Sitting in a Milanese café a couple of hours before I am due to meet Miuccia Prada and her husband Patrizio Bertelli, Italian fashion’s eminent power couple, I flick through a copy of L’Uomo Vogue to see what’s new in the world. As is often the case, the New Year’s issue – “BIG IN 2015” – opens with eight pages advertising the new Prada men’s collection.
In the first two of these, Hollywood actor Ethan Hawke is shown sitting glumly in a sleek leather armchair, taking a pair of scissors to an indistinct photograph. We are, inevitably, more interested in the story behind Hawke’s actions than in the suit he is wearing. Why is he cutting up the picture? What anguished memory does it recall?
The sequence is like the opening scene of a movie or a novella. The narrative is teasing us. The clothes take second place, as they are meant to. No fashion brand plays as wilfully with its customers’ expectations as Prada. Its marketing campaigns are embroidered with so many aesthetic allusions that we forget we are being sold something. Except for the subliminal twitch that prompts us: wouldn’t you like to be part of this little fantasy? Why not visit our store?
In Pradasphere, a handsome, weighty book published last year in homage to fashion’s most culturally eclectic brand, editor Michael Rock attempts to encapsulate what he calls the “Prada vision”: “[It] is manifest in everything from fashion and accessories to art, architecture, film and culture… When these elements are taken as a whole, core ideas – about beauty, taste, embellishment, gender, vanity and power – emerge.”
I am in Milan to see the latest manifestation of the fashion house’s vision: the new headquarters of Fondazione Prada, the 19,000sq m site of a former distillery in the south of the city, opening next month. The foundation will act as a much-needed cultural centre for a city that may be famous for fashion, but has yet to establish any kind of reputation for its embrace of contemporary art.
Prada has chosen architect Rem Koolhaas and OMA, the partnership to which he belongs, to mastermind the project. Koolhaas has worked with Prada before, notably on its New York and Los Angeles “Epicenter” stores. His fluid, questioning style of architecture is perfectly allied with Prada and Bertelli’s investigations into contemporary art. The couple are noted collectors, but want to use their works and their contacts with artists to do something more than put on a good show.
They describe the foundation as “a kind of observation post from which meaningful ideas in contemporary culture are monitored”. Koolhaas has provided them with a complex of buildings that, he says, “is not a preservation project and not a new architecture, [but] an ensemble of fragments that will not congeal into a single image, or allow any part to dominate the others”. It may be baffling language, but it also represents a meeting of minds.
The project is far from a straightforward conversion of an old industrial space. As Koolhaas concedes, that has become something of a cliché in cultural regeneration circles. Instead, parts of the 100-year-old distillery will be refurbished while the finishing touches to three new structures, including a cinema, are being put in place. The spaces devoted to exhibitions will be flexibly aligned, according to the demands of the art. As for refreshment, there is nourishment for the imagination as well as for the body; the café has been designed by American film director Wes Anderson, who is recreating the “typical mood” of Milanese café life. Miuccia Prada tells me the foundation will be a space for “experiment”. It is important, she says, “to create a sense of dialogue. Artists are among the most intelligent people in the world. We want to try to learn from this where the world is going.”
We are sitting, with Bertelli (the couple are joint chief executives of the company), in Miuccia Prada’s office nearby. The space has achieved notoriety in contemporary art circles, not for its striking design (it is decorated in relatively conservative, tasteful fashion), but for a tubular slide that leads from the office to the courtyard down below. It is a work by Carsten Höller, one of Prada’s favourite artists, who thrilled visitors with his similar installation at Tate Modern in 2006-7.
Prada and Bertelli formed Fondazione Prada in 1993, to formalise their growing love of contemporary art. “It was a sad, dark time for Italy, during the fall of [Bettino] Craxi [head of the Italian Socialist Party, embroiled in the Tangentopolibribery scandal]. Everything was blocked, no one knew what was going to happen,” says Bertelli. “We had this idea of doing some exhibitions, which would be free for the public, but would also be a process of learning for us.” The couple concentrated their efforts on large-scale work, notably sculpture: early shows included surveys on Anish Kapoor, Michael Heizer and Louise Bourgeois. “This was at a time when painting was making a comeback, and was particularly popular with the ‘nouveaux riches’ from the then newly coined BRIC countries,” says Bertelli, a little scathingly. “Paintings are easier to understand than sculpture.”
The success of Prada – the company employs more than 10,000 people and reported net revenue of over €3.5bn for the 12 months to January 2014 – is attributed to the complementary talents of Miuccia Prada and Bertelli, respectively the creative muse and the business brain behind the company. The couple met in the late 1970s, when Bertelli signed a contract with Prada to produce and distribute the company’s leather goods. Their professional relationship soon turned into a personal one. It was he who kept pushing the label into new territories – women’s ready‑to-wear, menswear, the launch of Miu Miu – while she provided the creative vision.
But contemporary art was a shared passion, and the foundation is a joint project. When they are together, Bertelli, dressed today in a lightly deconstructed suit and Michael Caine glasses, is the more ebullient of the two, while Prada sometimes gives the impression that she cannot get a word in edgeways. Her outfit – a lime-green printed dress, oversized dark-blue V-neck jumper, masculine shoes and dark socks – could be a template for the way she has subverted, with spectacular success, the orthodoxies of Milanese high fashion.
