The journalist used to the Gatwick Express and EasyJet, delivery into the lavish embrace of Prada is somewhat disconcerting. “I could get used to this,” you think, even as you worry that your shoes are all wrong, that your bag will fool no one, being neither new season nor vintage. At the 18th-century palazzo of the Fondazione Prada (its address is Ca’ Corner della Regina, though only rarely does anyone seem to use it) on the Grand Canal in Venice, no fewer than four black-suited young men are on hand to greet me: one to help me from water taxi to jetty, another to spirit away my luggage, and two merely to smile at me. “Please,” says a PR, leading me through the palazzo’s exquisite rooms (since 2011, these heavenly spaces have been used by the Fondazione Prada to display art). “Do go upstairs, where a buffet lunch will be served.” A buffet? Well, yes, the food is indeed arranged on a table. But when I approach a dish of gleaming asparagus – it’s so perfect, it might as well be by Manet – a waiter practically dives into my lap. If I’d like to sit down, he will bring me everything that I require. It is the first week of the Venice Biennale. This lunch, doubtless one of dozens of similar gatherings around the city, is to celebrate the opening of Portable Classic, a new show at the palazzo which explores the miniature copies of classical sculptures that were such status symbols in later centuries. Needless to say, it’s a hot ticket. Who doesn’t want to be close to Miuccia Prada, an increasingly powerful figure in the art world?
Loitering, glass in hand, at one end of the room, I spot plenty of big names, Anish Kapoor and Carsten Höller among them – though it’s only when I clap eyes on Hans Ulrich Obrist, the itinerant and irredeemably well-connected curator and co-director of the Serpentine Gallery in London, that I know this is really the place to be. Obrist, of course, is already deep in conversation with our hostess, Mrs Prada – everyone calls her Mrs Prada, even those who have worked with her for decades – who slipped into the palazzo without fanfare a little earlier, and for a while I watch the two of them. While he is animated, arms windmilling wildly, Prada cuts an altogether quieter figure. Small and (unexpectedly) blond, she is wearing a white cotton dress with a pleated skirt. In her hand is a silk drawstring bag. In her ears are antique garnets or, more likely, rubies. On her feet are the kind of flat sandals, navy and white, that your granny wore at the seaside.
Two hours later, as the lunch is winding down and the diamonds and Chanel bags begin to exit the room, Prada approaches me and asks if I wouldn’t mind if we talked here, at one of the dining tables. It seems she has not yet had a chance to eat pudding and, sure enough, a waiter now puts in front of her a dish of panna cotta and roast peaches, an espresso (which she sends back, on the grounds that it is not hot enough) and some sugary biscuits. She eats quickly and greedily, and thanks to this, I warm to her – though it’s her face that really invites you in. Tanned as a nut, she wears no makeup, not even a slick of balm on her lips, while her expression is set somewhere between sombre and quizzical. It’s clear immediately that she couldn’t care less what I’m wearing; her eyes coolly meet mine, and never wander, not even to my (long-pondered and moderately daring) brooch. It’s as if she’s about to give me a tutorial. In her home city of Milan, the Fondazione Prada has just opened a vast “campus” for art on the site of an old distillery close to a railway line. I saw it the day before, and gasped at its size, its ambition, its severe industrial minimalism (even the children’s play area is grey and white). At 19,000 square metres, its collection of exhibition spaces – one is several storeys high and called the Haunted House, another is a grotto deep underground – is twice the size of Renzo Piano’s new Whitney museum in New York, and at least three times as elegant. Designed by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, and filled mostly with work from the permanent collection of the Fondazione Prada, it has been received with some rapture by the critics, and with some gratitude by the Milanese, who will doubtless continue to make good use of its retro cafe – a 50s fantasy in green vinyl designed by the film director Wes Anderson – irrespective of whether they ultimately fall for the charms of Damien Hirst’s Lost Love (a gynaecologist’s chair in a large aquarium the artist made in 2000) or Nathalie Djurberg’s The Potato (a walk-in fibreglass tuber complete with purplish eyes that dates from 2008).
But is the woman who conceived it triumphant, over the moon, high on a combination of acclaim and relief? No, she is not. Only with the greatest reluctance, it seems, would Prada ever describe herself as pleased. “I’m always thinking about the next thing,” she says, her mouth turning down. “So I don’t enjoy anything.” But it’s so generous, her city of a gallery, with its square, its library, its cinema (visitors will be able to spend the day there for €10). She shrugs. “Well, I don’t feel generous. The result is maybe generous, but I didn’t start with that. I started with an idea, which was to do something that I think is important and relevant. I wanted to make culture attractive to the young [so that they would see] that it is necessary to your life. My intuition – and after many years, I realise that my main quality is intuition – was that it would be good to have a place where people could live with ideas.” Culture, she insists, must come to be perceived not as an extra, as a form of “decoration”, but as deeply useful. In what way useful? “It can answer political and even existential questions.”
She and her husband, Patrizio Bertelli, the chief executive of Prada, established the Fondazione Prada in 1993, and it was only after this, she says, that they began buying art. “We had to learn, and quickly. Until that moment, my cultural background was in literature, politics, cinema, theatre and dance. Art? I was never interested in it.” So who did they buy first? “Nino Franchina [the Italian sculptor and painter] was probably the first… ” She grimaces. “You know, you look and you study and you like it and you appreciate it and eventually you buy it. That’s not very noble, the buying part, but I have to confess it. I grew up with the idea that art is for everybody and not a matter of private ownership, but sometimes you want to have it.”
Happily, she finds she’s now less interested in buying than before: when I tell her, for instance, that the loveliest things I saw during my visit were the two boxes by the American artist Joseph Cornell displayed in a 15th-century marquetry studiolo-cum-sideboard, her reply is unsentimental. “I’d always liked Cornell, but I bought those because I wanted to have something to put into the studiolo,” she says.
