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Miuccia Prada: The Rites Of Fashion And A Search For Beauty

Up close and inside the mind of the Italian designer, who is set to be honored with a show of her creations at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Prada's New York storefront (mell242)
Prada's New York storefront (mell242)
Gianni Riotta

MILAN - The Devil wears Prada, but Miuccia Prada wears the crown of the first woman in fashion ever to be honored with an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Until now, only French designer Yves Saint Laurent had been honored by the Met with a solo exhibition during his lifetime. From May 10, Miuccia Prada will share the neoclassical rooms of the Fifth Avenue museum with Elsa Schiaparelli, the iconic Italian designer of the era between the two World Wars. Schiaparelli's inspirations were modern artists such as Salvador Dalì, Alberto Giacometti, Man Ray, and Marcel Duchamp. Prada draws from post-modern creators, such as journalist turned into architect Rem Koolhass, sculptor Eliseo Mattiacci, and video artist Nathalie Djurberg.

Miuccia Prada is proud of the forthcoming exhibition. "I am ambitious, and of course this is a great honor," she says. She is thrilled to see displayed pieces that she created working at her desk. "There, I am always alone, I can let my imagination run wild, and shut myself off from everything else," says Prada. "I never think that our clothes will be worn in real life. When I draw I don't think about the physical body. I create an illusion of beauty and style, like, in the Renaissance, Brunelleschi and the others dreamed an ideal and rational city, where every building was part of the general harmony. You know what? I always think about the body outside of fashion. I think about our suffering, tormented, and aching body."

The body in pain, the cult of beauty and modern narcisism are also the obsessions of director Pedro Almodovar in his last movie "The Skin I Live In," and of the video artist Djurberg who has worked with the Fondazione Prada art gallery.

Power and philosophy

Miuccia Prada also pursues an ideal of beauty. "I hated to make expensive clothes for rich women. I hated that it was just a big game of business and profits. I threw myself into arts to look for aesthetics and principles. Then, I added ideas and philosophers," she says. "But beauty keeps me going. I went back to arts, and not just to the contemporary arts. Now, I think about working on classics, Greek and Romans. We may surprise some people."

Seated at her desk, in the brightly lit Prada headquarters in the center of Milan, Madame Prada shows two sides. There is the businesswoman who Wikipedia cites as "the second most powerful woman in the world of fashion, according to Time magazine, and among the 20 richest people in fashion and the 300 richest people in the world, according to Fortune magazine."

But there is also the other side, the pure designer, who confesses her true feelings for fashion. "Between the theoretical hatred and the practical love lies the entire path of my life, which is a long and continuous escape from a persona that is not a part of who I am."

When Prada is wearing her multicolored paletot, the rational busineswoman seems to prevail. "When I was young, I questioned the rites of fashion. Then, I got tired of it, because too many people don't take us seriously; as if we didn't export, feed economic growth, as if industry meant just making ball bearings," she says. "Fashion evolves constantly, though. We have to create a model that is liked by Americans and Europeans, but also Russians and Chinese; by Catholics and Muslims alike. The politically correct lens is alway upon us. One more fur, one less shoulder, and the polemics ignite. We are in the business of global culture."

I wonder aloud if it is a bit like Disney, which has created multiethnic characters, such as Aladdin, Mulan and Pocahontas? Like Avatar in 3D?

"Yes, it is. Today sending the models on the catwalk for a fashion show is like creating a video game, a 3D fairytale that kids will dream about on their computers."

Does the crisis change the clothes? "No, it doesn't. They are still anchored in the imagination, aesthetics, and feelings. The crisis changes the markets, though. With a shrinking middle class, the so-called "aspirational" client, the ones who strive to take part in the world of luxury, disappear. Still, the numbers of rich people are increasing in new countries, and we have to reach them everywhere."

I ask her if she ever wears clothes by her competitors. "No, I wear only our things. Maybe, once in a while, I wear an old vintage dress which I've found somewhere. It's easier for you men. A classic suit exudes authority, reliability, and commitment. You notice it in a business meeting with a larger number of men. I'm not speaking about "power dressing," which a few years ago became just an illusion. I'm speaking about the self-confidence which you men show when you dress well. The army uses uniforms and the Church uses vestments. A uniform inspires respect. Casual can become dowdy. And I hate dowdiness."

Prada acknowledges that in Silicon Valley the new power uniform is a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, but adds that "Only Steve Jobs could pull off a look of jeans and a turtleneck."

Her son speaks to Prada about the new economy: "Startups are being launched everywhere, there is a ferment, energy." She says she tends to react more enthusiastically than her hubsband Patrizio Bertelli, the Prada CEO, who cautions their son about the practical side of starting any new company.

"I have never been poor in my life," Prada says. "So to feel well I must seek out that which is beautiful and new, to create and do the things I know how to do…and if I can manage, to be happy for a moment."

Read more from La Stampa in Italian

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A Refuge From China's Rat Race: The Young People Flocking To Buddhist Monasteries

Unemployment, stress in the workplace, economic difficulties: more and more young Chinese graduates are flocking to monasteries to find "another school of life."

Photograph of a girl praying at a temple during Chinese Lunar New Year. She is burning incense.

Feb 20, 2015 - Huaibei, China - Chinese worshippers pray at a temple during the Lunar New Yeat

Frédéric Schaeffer

JIAXING — It's already dawn at Xianghai Temple when Lin, 26, goes to the Hall of 10,000 Buddhas for the 5:30 a.m. prayer.

Still half-asleep, the young woman joins the monks in chanting mantras and reciting sacred texts for an hour. Kneeling, she bows three times to Vairocana, also known as the Great Sun Buddha, who dominates the 42-meter-high hall representing the cosmos.

Before grabbing a vegetarian breakfast in the adjacent refectory, monks and devotees chant around the hall to the sound of drums and gongs.

"I resigned last October from the e-commerce company where I had been working for the past two years in Nanjing, and joined the temple in January, where I am now a volunteer in residence," explains the young woman, soberly dressed in black pants and a cream linen jacket.

Located in the city of Jiaxing, over a hundred kilometers from Shanghai, in eastern China, the Xianghai temple is home to some 20 permanent volunteers.

Unlike Lin, most of them only stay for a couple days or a few weeks. But for Lin, who spends most of her free time studying Buddhist texts in the temple library, the change in her life has been radical. "I used to do the same job every day, sometimes until very late at night, writing all kinds of reports for my boss. I was exhausted physically and mentally. I felt my life had no meaning," she says.

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