Prada. The name expresses a legendary sense of prestige akin to those commanded by Ivy League institutions, or the Big Four metal bands. It is a name that demands the question: what do we talk about when we talk about Prada? And why haven’t we been talking about this Italian label of late?
You could list their iconic collections, from the early 90s where the silk and cashmere Prada runway looks shaped the fashion of a modern European woman. Perhaps inch forward a tad, and look to the early 2000s, where the Prada bowling bag and nylon backpacks were the cult bags of the epoch. You saw the triangular emblem everywhere in town, maybe even lusted after one.
The genesis of the Vela backpack craze began in 1985, where Miuccia Prada upgraded the school staple into a functional carry-all with Pocone nylon and the signature Prada logo. What demarcated this backpack from other designer offerings of the period was its petite size and light weight, akin to a purse but with the added convenience of being stylishly hands-free. Popularised by Jerry Hall and other 80s superstars, the Vela backpack became the rocket that shot Prada to designer fame.
The woman responsible for this innovative rocket was head designer Miuccia Prada. Born Maria Bianchi, she has worked on with the brand since the 80s, launching the first successful ready-to-wear womenswear line in 1989. Prada also established Miu Miu, a sister line to the Prada behemoth.
More about Miu Miu
In an interview with Business of Fashion, Miuccia explains the key distinction between her two labels: “Miu Miu is not as complicated and thought out as Prada. Rather than being young, Miu Miu is immediate. Prada is very sophisticated and considered; Miu Miu is much more naïve. The solution, when I am working on Miu Miu, has to come immediately, instinctively, spontaneously with whatever is available at the moment.”
This immediacy in design led Miu Miu to equal success younger, contemporary women, a veneration incited by their 1996 runway. Challenging notions of feminine beauty, Miuccia set models down the runway in colours that find home on the top of unfortunate colour lists, like sludge brown and avocado green, coupled with clashing prints. Termed as an exploration of “the good taste of bad taste”, the runway witnessed silhouettes that championed geek-chic working-girl vibes with the barest hint of mod sensibilities. The collection created a solid legacy, thanks to its bold statement about power and sensuality from within.
Trends come and go, and Prada had their fair share of spearheading what was in vogue throughout the 00s, from colour blocking to thick buckled shoes. Sister brand Miu Miu continued to contribute, clearing a path down Milan Fashion Week with kitschy detachable collars and wooden clogs as many other labels struggled to keep up. Together with husband and co-CEO Patrizio Bertelli, Miuccia Prada became the frontier of luxurious, outré fashion, synonymous with constant reinvention.
Prada’s key moneymaker has consistently been their leather goods, in particular, the bags, which account for nearly three-quarters of the brand’s bottom line profits. The Saffiano leather handbag is one that has earned the unshakeable status of a timeless icon. Since the late ’80s, the Saffiano bag has undergone various permutations in size and colour, still remaining on their site today. Clean lines and a stiff, structured form aren’t just definitive of the classic tote, but it is a blueprint that has carried itself throughout most of Prada’s other, newer bags, leaving consumers like Amanda Mull of luxury handbag bible, Purse Blog, wondering if there is anything left to motivate luxury consumers aside from “dozens of colours of Saffiano leather”.
It isn’t just the homogeneity in Prada’s handbags. If we try to locate the label in the Venn diagram of fashion’s biggest trends of the moment, where do they fit in? They used to be the frontier of outlandish looks, but has that been stifled by larger-than-life fashion being churned out the renaissance of brands like Gucci and Fendi? Prada’s quirky banana prints and fur soles of 2013 appear to pale in comparison.
Trying to place them within athleisure is also a massive miss. How about metallic details? Velvet? Punk remixed? Embellished straps? Prada, with its FW ’16 collection of military-inspired silhouettes and Christopher Chemin’s surreal baroque prints feels strangely amiss from the fruitful chaos, like a tired giant resting on the outskirts with no inkling of rising anytime soon.
Even the upcoming SS’17 lines hinted little at progress, with Miuccia stripping Prada back to its early days, with Art Deco graphic prints and soft, flapper girl silhouettes and Clueless-esque checkered blazers. Beautiful construction non-withstanding, the looks that wafted down the runway were much too recognisable to be anything revolutionary.
It is this distance from succumbing to momentary trends that may become the proverbial dagger in Prada’s own back.
Prada falling prey to their (conscious or otherwise) rejection of fashion transitory nature isn’t just mere speculation. The numbers reflect the reality. According to Prada’s annual financial report, 2015 saw Prada’s same-store sales declined 12 percent in the third quarter of 2015, further dipping 9 percent in the last quarter. They sustained a nine-month decline, with a net profit of US$427.8 million, a significant dip from the US$582 million trove in 2013.
Combined with their costly retail spaces and expansion plans, Prada has constantly been playing a catch-up game in a world that is less magnetised by a brand name than fresh designs that bear resemblance to what’s of the moment. The lack of online presence for the brand could have been another factor, given that the brand only established its cross-platform online shopping presence on sites like Net-A-Porter in July this year.
In a response to their frail digital presence and dipping sales, Chairman Carolo Mazzi declared to the Wall Street Journal that “we’re now setting a target of doubling online sales every year for the next three years.” These efforts are to be launched in China, Hong Kong and Singapore by the end of 2017.
Though exclusivity has always been the cornerstone of Prada’s luxury goods appeal, this slight resistance to current shopping methods may be crippling for a brand that ought to woo younger customers to survive.
Head honcho Miuccia Prada has always been a creative driving force, and a stronghold behind fashion’s exciting evolutions. Even as Prada’s latest collections have swerved past hitting the trendy bulls-eye, there are still pieces that hint towards greater potential, should she choose to flex her design muscles a tad harder — like the chic meta-book bag charms worn as necklaces for the FW’16 runway.
Perhaps it is only with a greater determination to bolster their digital presence, and eschewing a retrospective approach to designing for future runways will Prada smash their way out of the box they’ve built. Given Miuccia Prada’s capabilities, it might not be too little done, too late just yet.