Apr/May 2010

Leather Report

Prada's austere individualism is powerfully attractive. That's why it sells.

Jenna Sauers


"To be Prada is to be perfect in every way," reads one of the few examples of actual prose in Prada (Abrams, $125), the luxury-goods company's latest and largest coffee-table book. It's an image-heavy tome about image, and words are relegated to captions. The form makes clear what no corporate-authorized text could be expected to state outright: Prada, no differently from any other global brand, traffics in image.

Few companies seem as riven with contradictions as Prada. While its products are called "luxury," it remains best known for a line of leather-trimmed black nylon handbags that were perfectly pitched to early-1990s minimalism and remain popular today. Miuccia Prada has found success making clothes that, though often beautiful, are rarely nice to look at—or as longtime New York Times critic Cathy Horyn once wrote, they "almost dared you to call them ugly." (For this Fall, Prada showed a collection that Horyn likened to the traveling wardrobe of Madame Tito; the models even seemed to have the ex-dictator's wife's hair.) Although founded in 1913 by Mario Prada, who believed that women had no place in business, the company's golden age has come under the leadership of his granddaughter. Not that Miuccia, born Maria Bianchi in 1949, ever intended to take over the family company. She is a self-identified feminist who used her inherited wealth to fund various escapes from the fold—a student flirtation with Communism, a doctorate in political science, five years of training in mime at the Piccolo Teatro—before she deigned to begin designing handbags in the late 1970s. There are not many refugees from academia in the rag trade, but Miuccia made the transition with panache.

Unlike a lot of competitors—Versace, Dior—whose profitable accessories divisions were launched off the back of successful women's-wear collections, the handbag was always the center of Prada's business, and in fact it was clothing, which the company only started making in 1988, that piggybacked. Miuccia has said, "It's so easy to make money. The bag is the miracle of the company." Handbags are a mature fashion technology: They are high margin, a classic will sell durably for years, and you will never lose a customer over a fit issue.

Miuccia detests dressing the red carpet. She once told the New Yorker that actresses "have no personality. You rarely see them think about it. It's as if women were afraid to explore who they are anymore. Now, how can that be sexy? Watch them. Look at Nicole Kidman. She is beautiful, and she is nice. But sexy? . . . A zero." Prada has always seemed a little wary of anything "commercial," a tad retiring. Even the book's narrow margins and plain, sans-serif font, not to mention its resolute white spaces, seem designed to appear unswayable. All fashion brands are snobbish, but Prada posits that it honestly doesn't care what anyone thinks. Of course, for a consumer, the ability to put on a dress—or carry a nylon wallet, or spray on a perfume—and project this kind of austere individualism is a powerfully attractive thing. That's why Prada sells.

But although Prada may not open hotels in the Burj Dubai tower, like Armani, or stamp its name on Segways, like Chanel, the difference is one of degree, not kind: All luxury companies make the bulk of their fortunes persuading aspirational-middle-class consumers to purchase their sunglasses and perfumes with lavish advertising campaigns, loss-leader fashion shows, and the occasional appearance by Nicole Kidman on the red carpet. Besides, Prada was not totally innocent of the luxury-goods bubble. In the book, Prada eyewear and Prada fragrances, not to mention the eight-hundred-dollar Prada cell phone, are portrayed as the natural emanations of a world brand, rather than as highly coordinated attempts to seek luxury margins in virgin markets.

Prada fairly swims with data, laid out on spare white pages in sections numbered like a mathematical proof.There's the number of stores worldwide (187, including four flagships the company calls Epicenters). The square meters of leather consumed annually by its factories (250,000). The number of shoes, in pairs, this makes (500,000). The square footage of Milan headquarters. The worldwide employee headcount. The number of sketches in the archives. The pattern pieces per handbag. The total outfits designed. The items produced per annum. The length of the Prada runway on which two models fell in Spring/Summer 2008, and the number of ticket holders who saw them.

Discursive quotations from Rem Koolhaas, the architect who designed Prada's forty-million-dollar New York Epicenter and a great many projects besides, fill entire chapters. ("Luxury is intelligence," opines the Dutchman. "Luxury is 'waste.' Luxury is not shopping.") There are nearly thirty pages of stills from and information pertaining to short films Prada has commissioned. ("The only directive was to challenge the notion of perfume for men and to produce visionary content.") One hundred and thirty-six pages reprint virtually every seasonal ad campaign for Prada's main line; after some season-by-season back-and-forth, I put the definitive onset of Photoshop and digital photography at Spring/Summer 2004. A compendium of celebrities wearing or carrying Prada goes on for ten pages. (Kidman makes five appearances.) There are thirty-one pages dedicated to Richard Prince–ian photographs of photographs, in this case Albert Watson images that Prada once put into another book, in 1988. This, in 707 pages, in eight pounds, thirteen ounces, is the company book that ate all the other company books. (A 2001 Prada-produced tome even contained Koolhaas's "Luxury is . . ." koans. Burp.)

Paging through Prada's onslaught, certain elements of the company aesthetic coalesce. Full, late-1950s-style skirts are one, as are shirtwaist dresses. Every other season's collection seems to be shown with nerdy drooping ribbed tights. Miuccia is never one to be stereotypically or merely sexy, and the part of a woman's body she loves most to expose is the area from just below the bust to the natural waist. In 2006, when every supermarket shopper and Internet browser had had her fill of pictures of Nicole Richie making Starbucks runs with her Fendi "Spy" bag (so named because it contains a "secret" compartment in the top flap, perhaps big enough for a lipstick) and of Lindsay Lohan fishing for her BlackBerry in her ruched-leather Prada "Gauffre" tote, Miuccia began designing ever more elaborate high heels. By the following year, the fashion press was penning trend pieces with headlines like "Is This It for the It Bag?" and "Make Way for the It Shoe."

But while illustrations of a half-dozen things Koolhaas wants to make for the company, including a shoe phone, and four pages of online product reviews and eBay sales listings ("SOOOOOO DARN PRETTY I CAN HARDLY STAND IT!!! A TRES-LUXE TAKE on the classic WHITE COTTON BLOUSE!!!!") might hold some appeal to dedicated compilers of company arcana, the surfeit of information is hardly user-friendly. Any book this apparently completist has got to be hiding something. This is not a volume in which you will read the word recession. Prada the book gives not even a cursory nod to Prada the company's context. The entire luxury-goods economy in which the brand functions—the market that has undergone such a well-publicized correction since late 2008—might as well not exist.

Prada and Bertelli describe themselves as having created "a natural, almost fashionless fashion." But the luxury products Prada is best known for are made of Saffiano leather—a proprietary material believed to be corrected-grain leather, which is to say, relatively inexpensive leather that's had its grain scraped off and been stamped with a new pattern to hide the damage—and of course the black nylon. Retail is a game of margins, and Prada is far from the only "luxury" brand to increase its own by using less expensive materials—many people believe, incorrectly, that Louis Vuitton's famous monogram handbags are leather; they are in fact coated canvas—but it is the only one that pretends, nearly successfully, to be something different.

The audacity to make leather more valuable by destroying its grain, the audacity to make a cheap synthetic a luxury fabric: These acts could almost be a joke on the very nature of "luxury," and the credulity it implies.

Jenna Sauers is a writer in New York who blogs for Jezebel.

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