It's hard to believe it was only nine years ago when Uma Thurman floated into the Oscars in that ethereal lavender gown, the moment that bought Prada to the public consciousness in a way only the red carpet can. Since then, Miuccia Prada has become the most-watched designer working in fashion today. The nylon status backpack, the bowling bag, the luxe fur-trimmed parka, the postcard-print circle skirt and the jeweled moccasin are just a few of the trends she has created over the years. And unlike many of her contemporaries, she did it without the design legacy of a historical clothing house to inspire her.
Los Angeles knows Prada. But she does not know Los Angeles so well, apart from stopping here with her family on California vacations, during which they've toured the state's natural parks and cruised Highway 1. But her new "epicenter" store opening Friday on Rodeo Drive is designed to change all that.
She hopes the space will provide an opportunity for her to get to know the city better, and for the city to get to know itself. That is the concept of an "epicenter," she says. It's a place from which ideas can spread -- ideas not only about fashion but about architecture, art and philosophy too. Designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren, the store is, of course, filled with the latest Prada must-haves. But it will also be a forum for public events such as tonight's VIP dinner and a platform for artists (computer screens hidden between the racks of clothing are one form of display for images and words).
In town this week from Milan, Prada appears atop the store's dramatic dark wood staircase and navigates her way down between the pairs of lust-worthy crystal-studded stilettos clustered on the steps. In her 50s, the designer has a handsome face, a mothering quality and a real-woman figure. She is dressed in a creamy beige leather skirt dotted with nickel-size mirrors, a gray short-sleeve sweater, sparkly black slides with bows on top and a green feather headband, just a typical workday outfit in the Prada universe. On her earlobes is some serious ice -- dangling diamond vines.
As she sits down amid more sparkle, emanating from the jeweled clasps of impossibly decadent crocodile purses arranged next to red train cases and fur pillows, it's evident that Mrs. Prada, as she is known to her employees, is going to be difficult to reach. She is friendly but guarded, and seems to resist answering certain questions because her complicated opinions would be too difficult to express in English, and they wouldn't lend themselves to sound bites.
The notion of a Prada epicenter began in New York, when Koolhaas designed a similarly bold space on the site of the former Guggenheim Museum in SoHo. The significance of the location created pressure to do something interesting. "It couldn't just be a nice display for objects and clothes but not make any statement about architecture," she says. "It had to be a place for special events, and to address the problem of a company becoming big and wanting to stay small and sophisticated -- all the contradictions that come with wanting to grow."
That store opened in December 2001, helping to rekindle life downtown post-Sept. 11. "Everyone thought we were crazy. The mayor came to the opening because it was a big effort and a big risk, a risk that has paid off." Another epicenter, designed by the Tate Modern's Swiss architects, Herzog & de Meuron, opened in Tokyo's Aoyama district in June 2003.
The epicenters are antithetical to the 1990s idea that a successful luxury brand must have identical stores around the globe. "That kind of flat identity was wrong," the designer says. Consumers crave new experiences when they travel, she explains, and the epicenters carry special, individualized merchandise. "Even though they are big stores, they work like little boutiques. I don't have to go through the bureaucracy. If I have something in mind, I just do it and send it. It's naive and a lot of fun. And quite often, things in these stores end up later in my collections."
Contradictions are at the core of all of Prada's creative activities, and she relishes talking about them. "One thing is not true without the opposite," she says. "Luxury is only luxury when it's in direct opposite to a lack of sophistication." There are also many contradictions in what women want to wear. "You want to be beautiful, but you also want to be clever; you want to be practical, but you also want to be free. To explore these complications is not only what I like, it's what I think because I see so many contradictions in reality. It is the problem of surviving in this complicated world."
Contradictions are inherent in Prada's intensely coveted, pretty-ugly designs: a status bag made of industrial nylon; a feminine pleated skirt worn with mannish oxford shoes; coats with Old World, couture-like embellishment that are screen-printed with futuristic, computer-generated landscapes.