Her resistance to – or embarrassment about – the concept of ownership extends to the word “collector”: she and Bertelli may own some 900 pieces of contemporary and modern art, but she flinches if you use the term in her presence. “I hate the idea of being a collector,” she says. “I really hate it. I’m not a collector.” Nor is she willing to be described as a patron, for all that she is well known for commissioning artists (no interview with Prada is complete without mention of the Carsten Höller slide by which she may, if she so chooses, depart her office at night). “As much as I don’t feel like a collector, I’m even less a patron. I am and want to be an active part of shaping culture, but I am patronising nothing. I hate all of that. I don’t want to be perceived like that, which is why we never sponsor exhibitions.” So what is she, then? “When I started becoming friends with the artists, there was a shift. It was like sharing personal problems.”
Crikey. Building galleries and commissioning work is some way to share personal problems, not least because, however she likes to describe it, it brings with it such responsibilities: she has it in her power not only to make or break a career, but to influence the market. Does this ever make her anxious? “I can’t speak about the market,” she says. “But it is a problem in every field: the hunger for the new. In fashion, everyone wants a genius, and in another few days, they want another. It’s really bad. The problem is that people think an artist has only one great period. But we all live longer now: an artist can have a comeback.”
Prada and Bertelli have always strived to keep their fashion business and their interest in art quite separate. I think this has to do with their fear of vulgarity. They would hate anyone to think the Fondazione Prada was simply another, albeit more esoteric, way of selling handbags. But even so, the two realms must influence each other. How could they not? She smiles. “Yes. I prefer that they don’t in principle. But of course they do. I’m very proud of my job [as a designer]. I used to be ashamed of it because I was educated, I was a feminist. But finally, I am proud of it. I earn my own money, which is a huge thing for a woman. The speed of fashion has taught me so much, and it’s a very open world by its nature. Movies, music: we need culture for our job. This speed is useful in the art world, and for sure the art world is useful in my job. It’s such an obvious collaboration, and deep down my life is one. Every man and woman wants to dress well. That’s how they express themselves.”
She can’t believe the snobbery that exists around fashion. “It’s an injustice,” she says. But isn’t it the case that some people also take it far too seriously? It’s only frocks, after all. For a moment, she is silent. Perhaps I’ve offended her. But then she breaks into laughter. “Actually, I don’t care,” she says. “I really don’t care at all!”
In Milan, I went on a pilgrimage – or at least a research trip – to the original Fratelli Prada store in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, which Miuccia’s grandfather, Mario, opened in 1913. Mario made travel goods for the Milanese elite: in 1918, his collection included a lizard bag with marcasite and a buckle of lapis lazuli. But the chief object of interest in his shop’s hallowed windows was not a trunk or even a bag, but a socking great pair of sunglasses made of wood and leather and bolted together with metal staples. Bulky and unwearable, I almost laughed out loud when I saw them. They were so hideous, and yet I longed for them, an unnerving kind of covetousness that Prada has been inducing in customers and window shoppers alike since the early 90s (she inherited the business in 1978, but did not begin making clothes until a decade later). As Giorgio Armani has occasionally complained, her designs are “sometimes ugly”. Nevertheless, in her hands, such “bad taste” is chic. According to Forbes, Prada’s annual sales currently stand at $4.65bn.
She took over at Prada reluctantly. Fashion, business: these weren’t her things at all.
Having earned a doctorate in political science from the University of Milan, in the mid-70s she studied mime at the city’s Piccolo Teatro under the legendary director Giorgio Strehler; she also joined the communist party, whose leaflets she is said to have distributed while wearing Yves Saint Laurent. Even now, she insists it was only thanks to Patrizio – the couple met at a trade fair; at the time, he also had a leather goods business – that she moved from bags into clothes (he told her that if she didn’t do it, he would have to bring in a professional to design a collection). “I really have no idea where it [her determination] comes from,” she says. “Someone once said to me: Miuccia, you are a monster of ambition. But it’s not that. My best quality is my instinct. When people ask: ‘Are you happy it turned out like this?’ I say: ‘Bah! I don’t know. I never had a goal.’ I act and I react. I have a special guide inside me.”
Does she ever doubt her instincts? “So far, I trust it.” Only once has she sent out a collection and thought: uh-oh. “It was many years ago, my third show. I invented vintage. Now, vintage is normal. But then, it wasn’t. WWD [Women’s Wear Daily, the industry bible] wrote that it was like the Flintstones meets the Jacksons, which to them was the biggest insult, but to me was the biggest compliment. Anyway, it was completely unsuccessful.”
Her success, like so many things about her, is paradoxical. “I was never classical enough for the classicists, and never avant-garde enough for the avant-garde. It was always uncomfortable, I always did something wrong.” But she pressed on, and in the end, it was this very wrongness – oh, those ridiculous wooden sunglasses – that came to be acclaimed.
Prada is 66, but she can’t ever see herself giving up fashion; not even the art world could lure her away. “My work keeps me grounded. It’s the place where I really know what people want. Of course, it’s more complicated now. Before, the world was small. Until the 80s, it was mainly white and western and Eurocentric. Now, you have to face the big picture. It’s globalised.” At the Fondazione Prada in Milan, there will soon be a dance programme, and its choreographer would like those who take part to perform naked. “And this is the Hebdo and Houellebecq problem. How can you insist on your own culture if you want to open up to the world? You have to start a kind of censorship. You must compromise. The political correctness of today – in the US, you can’t even show a nipple – I feel very deeply. People take offence so quickly. But if you believe in coexistence, you may have to give up something that’s yours. If you don’t, you may end up back in medieval times.”