In life and exhibitions, there is not one straightforward way to tell a story. This is especially true for one that holds a 110-year-old tale at its heart, such as Prada. The illustrious house was founded by fashion designer Mario Prada in 1913 as Fratelli Prada selling leather goods, before he handed the reins to his granddaughter, Miuccia Prada, and her husband Patrizio Bertelli in the 1970s.
At this juncture we begin our journey into Pradasphere II, a retrospective exhibition tracing the history of Prada with Miuccia Prada at the helm. The Start Museum in Shanghai is its dedicated venue, an old railway station turned contemporary art gallery, located in the arty West Bund overlooking the Huangpu River. It sets a quixotic scene, with the house’s pistachio-coloured triangle symbol popping against the day’s powder-blue skies.
The first Pradasphere took place in 2014 in Harrods in London before travelling to Hong Kong—but it was undeniable that the second iteration was going to be vastly different, particularly with Raf Simons as a co-curator alongside Mrs Prada. A sign hinting at the magic inside reads, “Stories from the Prada warehouse, chosen by Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons.”
Mrs Prada, who was present alongside Simons for Pradasphere II, evidently adores the cultural hub that is Shanghai. She smiles genially during an afternoon meet-and-greet with the media when asked about Pradasphere II’s chosen location. “The first time I came to China was when I was 25,” she explains, hazel eyes twinkling. “So, of course I like Shanghai.”
We flock inside excitedly, craning our necks for a glimpse of what would set the stage. Several full-length screens greet us, held up against a mossy green carpet, with Prada’s autumn/winter 2014 womenswear collection on show. Organised as a magazzino, a working warehouse of creative production, the spine of the space forms a compelling narrative, comprising a chronology of work drawn from every significant Prada collection. Before I know it, everyone has scuttled off in different directions, charting their own Prada-inspired adventure.
I glance to my left, and Mrs Prada’s first collection in autumn/winter 1988—a bevy of timeless silhouettes constructed with delicate faille—is on display, a subtle nod to her wardrobe at the time. It feels acutely surreal; there are quiet gasps and widened eyes all around as we start to let the magnitude of Pradasphere II sink in. Each look is a profound moment in time, and a worthy dive into the elaborate thought process of Mrs Prada and her team. These archival pieces, flown all the way from Tuscany, feel almost sacred, yet there is no barrier between the clothing and their spectators. You can go as close as you like, without actually touching the fabric (out of basic courtesy, of course).
An industrial-looking ‘infinite runway’ awaits, holding collections from 1988 to 2024 against a baby pink velvet backdrop. Yet, the said path is not big or cavernous; the entire exhibition feels wonderfully intimate, as if you are invited to a private and exceptionally curated clothing re-see. Mannequins perch nonchalantly on top, legs swung over the edge, casual spectators of the scene unfolding below.
“It was important to approach it from a historical context and in chronological order,” remarks Simons on how the exhibition unfolded for him. “When Miuccia started in 1988, there was already a clear DNA that was important for the brand.” Who can forget spring/summer 1996, a collection of ugly chic pieces dubbed Banal Eccentricity. Collared tweed jackets paired with low-waisted wrap skirts in technical tricotine, washed in the season’s jarring colours—mustard on forest green and plums on browns—were deemed greatest hits. The banana print of spring/summer 2011 inspired by jazz-era icon Josephine Baker was another unforgettable moment, as was the dark romance and floral prints of autumn/winter 2019.
“I tried to take [looks] from almost every season, until I started counting from 1988 till now. It wasn’t possible to show every season,” explains Simons on the tough task of curating. “If you make a lot of great fashion, it’s more difficult to edit it down. It was a hard job eliminating.”
Like little nuggets of surprises, interspersed between the collections are interactive rooms designed to unravel the legacy of Prada further. The Gallery room flaunts the personal bond between Damien Hirst, Mrs Prada and Bertelli by showcasing their most recent collaboration, an original artwork which assembles 30 archival handbags into one of Hirst’s iconic cabinets.
The Cinema room is as you might expect, filled with plush cinema seats alongside mannequins clad in black dresses. Prada and film hold a symbiotic relationship, entwined in storytelling and worldbuilding, as actors have served as runway models, and film scores repurposed as fashion show soundtracks. Diagonally opposite, the Architecture room recounts the design approaches of iconic spaces such as Aoyama in Tokyo, while the Re-Nylon room towards the end tells the real purpose of creating a fabric made entirely from recycled fibres.
Pradasphere II gets stupendously better. In the middle of the runway, to break up womenswear and menswear, are 20 skirts that gleam prettily in a mirrored room. Think glorious mesh skirts with crystal beading, to those crafted with mohair, silk or metal eyelets, which highlight the house’s adept craftsmanship and meticulous detailing. Presented for the first time, the series of skirts brings together almost three decades’ worth of textures and constructions, an affirming nod to the phenomenal, multidimensional world Prada has created.
The Jan/Feb ‘Intentions’ issue of Vogue Singapore is available for sale online and in-store.