Miuccia Prada's Terrible Secret

Our final except from "Deluxe," Newsweek culture and fashion writer Dana Thomas' look at how the luxury market went mass market, finds Thomas on a visit to the headquarters of Prada, where she interviews a reluctant Miuccia Prada. "Deluxe," published by The Penguin Press, arrives August 16th.

It's hard to tell from the outside of the Milan-based headquarters that Prada is one of the world's most successful luxury brands... You enter Prada through an anonymous portal-like oak door—there is no name, no plaque, nothing—and are greeted by a security guard dressed in gray. Everything is gray: the security office, the cobblestone courtyard, the various factory-like buildings surrounding it, and many of the cars parked in it. The only thing that gives the place away is the guard's uniform: it is not the typical formless security garb but tailored Prada with its stark—some would say neofascist—lines....

I was taken to a room I had read about often. It is officially Miuccia Prada's office, and it is as stark and contrived as her designs: poured concrete, a slew of orange and yellow molded plastic Eames chairs; and, sticking up in the center of the floor, a metal tube slide—by artist Carsten Holler—that runs three floors down to the parking lot and is titled The Slide No. 5. Prada has whizzed down it when asked to by reporters.

Prada entered the room as if it were her salon and she had been ushered in by her trusted butler rather than her communications director. This was a woman who had been raised in haute bourgeois society, with servants and grandeur and politesse. Unlike her competitor Donatella Versace, who so obviously came from nothing, Prada's airs are not airs at all: her snobbery is in her bones.

[...]

Her grandfather Mario Prada came from a family of civil servants. "They must have had money, because they traveled," she said, and Mario soaked in the luxury lifestyles of Europe's upper classes. In 1913 he opened a shop called Fratelli Prada with his brother Martino.... Miuccia Prada told me that, contrary to the oft-recounted tale, Fratelli Prada was not a luggage shop or a "travel company," like Louis Vuitton, but a boutique that specialized in "luxury objects...."

Miuccia said she didn't know how the shop weathered World War I, but it did, and sometime afterward Martino got out of the business. Mario opened a second shop on the nearby Via Manzoni, not far from La Scala. The company survived World War II, too, though Mario did close the Via Manzoni store then for good. After that, Miuccia became vague about family details. She claimed it was because she's not interested in the past, which may be somewhat true: the only thing historically referential in her designs is the little enamel triangle label, which is based on her grandfather's trunk labels. Her reticence could stem in part from her traditional upbringing. But I felt that there was a bit of mystery, something the family—or at least Miuccia—was hiding. When I pressed her on it, she bristled and answered hesitantly, if at all. What she wouldn't tell me, I discovered from sources close to Prada.

Mario married a woman named Fernanda—Miuccia wouldn't tell me her name, and they had two daughters, one being Luisia, Miuccia's mother. (Miuccia wouldn't tell me her aunt's name either.) Sometime in the 1940s, Luisa married a man named Bianchi, "from a wealthy, eccentric family," Miuccia said. She wouldn't tell me anything further about him—if he worked, if he supported the family, if he underwrote the company—except to repeat that he was "eccentric." She wouldn't even tell me his first name. "My mother would be very upset. She would think I've already said too much," Miuccia explained. His name, I later learned, was Luigi, and everyone called him Gino.

The Bianchis had three children, Alberto, Marina, and Maria—who later became known as Miuccia—and they lived in a four-story, late-nineteenth century palazzo on the Corso Porta Romana, where Miuccia, as well as other family members, still resides today. When I asked then why she was Miuccia Bianchi Prada, and not Miuccia Bianchi, she said, "My name is Miuccia Bianchi Prada. Some women keep their names. It's done in Italy." In fact, according to sources at Prada, Miuccia Prada was officially named Maria Bianchi until the late 1980s, when she had her elderly unwed maternal aunt adopt her, thereby officially changing her name to Miuccia Prada.