Essay: Alexander Fury

Miuccia Prada - the master of 'ugly'

by Alexander Fury .

The clothes Miuccia Prada makes aren’t sanitised, or elegant, or even necessarily attractive. But they still create a desire. We don’t like them, but we want them.

If a Wildean epigram once immortalised the utterance that ‘fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months,’ Miuccia Prada’s work expresses it better than all other fashion designers. Others have toyed with ugliness, with the unpleasant and counter-intuitive. Balenciaga lost the waist in a sea of fabric while the rest of fashion cinched and corseted in homage to Dior. Christian Lacroix combined shades of beetroot, chartreuse and champagne duchesse-satin, clashing polka-dots and plaid as fashion championed Armani greige. Gianni Versace and Thierry Mugler rigged women in the trappings of the sex shop – a different kind of ugliness, another type of bad taste, but no less questionable. And in the thirties, Elsa Schiaparelli challenged the classicism of Vionnet and the modernism of Chanel with provocation, with dresses delineated by trapunto-stitched ribcages, studded with puckered lips as buttons or tramlined with trompe l’oeil drawers. Chanel argued that fashion should be logical; Schiap’s surrealist bent responded, obliquely, ‘Why?’

The Metropolitan Museum of Art made Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada somewhat uneasy bedfellows in 2012. The connections between them (moneyed backgrounds, fashion designers, female) were obvious, perhaps more obvious than their aesthetic parallels.

However, Miuccia Prada is a profoundly illogical designer. Like the surrealists before her, she questions our subconscious desires. That sounds like heavyweight cant to throw around about a frock-monger, but Prada’s glorification of the anti, the counter and the ugly, is fundamentally about making us desire what received opinion deems undesirable.

That’s a transgressive notion. Perhaps that’s why perverse is an adjective often applied to Prada. Fashion is about defining taste, separating what is good from what is bad. To be ‘in fashion’ is a validation of an object, a human being, a point of view. To be ‘out’ is a condemnation. What Miuccia Prada has done, throughout her career, is take what would be deemed ‘out’ and make it ‘in’. She has done so more consistently than any other designer in the modern history of fashion. Contrast her with Yves Saint Laurent: what Saint Laurent did was to take these questionable, even ugly styles, and synthesise them into a palatable whole. Saint Laurent sold chic. The clothes Miuccia Prada makes aren’t always chic. They aren’t sanitised, or elegant, or even necessarily attractive. But they still create a desire. We don’t like them, but we want them.

In 1996, a pair of Prada platform shoes – antiqued leather, with appliques of flowers, in various faecal shades of brown – were judged the ugliest in the world. There were about 50 pairs of these shoes available in the UK and they were completely sold out, immediately. These shoes weren’t nice, they weren’t sexy, and they weren’t like anything else in fashion at that point. Which is perhaps the crux of their appeal.

Ugliness is entirely relative. Miuccia Prada has played nice: In 1999, she showed a collection she titled ‘Sincere Chic’. That notion of ‘sincerity’ is important: off the back of a decade where Prada glorified the synthetic and the twisted, showing collections she knew were awful in a form of aesthetic double-speak, Spring/Summer 2000 was a sincere proposition.

Perhaps. But, on the other hand, the use of that word ‘chic’ is almost too knowing. This wasn’t ‘Sincerely Pretty’ or ‘Sincerely Nice’. It was ‘Chic’, and chic is tied up in ideas of fashion, of that ugliness Wilde deemed quite so intolerable. Its sincerity in the realm of Prada is questionable. It drew on resolutely old-fashioned notions of chic, but following from those knowingly naff collections, the pussy-cat bow blouses, pleated chiffon skirts and twinsets of ‘Sincere Chic’ were an arresting, alarmingly new proposition. To eyes accustomed to minimalism, there was an ugliness again to Prada’s chic, sincere or not. It was the same in 2002, when Miuccia Prada presented a collection of conventionally sexy clothing – high-heels, transparent PVC coats, lingerie-look slips, crocodile thigh-boots and much puckering and plucking around the breasts. It drew on traditional tropes that had fallen out of favour, ideas of sex that seemed passé - and hence, for a fashion audience, unsexy. Fundamentally, it was the unfashionable as fashion.

Jean Baudrillard argued that, in post-modern society, newness is only the simulation of newness – a fashion, for example, is only new in contrast to that which has immediately gone before. No designer has articulated this as perfectly as Miuccia Prada. To eyes accustomed to her ‘Ugly Chic’, her ‘Sincere Chic’ was, paradoxically, ugly. And that ugliness, that arresting contrast to that which has immediately preceded, is what she strives for.

The temporality of Prada, and of fashion as a whole, is vital to Miuccia Prada’s method of working. Unlike comparative designers, there are relatively few obvious signifiers of Prada fashion – in the way that, say, Schiaparelli is associated with the padded shoulder, Lacroix with the poufed skirt, Dior with the cinched waist. Is there a single silhouette that Prada owns? A specific decorative device? No. But that isn’t a criticism. Miuccia Prada’s signature is psychological rather than physical. Her clothing is ultimately about discomfort – aesthetic, ideological, somewhat ephemeral. It is ephemeral because the ugliness Prada provokes with this season becomes the new beautiful. Her shifting aesthetics and erogenous zones influence fellow designers and mass-retailers, and sometimes have an impact across the larger realm of popular culture.

Prada’s championing of ugly can be seen as an expression of Susan Sontag’s ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful. However, Prada is rarely Camp – and never sincerely Camp. That’s because there is an artfulness to the ugliness Prada shows us, an intellectual backbone. Her collections are never accidentally bad taste. Miuccia Prada knows exactly what she is doing – namely, upheaving our aesthetic axes, our idea of what constitutes ‘ugly’ and ‘beautiful’, on a six-month basis.