Prada vs. Prada: Overcoming fashion phobia

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Why are so many women squeamish about fashion?

When new college graduate Andy in the movie "The Devil Wears Prada" shows up for a job interview with the editor of Runway fashion magazine, it's meant to be a sign of high-mindedness that she's never actually read it. Meryl Streep, who portrays the editor, gives Andy a well-deserved dressing down.

Closet fashionistas love their Jimmy Choo shoes just as much as the next woman, but many of us can't seem to get over the bias that equates a love of fashion with a low I.Q. Must we admit to being hooked by the irrational allure that makes a Louis Vuitton handbag of cotton and polyurethane worth $1,500? Isn't the pursuit of fleeting clothing trends a frivolous one?

Miuccia Prada, considered by many to be the brainy women's designer, is no stranger to the love-hate relationship between women and fashion. Despite being one of the most influential designers of her time -- and building Prada into a company with some 1.3 billion euros, or roughly $1.7 billion in 2005 sales -- she has apologized for what she does throughout most of her career.

When I visited Ms. Prada in Milan last week, I asked for her thoughts about women who are ashamed to admit they like fashion -- the ones who will buy Vogue at the airport where no one sees them and claim they bought a Chloe handbag half-price, even if they paid the full $1,300.

Taking a break from her preparations for this week's men's fashion shows in Milan, the Italian designer discussed her 30-year struggle and recent reconciliation with the fashion world.

In public, Ms. Prada is extremely shy. Unlike most designers, who walk the runway after their shows, Ms. Prada peeks her head out from behind the curtains. As we entered her loft-like office -- characterized by a giant decorative slide, created by artist Carsten Holler, that juts out of her floor and plunges through the building to the parking lot -- Ms. Prada asked her communications officer to leave so she could "express herself more freely."

Unleashed, Ms. Prada was a stream of ideas, questions and doubts on the fashion world.

"It's true women often don't want to admit it. And yet fashion enthralls everyone, from the taxi driver to the mega-intellectual."

"Some say it's about seduction, but I think that's limiting," said Ms. Prada, wearing a springy flared skirt and sandals. "What you wear is how you present yourself to the world, especially today, when human contacts are so quick. Fashion is instant language."

Yet when she graduated from university in Milan with a degree in political science, Ms. Prada resisted for several years before joining her grandfather's luggage and leather-goods business in the late 1970s.

"I thought fashion was stupid because I thought there were more intelligent and noble professions, like politics, medicine or science."

Ms. Prada's reticence was tied to the feminist movement of the time. It was around the 1970s, says Elaine Showalter, professor emeritus of English at Princeton University, that women began developing hang-ups about the fashion industry. "It was the sense that you were somehow lowering yourself, though it was very much a pose," she says.

Ms. Prada's ambivalence toward fashion has shone through in collections. For years, she rejected the traditional concept of beauty and urged women to think about sex appeal and femininity in a way that doesn't necessarily involve plunging necklines and corsets.

Ms. Prada has offered uniforms ("you can hide behind them," she explained), dowdy, weird and sometimes downright ugly clothes. In the late 1990s, she stuck chunks of broken glass, mirrors and laminated paper leaves onto leather skirts. "I brought women back to the very basics, to the lowest, ugliest point," she said. Each time her shows struck a chord with both critics and consumers, who snapped up her clothes once they hit stores.

Ms. Prada has come to terms with her profession only of late. "I've recently re-evaluated my job," she said. "I've realized that fashion is a very powerful instrument that ... allows you to transmit ideas and shape opinion."

For those who won't admit to liking fashion, Ms. Prada offers an analogy: "Why aren't people embarrassed to buy beautiful furniture or art for your house? What you wear says more about you than what you put in your home."

Ms. Prada doesn't have a signature style, like Tom Ford's dripping-in-sex-appeal look or Valentino Garavani's Oscar-night elegance. But her attitude is clear: I think therefore I wear.

That's why she scoffs at those who fall victim to logos instead of developing their own styles. "Buying a $5,000 handbag just because it's a status symbol is a sign of weakness," Ms. Prada said. "Daring to wear something different takes effort. And being elegant isn't easy. You have to study it, like cuisine, music and art."

But who is to blame for the mindless acceptance of fashion trends, the fashion industry or the consumer? The boom of accessories in the 1990s, for example, happened after fashion houses ramped up their handbag lines to increase sales and profitability. And Prada led the way: The brand's black nylon backpacks became a cult product around the world. Accessories generally have higher margins than clothes, which are more subject to seasonal trends.

On the back of the success of the Prada brand, Ms. Prada and her husband, Patrizio Bertelli, who is CEO of the company, have built Prada into a luxury-goods giant. While the group also owns brands including Miu Miu, Azzedine Alaia and shoemaker Church's, the Prada label generates the bulk of the group's sales and profits. Shedding underperforming brands -- Jil Sander and Helmut Lang -- has allowed it to focus on its stronger labels like Prada. Next year, the company, which is 5 percent owned by an Italian bank, plans to revive shelved plans to seek a stock-market listing in a bid to finance further expansion around the world.

Ms. Prada is pragmatic about the choices she and her husband have made. "You have to do this to live as a company," she said.

The size and influence of her label has also allowed Ms. Prada to nurture other interests. Among them is the Prada Foundation, which displays works of contemporary artists, and ventures with architects including Rem Koolhas, who designed the Prada store in New York's Soho.

Ms. Prada's reconciliation with her career is trickling down to her clothes. For her spring/summer 2007 line, she draped her models in gem-bright satin turbans as a sign of the powerful woman. By always pushing the envelope, Ms. Prada has repeatedly set trends not only for women who can drop $800 on a beaded Prada skirt, but also for shoppers who can't afford such prices and reach for a piece of the designer's vision by buying a distant replica at stores like Zara and H&M at an eighth of the price.

And next season?

The designer who once courted the ungainly, now says, "I want to reintroduce the concept of beauty -- a new sense of beauty."



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