Too Much Is Never Enough: Snapshots from the Pradasphere

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Prada “a cosmos of its own composed of heavenly bodies set in a complex orbit” has essentially taken over Harrods with its Pradasphere for the entire month of May.

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I returned to the exhibition on Harrod’s fourth floor for a second time to photograph this definitive offering of treasures from a brand whose name has been at the fore front of my fashion consciousness my entire life.

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 “While the designer can appear to change direction from season to season, Pradasphere postulates that the Miuccia Prada’s work, in fact, repeatedly returns to several core concepts: beauty, taste, embellishment, gender, vanity and power. And it is around these recurring themes, rather than traditional fashion seasons, that this novel exhibition is structured.”

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“Welcome to the Pradasphere, a collection of remarkable objects arranged to reveal our complex, often intertwined, obsessions as manifest in everything from fashion and accessories to art, architecture, film and culture,”…”It is also an unabashed celebration of exquisite materiality and craftsmanship, a paean to the rare and the finely wrought, and a whole-hearted endorsement of the stylistic iconoclast.”

“This is less about what the brand DNA is than, these are the obsessions she returns to,” said Michael Rock, the curator of Pradasphere and founding partner and creative director of New York-based design consultancy 2×4, which collaborated with Prada on the experience. Rock calls the project a “natural history of Prada”. “We wanted to, in a way, eschew all the typical divisions of a fashion system.”

The centre of the exhibition features six display cases featuring various pieces of Prada ready-to-wear from the past two decades designed around typologies found throughout Prada’s oeuvre.

Animality: Dressing is a primitive instinct, and so fashion may prey upon the natural world.  Prada’s beastly allusions often take the form of protrusions: a flourish of feathers extending from the back of the neck, a dress made scaly with reptilian pailettes.  Animal prints and fur are referenced and reinvented.  For every irresistible python coat is a dress in shaggy faux fur and plush pieces that juxtapose natural hides and candy colors: a sartorial survival-of-the-fittest.

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Femasculinity: Are power and femininity mutually exclusive or inextricable?  Prada has probed and toyed with – and is occasionally tortured by – the dichotomies of masculine and feminine, hard and soft, audacious and acquiescent.  These power plays may begin with the appropriation of classic men’s styles translated to womenswear.  The results can radicalise an apron, denude a brasserie, or infuse a business suit with sensuality.  This blurring of the sexes thwarts expectations and engenders new questions.

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Continentalism:  ‘Inspiration’ is the bane of the fashion cycle.  Is it incumbent upon the designer to recycle accepted codes of beauty or to reinvent them?  Prada tends to return to the same themes, less as inspiration than as deeply resonant sources of drama, romance and personal obsession.  European history, as it links to politics of dressing from classical times to today, is a recurrent field of investigation.  Traditional beauty – or is it vanity? – is analysed, interrogated, inverted and subverted: an intentional act of estrangement that forces us to reconsider what we think we know.

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Excessivity:  The road from simple shapes to profound concepts is often paved with complex materials – textured, ornamented, and encrusted surfaces that are mesmerising in their opulence.  Are they in exquisite taste, bad taste, or post-taste?  Familiar gestures of excess are deconstructed and reconstructed, and common materials are recast as luxuries, always dissecting the basic formal conundrum: when is too much, not enough?

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Modernity:  What is modernity if not a radical break from tradition?  But ‘modern’ itself – with all its implied pristine minimalism – has acquired a tinge of the antique and the sheen of history.  How can reduction be made exquisite?  For Prada, it’s a matter of maintaining tension between modernity and history, high and low, profundity and cliché.  To be modern is to boldly exist outside of any particular moment while acknowledging the impossibility of such a feat.

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Figuration:  A print is a blatant act of superficiality.  The design floats on the surface, hardly penetrating its textile substrate.  It’s all signification, no substance.  Prada uses print as an overt from of representation: a game of reference and illusion.  A pattern can instantly evoke a bygone era while being entirely of the moment.  Outright deception is often required.  At close range, some moirés, pleats, and camouflage reveal themselves to be computer-generated fakes: the accidental turns out to be the deliberate.

