Friday, June 1, 2012

Caryl addresses: Miuccia Prada and Her 7 Elements of Style

Miuccia Prada may be the most influential designer in the world today but she readily admits her own ambivalence about fashion. At 63 with a PhD in political science, she is the ultimate fashion insiders’ outsider: smart, fearless and iconoclastic. She grew up in Milan—she still lives in her childhood apartment, though she has another one for her clothes—and reluctantly took over her grandfather’s failing luggage business at age 39. Over the last few decades, she and her husband Patricio Bertinelli have turned the company into a multi-billion dollar global brand. Prada—the label-- is currently enjoying a robust second life, like the woman who shares its name.

Currently, Miuccia Prada is the living half of a new show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute: Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations. The exhibit juxtaposes the clothes and careers of the two Italian designers from two distinct eras, interspersing their world views. When my older daughter and I saw the show in mid-May, I encountered this quote from Prada and felt the stirrings of another girl-crushWomen always try to tame themselves as they get older, but the ones who look best are often a bit wilder. Thinking about age all the time is the biggest prison women can make for themselves.

Miuccia Prada                                            Elsa Schiaparelli
Prada’s designs are classic, cool, cutting edge and, surprisingly, comfortable. In my own wardrobe I have a black safari jacket that has seen many miles and a few war zones and a pair of patent leather pumps that have been guests at weddings, graduations and an occasional ladies' lunch. Both I bought at substantial discount at Century 21. I once owned a pair of Prada driving loafers bought full price at Bergdorf Goodman’s, and they were worth every cent. (As a former cub reporter at Footwear News, I can assure you Prada has one of the best’s shoe lasts for women our—actually any-- age.) That's the extent of my Prada collection.

Even if you can’t afford Prada, you can get the look by studying the designer’s elements of style and understanding her underlying philosophy. “I don’t care what makes a woman desirable to men,” she once said, “(I care) what makes a woman desirable to herself.” It has been said that Prada designs for herself both physically--she has a womanly torso and slender legs--and intellectually (she’s a long-time feminist and one-time Communist.) The result is a ladylike look with the air of a woman: beauty and strength combined.

Here, then, are Miuccia’s Prada elements of style for feminine dressing with a feminist twist.

1. Skirts, skirts and more skirts: Prada’s skirts are distinctly post-modern and the undisputed foundation of her collections. The fabrics range from traditional wools and silks to sequins and feathers. The lower half of female body is all about “birth and sex,” according to Prada, who is the mother of two grown sons.

2. Classic sweaters and mannish shirts: For the upper half of a woman’s torso which Prada describes as “spiritual," she prefers traditional tops: turtlenecks and v-necks sweaters, shirts in pin-stripes or with Peter Pan collars.   She favors what might be called mother superior chic—perhaps a reaction to her strict Catholic upbringing. She once said: “I’m always happiest when I dress almost like a nun. It makes you feel so relaxed.”

3. House dresses: For her wedding in l978, Prada wore a cotton dress in army gray with a man’s camel overcoat. Thoughout her 20s, she mostly wore YSL but in her bohemian days she favored thrift shop vintage dresses with high-heels. Today, she often wears shirt dresses or a simple shift.

4. Coats and shawls: There is something modest about her choices in outerwear. She is often fully-covered, her breasts obscured. “I have nothing against super-sexual fashion. What I am against is becoming a victim of it." The shawl too is a wardrobe staple in artisanal weaves or slinky fur.

5. Serious accessories: You expected something else from the daughter of a well-heeled, upperclass Milanese family whose family business was luxury leather goods? “I also struggled instinctively against the cliché of a beautiful, rich woman. I have nothing against a beautiful, rich woman—just the cliché of it.” In her own cliché-busting style, she’ll wear mink with workmanlike trousers, slippers with an evening gown but her jewels are generally real and often antique. “One of the reasons I like antique jewelry is that I like to live the lives of other women,” she says.

6. Big shoes:  The footwear in Prada collections are often architectural triumphs, sculptural feats. Prada shoes are bold, never shy. Prada herself likes to wear platforms, wedges and sexy pumps.

7. A touch of  whimsy, a dash of outrage: Berets, head bands,  banana earrings, even a rock star leather jacket with a  silver mylar skirt. These eccentric choices Prada pulls off with aplomb. 
There’s no doubt that the clothes Prada conceives—she neither sews nor sketches-- are the product of her instincts and intelligence and, to some degree, a perverse arrogance “Brown is a color no one likes so of course I like it because it’s difficult.” Not just any hue of brown, her choice has been described as the color of a swamp. 

 Like the woman herself,  her collections are filled with contradictions. She is the original joile laide of au couture. (Translation: pretty/ugly) Under her tough skin, however, beats a soft heart. “When I design and wonder what the point is, I think of someone having a bad time in their life,” she recalled in a rare interview. “Maybe they are sad, and they wake up and put on something I have made and it makes me feel just a bit better. So, in that sense, fashion is a little help in the life of a person.” 

