie Leibovitz 2016. godine, via Pinterest
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La Signora after the Prada 2018 fashion show, via Pinterest

Every September and February, Miuccia Prada releases her most recent collection, fusing tradition with modern, futuristic simplicity, though many fashion enthusiasts agree that the most anticipated outfit is the one she wears. Even outside of the show, she is a symbol of elegance, and everyone can recognize her style. She has never been afraid to take a risk, whether it was wearing sandals with socks, dresses with neon fringe, or the out-of-the-ordinary pairing of skirts and sweaters. Not to mention pocono, the strongest kind of nylon, which she first used to make her grandfather’s suitcases and now uses to create a lot of her apparel. Naturally, Prada dresses in Prada, without sacrificing functionality. She never wears something that does not make her feel well, and it is fairly typical to see her reclining on the ground and sipping Chardonnay. Miuccia’s style experiments reveal a strong personality that engages in art and design as, indeed, she wears clothes but does not let them dominate her look. The always-smiling, somewhat humble, and self-assured La Signora Prada invents her own concept of beauty. Few people can say they possess such a craving for risk and a cutting-edge aesthetic combined with elegance.

 

It is said that Prada is the only woman who truly represents Italy—the eccentric, exaggerated, but nevertheless strong and confident Italy. For her self-deprecating viewpoint and self-assured design choices, we place Miuccia Prada on the Olympus of genuine creatives, often recalling her words: “If there was one thing I managed to accomplish, it was to make the ugly appealing.” Because, in the end, who gets to decide what is beautiful and what is ugly?

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