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“As much as I think you see a lot of stylistic variation in her work, I actually think that in terms of the ideas, they are quite consistent,” continued Rock. “Subjects like vanity or power or ambivalence — those are things that you see almost in all of her work.”

“You can work on both levels. You can have this incredible, visceral reaction to it — and the intellectual part of it,” said Rock. “I think that that ability to work on both levels is actually what distinguishes Prada. Because intellectual would sound like the work is somehow dry or uncool or unapproachable, but I think her work is not that at all. It’s beautiful and sensual and sculptural in its own right.”

At the back of the exhibition is the heritage section, which features a selection of items from Prada’s early years way before Miuccia Prada took the helm.

Origins: Prada was established by Mario Prada in 1913 in Milan’s prestigious Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping arcade.  He gained a reputation for his unerring eye and exquisite taste.  He sought out rare and luxurious materials from every corner of the world – fine leather, ivory, silver, tortoise shell- catering to the most discerning customers.  His shop was a treasure trove of precious objects and artifacts of every description.  In 1919, Fratelli Prada became an official supplier to Italy’s royal household and as such earned the right to incorporate the coat of arms and knotted-rope insignia of the House of Savoy into its logo.

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Lizard skin stamp holders

Lizard skin stamp holders

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I was told the little red jars were used to hold leather polish.

I was told the little red jars were used to hold leather polish.

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This interview with Michael Rock was featured in AnOther magazine:

What inspired Pradasphere?

We had been thinking about a ‘scientific’ approach to display Prada. Could we combine the sensuous and the rigorous? We were also inspired by the context. The department store is all about taxonomy: everything has its place. And a department store the size of Harrods is compelling as it functions almost as a museum of shopping. We conceived of Pradasphere then as a museum within a museum.

How would you describe the affect that Miuccia Prada has had on fashion?

The thing I find most remarkable about Prada’s work is the way she very delicately toggles between pleasure and intelligence. I often compare her to Hitchcock: an artist that makes massively entertaining work that also manages to be formally and critically compelling. The work is undeniably sensual but still engages critical cultural issues inherent in working with the (female) body in such a direct way. You get a sense she is involved in an on-going aesthetic investigation and the medium of that investigation is fashion. I think that’s what makes her work so interesting and fun to write about because it’s not based in market research, it’s based in ideas.

Along the wall of the exhibition are cabinets labelled “Specimens” which showcase the vast array of accessories produced during Miuccia’s reign at Prada:

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On the opposing wall of the Pradasphere is a “history wall” that features video displays chronicling Prada’s timeline, including its founding by Mario Prada in 1913 through to Muiccia Prada’s first ready-to-wear collection in 1988, ad campaigns, and brings to life the various side projects Prada is involved in including its patronage of art, architecture, and filmmaking through the Fondazione Prada.

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A scale model of the new headquarters for the Fondazione Prada is also on display at the exhibition.

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Evolution: Largo Isarco

Construction is underway on the new headquarters for the Fondazione Prada, an organization conceived by Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli.  The Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) has been commissioned to transform an early 20th-century industrial site, Largo Isarco, into new experimental spaces that will both broaden and deepen the foundation’s cultural perspective.  Located south of Milan in the former home of the Societa Italianà Spiriti distillery, the complex expands the repertoire of spatial conditions in which art can be presented with the addition of an exhibition building, auditorium, and tower.  These new environments, along with the existing structures, will be connected by and arrayed around a courtyard that will also function as event space.

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The front wall of the exhibition space shows a hypnotic variety of Prada ready-to-wear runway shows spliced together horizontally.

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Also mesmerizing are the embellishment details on display in the ‘Construction’ cases.

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Prada is a brand that cultivates obsessives – the kind of customers who make up waiting lists, and trawl eBay for prized pieces from long-ago collections (Oh god, so guilty).  “Nothing she does is ever fully retro or futuristic.” 

The Pradasphere exhibition is available to view on the 4th floor of Harrods throughout May.  If you are in London or are planning to visit, it is definitely worth viewing.

 

 

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