Prada in Soho
Photo credit: Stephen Magsig
At the corner of Broadway and Prince Street in the middle of New York’s artsy SoHo district, the international high-fashion house, Prada, has a signature retail outlet. Designed by famed Dutch architect Rem Koolhaus [author of the book Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (The Monacelli Press; Reprint edition, December 1997) and known for his retro-modern designs that combine early avant-garde severity with postmodern Pop kitsch], the store is an impressive piece of architecture. The ground floor is virtually empty save for a discreet security guard station near the entrance and a window display facing the street. The interior is a massive expanse of space defined by sumptuous wood flooring, a two-story high ceiling, gleaming hi-tech fixtures, and indirect lighting. Tall windows open onto the street corner at the store’s front. Inside, neutral-painted blank walls enclose the space on two sides. A warmly backlit, multilayered, mesh curtain hangs from ceiling to floor across the third wall, providing a sensuous textured surface that contrasts with the rest of the design’s architectural simplicity. The space is punctuated by large structural columns receding at regular intervals into the inner recesses of the space. About a third of the way back is a broad stairway leading down to the lower level where the merchandise for sale is actually on display.
Upon entering the store at street level, one is immediately struck by the fact that 20,000 square feet of some of the world’s most expensive real estate is devoted to simply making a point about the understated elegance of Prada’s brand positioning. The “less is more” aesthetic focuses attention on the high quality of the materials and the flawless workmanship. Each detail is just right, so as to not spoil the overall effect. All of Prada’s stores around the world are designed to the same exacting standards, although each one is unique. (No “franchise” look here, everything is made to order, like the haute couture available at breathtaking prices on the lower level.) This sensibility echoes Prada’s own philosophy in the design and manufacture of its products: the signature black wool suits and pale blue Egyptian cotton shirts for men, black nylon handbags and backpacks for women and sleek box-toed Italian leather shoes, made of the finest stuff expertly crafted, for both. But more than that, it’s about the ability to spare no expense in appearing to be unassuming; the ability to clearly be able to engage in “inconspicuous” consumption no matter what the cost.
The window display consists of a phalanx of mannequins suited up in various components of Prada’s summer line. Like an army of fashionistas on dress parade, the mannequins, perfectly aligned in four rows, six abreast, appear to be marching in lockstep. Their artificial heads are turned in the same direction, their unseeing eyes all facing to the right. Just visible behind a stainless steel railing is another platoon of mannequins marching up the stairs from the lower level. The display draws crowds of gawkers, many of whom go inside to take pictures. In general, the crowds aren’t what I imagine Miuccia Prada has in mind as her target customers. Their attire and body types (and no doubt their net worth) don’t really conform to the impeccably put-together, razor-thin prowlers of the catwalks of Milan and Paris, or the stylish, gaunt habitués of people who attend cocktail parties on the Upper East Side and spend their summers in the Hamptons or on the Riviera. Knowing they are not made of Prada material, these people pay homage to the magical aura of Prada nonetheless, as is fitting for a culture that worships Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
For the cognoscenti, the display clearly refers to the work of Vanessa Beecroft, a contemporary Italian artist known for doing performance installations using live fashion models, typically presented in various states of undress. (See Beecroft’s website at VanessaBeecroft.com) High art and haute couture have long been closely allied. Usually, it’s art’s timeless beauty that fashion aspires to. But recently, it is artists who have looked to fashion for its social and political implications. Beecroft is among the most controversial of those artists. The pro-Beecroft camp claims that she exposes and challenges stereotypical concepts of commoditized female identity; her critics say she simply reinforces them, presenting meat for the voyeuristic enjoyment of wealthy male museum patrons. One of her installations has the models dressed in identical Chanel pumps and nothing else. Another features them in various bits of Gucci lingerie. And while the Prada installation has more clothing than the average Beecroft performance, the tie-in between commodity fetish and the feminine ideal is still the main message.
Besides the feedback loop of fashion inspired by art using art inspired by fashion, the Prada installation is a display of another tie-in, namely, the one between art and money. In 1998, Beecroft put on one of her installations, VB35, at the Guggenheim Museum, whose landmark rotunda on Fifth Avenue across from Central Park was designed by another famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Miuccia Prada is a celebrated international art patron, including of Beecroft’s work. Prior to becoming the Prada store, the space at Broadway and Prince was the Guggenheim’s downtown branch museum. The Guggenheim SoHo was part of the penultimate stage in the process of the neighborhood’s gentrification.
In the ‘70s, SoHo was abandoned real estate, forsaken territory in the “structural adjustment” of New York City under neoliberal budget reforms. Once brutal sweatshops that employed several generations of exploited immigrant labor, the idled lofts of SoHo were taken over by artists looking for cheap studio space. (In those days, landlords turned off the heat at 5pm in part to discourage squatting.) As the process developed into the ‘80s, more artists moved in, and zoning laws were changed to allow the former commercial spaces to be legally occupied as residences.
Galleries started moving in, and collectors and other society types started coming around, too. The whole scene was lifted up by the boom in the art market, which was fueled by the enormous paper profits of junk bonds and leveraged buyouts. In the ‘90s, the “mall-ification” of SoHo got underway. Brand name retailers began moving in and the streets became jammed with tourists and shoppers. One of my favorite “new SoHo” experiences took place on Broadway near the corner of Prince about four years ago: As I walked by what was then still the museum, I overheard one woman say to another, “Oh look! The Guggenheim Gift Shop. I just love the Guggenheim Gift Shop!”
The latest wave of SoHo-ites includes investment bankers and celebrities who can afford the skyrocketing prices. (Bono paid a reported $6 million for his SoHo loft a few years back.) Premium retailers like Louis Vuitton and Chanel (not to mention Prada) have recently opened shops to serve the neighborhood’s increasingly upscale clientele. Thus, the installation at Broadway and Prince registers the successive reclamation of urban space, from abandoned zone of manufacturing, to avant-garde bohemia, to rarified space of “art for art’s sake”, to bastion of high-end consumer desire.
The Prada installation is also timely. One of Beecroft’s assertions is that fashion forces certain ideals upon us. There is a specific body type for models. There is a certain look to haute couture fashion. The images that circulate in the media are a kind of boot camp of the mind, disciplining us to channel our desires into ever higher levels of consumption. At first glance, the Prada mannequins appear to be dressed in desert camouflage; the patterns of organic forms are printed in summer khakis and other soft earth tones. Although the mannequins are identical in every way, including facial features and hair color, the components of each “uniform” are unique. Rather than being an army per se, outfitted in standardized government-issue clothing, that is, as a legitimate force of coercion used by the state in conducting war with other states, the outfits are more like those of a militia, a community-based paramilitary organization that often allows variations in uniform. With outsourced private security forces, i.e., corporate mercenaries, conducting interrogations and protecting business interests in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Prada installation can be read as playing on our fears of terrorist activities and our longing for protection from them.
What’s more, the Prada installation offers consumption as the way to fill the wounds in our psyche as we live in siege under the total mobilization of the perpetual war on terror. Buying and displaying pre-packaged, branded identities is a way to create a refuge from the dread of a world seemingly out of control. Judging by the proliferation of their handbags, backpacks, shoes, etc., on the streets of New York City, Prada’s symbolic blitzkrieg has been extremely effective.