Fans of the Milanese label Prada tend to have two things in common: an appreciation for intellectualism in design, and a desire to wear it in an artful but still pretty way. The brand’s creative head, Miuccia Prada, is known for her ability to divine the future of fashion, and for launching seismic-force trends that ripple through the industry with impressive—and lasting—effects. “Prada is totally monumental,” the tastemaker Kal Ruttenstein of Bloomingdale’s said in 2004. “She leads everyone.”
Miuccia appears to have had a magic touch from the very start. Yet she never set out to be one of the world’s leading arbiters of style. Having earned a doctorate in political science, she had blithely set on a career as a mime when duty called in the form of the family store. No ordinary mom-and-pop venture, this. It was established in 1913 by her grandfather Mario, and Fratelli Prada—as it was known—was in its heyday a premier purveyor of luxury leather goods and accessories. The Italian royal household even granted the use of its coat of arms on Prada’s fine-luggage sets, made from walrus and alligator. European aristocracy came calling, including Princess Grace of Monaco.
But by the late seventies, the solid, heavy luggage that required a servant or two to wrangle was sorely out of vogue—ditto the company’s tortoiseshell vanity kits and ivory-handled walking canes. Prada faced the not-insignificant task of dusting off her family’s staid, if stately, name, and redefining it for the modern era. Thrust into her new role as a businesswoman, the introspective young woman met her match when she met Patrizio Bertelli, a headstrong Tuscan leather-goods manufacturer who had his own factory. Bertelli, who eventually became her husband, shared his thoughts on ways to improve the Prada company, becoming a mentor of sorts. “I was searching for my direction,” Prada later told Forbes.“When I met Patrizio, Prada started in a more serious way.”
With Bertelli’s business-shark brain and Prada’s prescience for what the public didn’t yet know it craved, the brand’s revival wasn’t long in coming. The surprise product that set everything in motion was an innocuous black backpack, made from the same fine nylon fabric that Prada’s grandfather had used as a protective cover on his steamer trunks (and the Italian Army had used for parachutes). It was from these same trunks that Prada borrowed what would become the ultimate status symbol of the nineties: a metal tag in the shape of an inverted triangle, bearing the company’s name in small capital letters. By mid-decade, the chic, stealth-status bags were seen slung over every fashionista’s shoulder—and knockoffs hung by the dozen from street-corner stands around the world.
Ready to wear had been launched in 1989, and as the company’s fortunes rose in the nineties, Prada began to establish herself as a talented clothing designer—in fact,the one to watch. When she took the backpack fabric and used it for her spring 1995 collection, nylon became the byword of fashion-forward cool. But by the time it surfaced on other designers’ runways, she had moved on to double-faced cashmere and stretchy ski fabric. To this day, innovations in fabric—which Prada develops herself—are one of the brand’s hallmarks. Each season, the designer’s unusual color combinations are borrowed by others as the palette du jour, and Prada fans can’t get enough of her distinctive prints, clamoring for mischievous kittens, souvenir-postcard scenes, and lipstick kisses.
As the critics swooned over Prada’s appliquéd Mary Janes, chic Bowling Bag, and fur tippets, Bertelli embarked on an aggressive plan of expansion, training his focus on brand development and acquisitions. At various points, Gucci, Fendi, Azzedine Alaïa, Helmut Lang, and Jil Sander were held in part or in total by the Prada Group. (Today, the Italian driving-moccasin brand Car Shoe and the British brogue-maker Church’s are among the Prada Group’s high-performing brands). In 1992, a superpopular sister line, Miu Miu, made its debut. Bearing Miuccia’s own nickname, the younger, quirkier label was based, according to its creator, on “the bad girls I knew at school, the ones I envied.” The leisure line Prada Linea Rossa (“red line”) soon followed, as did skincare and fragrance.
Thanks to multiple revenue streams and runaway sales growth, Prada’s signature pale-green stores popped up like mushrooms across the globe, with flagships from Old Bond Street to Rodeo Drive. Several of the stores are architecturally important, designed by leading designers: Rem Koolhaas did the much-hyped SoHo, New York, outpost; the Swiss team of Herzog & de Meuron was behind the diamond-paned Tokyo building. Prada has a deep interest in contemporary art; it steadily informs her work, and the Prada Foundation has commissioned performance pieces, sculptures, and films from some of the most influential artists of the day.
One never knows what new innovation or must-have item she’ll put out next—fairies, lace, creepers, and cheeky monkey-and-banana prints were all the rage at one point—but one thing is clear: All eyes remain fixed on fashion’s premier trend trailblazer. “Why is Prada so fashionable?” she once mused. “I don’t know. Ask someone else. All I do is design it.”