Monday, Feb. 09, 2004

Miuccia Prada

Fashion's Auteur, True To Her Own Eye

Desperation and luxury are mortal enemies. Fear and power do not peacefully coexist. It follows, then, that she who wishes to reach the most rarefied and potent ranks of fashion, whether in dealmaking or designing, must have a certain serenity. A certain above-the-fray quality. And a flat-out disregard for what you think. Which brings us to Miuccia Prada. The rise of Mrs. Prada, as she is known to her Italian staff members, is a well-known tale — your basic story of a onetime communist and mime student from Milan who takes over her family's dusty luggage company and, with the help of her go-getting husband, turns it into a luxury conglomerate that in 2002 had revenues of about $1.9 billion. Her power, first manifested in the minimal black nylon backpack draped over every influential arm in the '90s, also became incarnate in such celebrities as Uma Thurman, twirling down the red carpet in ethereal Prada-designed Oscar gowns.

But having created some definitive design benchmarks, while a sure sign of her eye, is not what has really given Prada her juice. What sets her apart is her disregard — in some cases, her open contempt — for the dictates of fashion. Whereas fashion expects an image to be constantly updated, Prada reportedly sank upwards of $100 million into projects that are supposed to be permanent, if not immutable: her architecturally pioneering stores in New York City (by Dutch brainiac Rem Koolhaas) and Tokyo (by the precise Swiss duo Herzog & De Meuron). Whereas common sense says a designer should design what she likes, Prada will choose a color (such as turquoise) that she despises, because of the rush it gives her when she can make something beautiful with it.

Prada has few celebrity friends. She lives in the apartment she grew up in. And, of course, season after season, she sends intelligent, beautiful and, inasmuch as anything in fashion can be, sui generis collections down the Milan runways. "If you want to know what a season is about, you don't miss the Prada show," says Julie Gilhart, fashion director for Barneys. "She never follows anyone else's lead, just her own original energy. Her collections are completely an expression of herself."

And herself is curious, independent and thoughtful. Prada once showed a raincoat that was transparent until it got wet and became opaque. This season she charmed the front row with a collection inspired by 1950s souvenir scarves and the quirky tchotchkes (beaded bags, raffish straw hats and embroidered suede moccasins) that a stylish housewife might have picked up on a honeymoon in Venice. Prada the company has not been immune to the economic downturn and has some challenges ahead, including a heavy load of debt that it has been working to pay off. But one thing Prada the woman is unafraid of is a good fight. And more often than not, she wins.