In the middle of the history-making press release announcing Prada’s decision that Raf Simons will be joining the brand as co-creative directors with Miuccia Prada is this impossible proposition: The partnership will be “a dialogue between two designers widely acknowledged as two of the most important and influential today.”
On Sunday, the Italian fashion house announced this unprecedented partnership as a necessary and optimistic action in response to changing times where increasing market pressures have limited creative decisions and burnt out creative directors. Rumours had been circulating that Simons would be replacing the 70-year-old Miuccia Prada at her company, or that he might take over the Miu Miu label and resurrect its defunct menswear line.
But this announcement was much more surprising. What took critics and fans aback was not that Raf Simons found a landing pad — that was always going to happen for the acclaimed designer, whose stints at Calvin Klein, Dior, and Jil Sander are considered to be among the most exciting years for those brands. What was unprecedented was that he would be sharing the captain’s seat with another designer as masterful, productive, and lauded as he. And, what’s more, it’s her name on the front door.
The press release emphasised the equity of the partnership. “With equal responsibilities for creative input and decision-making.” “A deep reciprocal respect.” It was “a mutual decision, proposed and determined by both parties.” Seated side by side at the press conference and in promotional imagery, the duo worked to highlight their maturity and professionalism as well as the equivalence of their roles — all without diminishing the size of their talents or largesse of their power. “We think it’s probably the first time that two designers, two mature designers, decided to work together,” Prada told Cathy Horyn at The Cut.
There have been many successful dynamic duos in business history, but rarely do individuals come together so late in their careers (as “mature” designers, as Prada put it). Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Elton John and Bernie Taupin were all born from an initial commitment to a partnership when neither have “made it;” this loyalty is the best defence in weathering growing egos, fame, and outside priorities. In fashion, design duos begin their careers together: Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia. Oftentimes, the industry forces one to the creative forefront: Yves Saint Laurent over Pierre Berge, Rei Kawakubo over Adrian Joffe, Tom Ford over Domenico De Sole. Boy bands breed solo artists, not the other way around.
Though fashion designers are functionally product designers, they are like front-men and lead singers for hire, who lend their talents, fanbase, and star power to houses who have the resources to bring their geniuses to life. Some of the most famous designers of our generation — Phoebe Philo, Karl Lagerfeld, Nicolas Ghesquiere, Hedi Slimane — are most famous for what they’ve done to reimagine other brands. The speed and quantity of their output require big visions supported by bigger egos: By creating at least four collections a year comprised of hundreds of garments each, designers’ value is in knowing exactly who their creative selves are and being able to consistently manifest that into a cohesive assemblage of products. The more experience a designer has had, the more solid their sense of self, which has led to an increased metabolism of brands’ intense and brief employment of ambitious creative directors.
To be able to split that responsibility into two parts, while taking it slow and steady, requires enormous self-awareness as well as humility.
But, there’s a lot of evidence that this could work. Prada the brand is not known for using history as a blueprint for its own futures. Prizing innovation over inertia, and pushing boundaries over precedent, Prada has become, under Miuccia Prada’s leadership, one of the most beloved and recognizable brands that people actually buy and wear. They have invested their business in ways that’d make the risk-averse queasy, but have proven to be incredibly perceptive: By elevating common fabrics like nylon to a luxury status, by expanding women’s sartorial vocabulary and finding beauty and glamour in the “ugly” and “modest,” by investing millions in diversifying their workforce to become a global brand with integrity, Prada is one of the few European brands that are known for thinking ahead.
Raf Simons is perhaps one of few designers who share in that vision. “The past is not romantic to me. The future is,” he opines in Dior and I, the documentary about his early days at the company, following Simons as he worked to incorporate the brand’s outdated designs traditions, like corseted waists and restricting silhouettes, with modern conceptions of femininity. His laconic personality is perfectly matched to Miuccia Prada’s philosophy that political clothing should be so well-conceived and -designed, that it speaks for itself.
They share a mutual love of the fine art (Simons' long-term collaboration with painter Ruby Sterling has informed his understanding about the power of partnership; Prada regularly highlights and celebrates other artists’ work, and her Fondazione has become a global art hub and institution); and one can get excited about how this might usher in an era of multidisciplinary collaboration and collectable fashion.
These are also two designers who are uniquely qualified in bridging the luxury market with Gen Z consumers, who want their clothing to come with a side of social consciousness, cultural relevance, and provocation.
If innovation and collaboration are the guiding principles, Prada the brand is well-positioned to change the trajectory of the fashion industry. Is there a future in which business decisions fuel creativity, rather than limit it? Can the company execute real sustainability initiatives, with health and longevity — and not just good PR — as its goal? Can it figure out a way to slow down the churn, minimize chaff, reduce its footprint, and present its products in the places and with the gestures our digital generation can connect with?
This all hinges on one small question: Can two visionaries work in tandem to create one new vision? There’s quite a lot riding on whether Prada and Simons will work well together. Because if the answer is yes, what could change is everything.