The Curator Wears Prada

Article excerpt

Byline: Robin Givhan

The Met honors fashion's subversive feminist.

It's mid-March, about two weeks since fashion designer Miuccia Prada finished the marathon of women's fall shows. She has just returned to Milan after a vacation in the mountains, and it's her first day back to work. Dressed in a roomy, gray V-neck sweater, a white shirt with a bejeweled collar and a pair of slim-fitting trousers in an oxblood geometric print, she occasionally fiddles with the gray beret tilted at a droll angle atop her fine brown hair.

Prada takes our meeting in her austere office. The white-walled room is on the third floor of a campus of unattractive structures constructed during a particularly uninspired period of Italian architecture. As offices go--especially among designers, whose headquarters tend to be a grand homage to the brand--Prada's is spare to the point of looking unfinished. The only hint of the company's success--it raised more than $2 billion last year in an initial public offering in Hong Kong--is a three-story metal slide by the artist Carsten Holler. It swirls to the ground from a hole cut in her office floor. It's the perfect metaphor for Prada's desire to escape the constraints of fashion, tradition, and expectations.

This spring, Prada will become the latest designer to be honored at the Costume Institute at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, in a retrospective that pairs her with the great iconoclast Elsa Schiaparelli, who died in 1973. Prada's response to "Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations" has been mixed, in part because the two women are quite different in personality and sensibility. "On one side, I'm very happy. On the other, it's very scary because it's someone else's interpretation," Prada says. "But I decided that of course I'm super happy."

The through line is subversiveness: both designers upended the traditional definition of female beauty for a generation of women. In the case of Prada, her lasting legacy will surely be that she made "ugly" chic.

In the early 1980s, Prada turned industrial black nylon into a symbol of luxury. She lured status seekers into spending stratospheric sums on humble backpacks bearing the triangular Prada insignia. With the launch of women's ready-to-wear in 1988, she coerced the public into casting an admiring gaze on hues of puce, pea-soup green, safety orange, and a shade of brown best described as swamp water. She made wallpaper prints, doily lace, and teddy-bear fur sophisticated and smart. And she sent models on a runway power march wearing clothes inspired by blue-collar uniforms and carrying frame handbags that spoke of grandmothers and linen hankies.

"I didn't want to be restricted to the rules [of high fashion]. I was looking at the colors and homes and other places and elements that were not part of the elitist world of my clients," Prada says. "I also struggled instinctively against the cliche of a beautiful, rich woman." She adds: "I have nothing against a beautiful, rich woman--just the cliche of it."

Prada's work reflects her own struggle with fashion, an ambivalence that many women share--particularly those in positions of power. Her style expresses a high-minded disdain for society's restrictions and a repudiation of idealized beauty. "Those were the two topics that I realized I was always working on," Prada says. "I realized my job is to define--well not to define because that's so pretentious--but to understand: What does it mean? Beauty, today, for a woman?"

It is this knowing dismissal of the rules that marks Prada's work as the height of chic and cool. Her clothes have influenced American brands such as Derek Lam and Proenza Schouler. They've spawned mass-market knockoffs and attracted celebrities from Uma Thurman to Zooey Deschanel. Even "the Devil" has worn Prada.

"Miuccia is one of the most interesting designers working today," says designer and friend Donatella Versace. …