Miuccia Prada is the second style icon for Second Lives Club.


  1. Thank you for this beautifully-observed post; I'm linking to it. I don't find Prada "jolie laide", to me, she is a strong, beautiful woman who has refused the strenuously-styled trying-to-look young look. She also looks European; hers is not the typical North American sensibility.

    1. I agree. I meant to suggest that her clothes were 'jolie laide". Maybe I should stick with Strunk and White and avoid foreign phrases. I really appreciate
      your linking to the post. While researching Prada, I gained a new appreciation
      for her style--and her influence. I have to admit I have been wearing more skirts in the last few days. BTW, you're in Montreal, not Toronto, right? I am heading there next week for my daughter's birthday and to see "Einstein On The Beach."

    2. Yes, I live in Montreal now, but will be visiting Toronto briefly next week. Enjoy the performance; it is not at the gorgeous new Four Seasons Centre but acoustics should be OK at Sony Centre.

  2. As a big fan of skirts, I drooled over each one you featured in your Prada piece. With her shapely legs, Ms.Prada does her line proud. Enjoyed this post immensely.

  3. I am glad you liked the post. And you yourself wear skirts pretty well.
    I like when you mix one with a fun t-shirt from your travels. It really
    works. You have your own sense of whimsy. I'm waiting to see the
    outrage, though.

  4. Hi Caryl: I love the quote you chose by Miuccia. Do you mind if I borrow it from you?

    Why didn't I see this show while I was at the Met? Foolish me!

    1. Hi Georgia,

      Please borrow the words: they are Miuccia's, not mine. Actually, you
      were the reason my daughter and I went to the Met. Your visit there
      inspired ours--and when the exhibit we wanted to see-Renaissance
      Portraits--was already closed we fell into the Custom Institute exhibit .
      What an unexpected pleasure! Come back and see it before it closes
      in August.

  5.'ve opened my eyes and mind! Never paid much attention to her and her work, but now that I know more, I see more, and understand more. Thanks!

    1. You've made my day. I completely over-researched Prada and her designs.
      I looked at hundreds of photos and many articles (though she is supposedly shy and doesn't give many interviews so not so many quotes). I asked myself what was I doing, everybody knows Prada, what could I possibly add?

      I am going to adopt your words as my monthly
      mantra: know more, see more, understand more. Thank you so much.

  6. Just found your blog's wonderful.
    I adore Miuccia Prada such an amazingly talented lady...the portrait photograph of her is the best I have seen.

    1. So glad you stopped by our clubhouse. I too was enchanted with the
      portrait of Miuccia, especially wearing such simple clothes. One of
      the first companies in the US to knock off her designs was J. Crew:
      the skirts, the v-necks, the shirts. But nothing matches the fabrics
      Signora Prada uses in her own collections--and I know you know
      something about fabrics yourself, Catherine.

  7. I enjoyed the exhibit at the Met and remember fondly the Prada obsession when I was designing. I earned a BS in Fashion and it is indeed a science. I always admired how she designed from the bottom up - grounded and rooted.

    1. What an interesting observation: her designs are indeed grounded and rooted.
      But she is not without playfulness; you see more of that quality in
      MiuMiu. I never realized that the name of that label was her childhood
      nickname. Doesn't that make you think of her in a whole new way?
      Forget Signora Prada--as her employees call her. She is MiuMiu
      wearing a Catholic school girl outfit like the ones you drew on you
      wonderful blog today.

  8. Fabulous post 2E!! I can go along with almost---almost----everything but the massive clunker shoes which I think are absolutely hideous, not to mention dangerous to my little Anglo ankles. But love the skirts---been wearing them all week after reading this and even got a flouncy one---and the sexy pumps---but not necessarily penis pumps which again are too high for me, and shawls and wraps (more than coats at this point).


    I've mostly outgrown J Crew, but never Target at the best prices on fashionable earth....where I got my chartreuse 3/4 sweater I wear everywhere.

  9. Wishing I had that sweater from Target. I just bought an electric kool-aid orange one from J.Crew but it's still in my suitcase. Not sure I am going to keep it but I am definitely not returning my paisley skirt that I bought the same day. Aren't skirts liberating? And therein is the message: To be liberated you don't need to ape men-put the pants back in his side of the closet--just celebrate our gender's sartorial choices. And, boy, are skirts cooler here in this Toronto heat.

  10. Excellent post. I'm a big fan of Muiccia Prada's personal style, though sadly I can't afford to buy her clothes!

  11. I can't afford her clothes either--except when deeply-discounted. I try to find the look for less--not quite the
    same--and infuse with the spirit of Miu Miu (that was her nickname as a child and her younger line, which I
    also love but is sometimes too out there for me. )

    Hope you had a good vacation. I read your site faithfully.