There are other fashion houses that have made striking partnerships with contemporary art, taking advantage of a perceived synergy between the two industries. Fondation Louis Vuitton, which opened in Paris last year, is housed in a typically flamboyant Frank Gehry building, giving the French capital a new cultural icon for the 21st century. Koolhaas’s design for the distillery complex, by sharp contrast, is discreet and works in more subtle ways. There are parts that demand attention: one building (the Haunted House) will be covered in a 3mm “skin” of 24ct gold leaf, while a monolithic tower of white concrete will be seen from far away.
But on a tour of the site, my attention was repeatedly drawn to the “clashes” and “conflicts” between the different types of architecture. My guide, a member of Koolhaas’s team, talked of the “uncertainties” and “instability” where these contrasting structures rubbed up against each other. I tell Prada and Bertelli that these are unusual words to use when describing a new architectural project, and they all but beam with pride. Prada says she regards it as imperative that the foundation be perceived as a genuine space for artistic inquiry, and not just another branding opportunity for a fashion house. During the foundation’s history, she says, “we have never put on exhibitions at the same time as our fashion shows. The fashion people don’t even know about them. It was almost as if they were a secret.” She concedes that this spirit of experimentation is not immediately reconcilable with the sharp business demands of one of the world’s leading luxury brands. “But it reflects who I am. What interest me, profoundly, are not certainties but doubts, clashes, conflicts.”
Bertelli adds that it is “natural” for there to be a difference between the couple’s private reflections and the professional world that they navigate with such distinction. “All this is so that we can feel free. People may find it strange, they call it schizophrenic. But the foundation is nothing to do with marketing, communications or business. It is an expression of freedom.” That said, there are clear similarities between Prada’s conceptually playful new collections that are so eagerly anticipated by the fashion world, and the couple’s taste for contemporary art’s mind-spinning games. In Pradasphere, the closest there is to a manifesto for the brand, the connection is made explicit. The book talks of the “tension between modernity and history, high and low, profundity and cliché” in Prada’s creations. “Are they in exquisite taste, bad taste or post-taste?” it asks with the solemnity of a philosophy seminar.
I ask Prada how art influences her fashion. “I always say that I don’t want to be influenced by the art world at all,” she replies briskly. “First, as a matter of principle. And then because I want to be good at what I do on my own account. I don’t want artists to help me.” It is another firm matter of principle, she says, that there will never be collaborations between artists and Prada’s fashion collections. Once more, this is in contrast to other brands. Louis Vuitton’s engagement of the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, in 2003, gave the house’s distinctive luggage logo a fresh, youthful twist that revivified its fortunes. I ask Prada and Bertelli if they think that kind of collaboration is wrong, and they draw a tactful silence over the question.
Prada once described her outfits as a “wearable critique”, I remind her. “They are a way of expressing my ideas,” she says. “But it is much more difficult to do intellectual work in fashion. It is difficult to express ideas with a company that sells things.” The foundation, by contrast, is not accountable to any commercial forces. “We don’t have to ask for money from anyone. I had thought of seeking sponsorship, but the first potential sponsor I met said to me, ‘Yes, but your artists are too experimental’. So I understood then what happens when you ask for money.”
It is hard to imagine, too, that many sponsors would be happy to endorse the involvement in the foundation’s opening programme of Roman Polanski, the Polish film director who still lives under the shadow of his conviction in the US for having unlawful sex with a minor in 1977. Polanski will present a documentary and a series of film screenings to illustrate the influences on his work. He will show how a Doris Day film influenced the opening scenes of Rosemary’s Baby, for example, she says with relish.
In the Podium, one of the main gallery spaces, a relatively unglamorous exhibition, Serial Classic, will open the foundation’s visual art programme. Using works loaned from prestigious institutions, it will look at the way classical art was widely copied and reproduced by movements such as the Renaissance and neoclassicism. (A complementary show, Portable Classic, will run in Venice at the same time at the 18th-century palazzo Ca’ Corner della Regina, acquired by the foundation in 2011.)
I say it is surprising that a foundation dedicated to contemporary art is announcing itself with a traditional theme. But this, of course, is also very Prada. “It would have been too obvious to open with a contemporary show,” says Prada proudly, before being interrupted, not for the first time, by Bertelli. “The classical is contemporary,” he announces gruffly. He gives a long and scholarly account of the way in which modern culture is grounded in Greco-Roman art. “It took more than 1,000 years to recover from the fall of the Roman empire.”
The avoidance of doing obvious things seems to be important to both of them, I say. “I am fixated by it,” says Prada. “It is my dream to do the obvious thing,” says Bertelli. “I would never do it, of course. But just as a contradictory position. The whole idea of clashes and confrontations – it comes from not wanting to do the obvious. It is an exercise, a constant effort. It’s not trying to be different from other people, it is something that comes completely naturally to both of us. The idea of the foundation is that it represents something significant, a proper act of research. What it is not there to do is to find some kind of consensus. It is against consensus. Looking for consensus is a form of mediocrity, and that is one of the worst of human weaknesses.”
See also Louis Vuitton’s new foundation, which launched last year