As I stood with Miuccia Prada against the flat grey wall, the glint of a brightly gilded building illuminating our faces, I had to ask myself this question: How is this extraordinary development, built, adapted or recycled by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas in the decaying industrial area of Southern Milan, going to effect Prada as a fashion entity?
Of course, I was not so crass as to ask Miuccia this question, when she was giving me a preview of this stunning Prada Fondazione, achieved with her husband, Patrizio Bertelli.
Their taste in modern art alone — walls mixing Lucio Fontana, Donald Judd, Yves Klein, Jeff Koons and Gerhard Richter — in the long Sud gallery, suggests two exceptional pairs of eyes. And the fifteenth-century carved wooden cabinet a sign of their historical depth.
Yet even before I saw the café, created by film director Wes Anderson as a Milanese bar, I knew that there would have to be some references to the fashion world. In this case, it was drawings of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele ll, where the first Prada store was opened in the city in 1913.
I do not expect that same pattern of architecture to appear on, say, a Miu Mui dress. But I don’t see why not, considering that Miuccia has in the past made dresses with patterns of Italian resorts. That kind of faux innocence can be very Prada.
It demeans the enormity of this art project to put it in a fashion context – even though that is where Prada and Bertelli earned the money to embark on this enormous development.
I had a fleeting moment after my visit, when I wondered whether the dynamic pair had deliberately decided to make the first art visible at the opening of the Fondazione to be classical sculptures. These pieces, seen through Koolhass’s transparent glass, are entirely outside the clothing arena — except for a few drapes and folds.
Sculptures turned gold. Suzy Menkes Instagram
Plastercast of Kassel Apollo with integrations reproducing the colours of marble Roman copies (1991). Courtesy Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel/Suzy Menkes Instagram
Those 70 works of “serial classic” art, mixing ancient Greek works and Roman renditions of the originals, are about the beauty of form, showing appropriation and adaption of the originals. The fragmented torso of Penelope, loaned by the National Museum of Iran, is an example of how seriously the art world has taken this new Prada initiative.
Although there are some bursts of colour among the classic body shapes, as in recent pieces re-made in the gilded grandeur of their past, there was nothing here to suggest that Bertelli or Prada — or indeed Koolhaas or the project’s artistic and scientific director Germano Celant — were attempting any face-off between fashion and art.
My mind went back nearly 20 years, when a fashion biennale in Florence in 1996 was the first time that I had seen contemporary fashion associated with art. Perhaps significantly, Celant was the force behind that event, entitled Time and Fashion. I remember Armani appropriating the colours of Anish Kapoor, Gianni Versace tapping Julian Schnabel and Roy Lichtenstein, while Jil Sander created a wind tunnel with Mario Merz, and Helmut Lang worked in a pavilion filled with Jenny Holzer’s projected words.
And Miuccia Prada herself? She worked with Damien Hirst to make a miniature farm, where Jarvis Cocker’s music competed with braying goats, squawking geese, strutting chickens and frightened rabbits.
I thought of that as I looked in the Prada Foundation at the old cistern of the original distillery from 1910, where you now find Hirst’s fish tank from 1999 called ‘Love Lost‘ and filled with swimming fish.
The genus of the Fondazione Prada was in 1993 as a project to look at art, architecture, cinema and philosophy. But could anyone have imagined that the concept would grow into 19,000 square metres with seven separate buildings, both new and old — with the distiller’s torre, or tower, still under reconstruction?
I have the utmost respect for Miuccia and Patrizio who have pulled off this art epicentre that will mean so much to Milan, where the old rarely reaches the poetic levels of history and craftsmanship found in other Italian cities such as Florence, Naples, Rome and Venice.
The sheer size of the seven different areas stunned me. From the glass area holding the classic pieces, we moved swiftly to the cinema, an space open to the public — aside from the museums. Although it looked classic and was showing work by Roman Polanski, I understood that the structure unfolded, letting in open air. The Sud gallery, ending with a dramatic display of cars as art objects segued into the Nord gallery.
As my visit was before the official May 9 opening, there were things I did not see. I understand that there is also a library, and a children’s area to teach young people about art.
How I wish there could be a Prada fashion school, encouraging fledgling designers to draw from the modern art a vision of today.
A Fondazione Moda? Why not?