Aug 6, 2009

Miuccia Prada/OMA/Rem Koolhaas: Prada Store

“In every relationship there comes a time when you take that next important step. For some couples that step is meeting the parents, for me it's meeting the Prada.”

- Carrie Bradshaw, Sex in the City, Season 6, 2003.

New York’s Prada flagship store, designed by Rem Koolhaas/OMA, was the subject of much media hype when it opened in December 2001, and has accumulated a wealth of architectural criticism since then. In this post, rather than reviewing the extensive literature devoted to the Prada, I will situate the store within my initial framework for understanding the 21st century interior. That is, while Prada is conventionally understood (in architectural criticism) as a sophisticated high-tech architectural container, how might we understand it as an interior? This requires thinking about its ephemeral nature, how it is inhabited, how it is mediated, and its relationship with the formation of identity (how Carrie, for example, comes to invest parental authority in a clothing store). I will begin with a brief introduction to Prada as a brand, then Koolhaas’ OMA, before an analysis of the flagship store and its significance as a 21st century interior. A comparison between the Prada flagship store and the Ralph Lauren flagship store (analyzed in a previous post) will highlight the differences between the contemporary discourses of architecture and interior design.


Miuccia Prada inherited the Prada family leather goods business in 1978, and, with the help of her husband and business manager Patrizio Bertelli, transformed it into a global fashion brand in under two decades. Usually described as an uncomfortable entrepreneur, Miuccia Prada gained a PhD in political science, was a member of the Italian Communist Party, and trained and performed in mine for several years before embarking on her career in fashion. As creative director at Prada, she designed the classic black nylon handbag in 1985, then expanded into ready-to-wear collections in 1989. Prada’s popularity soared in the 1990s with collections of elegant, understated clothing, characterized by their austerity and innovative materials. Challenging the conspicuous excess associated with 1980s luxury fashion, Prada’s functional “uniform” appealed to the tech-saavy yuppies of the 1990s. Prada’s advertising campaigns, typically featuring simply a Prada-clad model and the logo, followed the same restrained, sophisticated ideal as the clothing.

Prada grew into a billion dollar conglomerate in the late 1990s with corporate acquisitions of labels such as Fendi, Helmut Lang and Jil Sander (all sold since then). In an effort to reach a broader consumer base, Prada also diversified from high fashion clothing to mass produced accessories. With diversification, Prada, like other luxury brands, faced a major challenge in differentiating a luxury commodity from a mass produced one. During the designer decades of the 1980s and 90s, this differentiation could be achieved, at least partially, by the signature of the designer. Critic Nicky Ryan describes this process as fashion’s “transubstantiation” whereby simply a “signature or label could transform ordinary commodities into luxury goods.” (Ryan, p.12) However contrived, calculated and carefully mediated, the personality of the designer served as a key point of differentiation, arousing empathy in an era obsessed with self-expression through consumption. Prada’s brand was understood to be “intelligent”, “political” and “progressive”, like the media image of Miuccia herself. Thus consumers could differentiate between not only luxury goods and mass consumer ones through the identity of their designer, but also between goods authenticated by a cosmopolitan, Milanese political science graduate (Miucci Prada) rather than by a self-made, all-American cowboy (Ralph Lauren).

As well as the designer signature, a designer space became an essential branding component – a physical environment in which consumers could commune with the brand. Just as Ralph Lauren commissioned designer Naomi Leff to design the brand’s Manhattan flagship store in 1986, Miucci Prada commissioned Rem Koolhaas to design Prada’s Manhattan flagship store in 2001. Their respective choice of designers, of course, was not coincidental: Leff had worked with Lauren on previous store designs and knew how to create an appropriately historical ambiance. Koolhaas, on the other hand, was not only a cosmopolitan celebrity architect, but also a Harvard professor with intellectual credentials. While the design of their respective flagship stores appear to be aesthetically worlds apart, both designers created similar experiential environments specifically designed to complement the existing brands. This comparison is considered in more detail below, following a brief introduction to Koolhaas and his design of the store.


The Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) was founded in London in 1975 by Koolhaas, and relocated to Rotterdam in 1978. During the 1980s and 90s, OMA became better known for their weighty publications and competition entries than for their small output of built work. Koolhaas published the influential urbanist manifesto Delirious New York in 1978, but the shift into collective production, particularly OMA’s S,M,L,XL (1995), redefined architectural publishing. OMA’s mash up of polemical statements, textual and visual provocations, blurry photographs, maps, statistics, and research data challenged both the graphic language as well as the content of the conventional architectural monograph. Architecture was no longer represented as an autonomous cultural product but converged with the entertainment and fashion industries, appropriating both form and content from them. In 1999, Koolhaas formalized this convergence with the establishment of OMA’s dedicated research, branding and publication studio, AMO.

During the late 1990s, Koolhaas’ Harvard studio also began compiling material for books, starting with The Harvard Guide to Shopping. Echoing Jean Baudrillard’s essays from the previous decade, Koolhaas’ team declared that “everything is shopping” in contemporary consumer culture. In relation to the later Prada commision, two points made in The Harvard Guide to Shopping are worth repeating here: firstly, in his essay “High Architecture”, Daniel Herman noted the failure of “high” (that is modernist) architecture to engage with retail shopping environments. Secondly, Hiromi Hosoya and Markus Schaefer’s essay “Brand Zone” described contemporary flagship stores in which “experiences must be provided, images sustained, myths created. Movement, symbols, sound, and smell all reinforce the stores’ message, which finds its ultimate embodiment in the figure of the designers after whom they are usually named. Increasingly, shopping’s obsession with the individual’s behaviour and perception turns these spaces into engineered synesthetic environments.” (pp.166-68). With all the appropriate intellectual research in place, “high” (that is modernist) architects such as Koolhaas could safely take on shopping. Although the research was completed years before, The Harvard Guide to Shopping was coincidently published only months after the Prada store opened.

The Prada store’s significance, regardless of its financial or architectural success, was assured in advanced by a heavy promotional blitz before the store’s opening, including a large book and an exhibition of models and plans. Edited by Rem Koolhaas, Jens Hommert and Michael Kubo of OMA/AMO, Projects for Prada Part 1, published by Prada, comprised photographs of models, mock ups of the New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco stores (the latter was never built), research data and Koolhaasian proclamations such as “Luxury = Intelligence” or “Luxury = Waste”. We can understand this publicity blitz as specifically modernist by returning to Beatriz Colomina’s take on modernism in Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media (in which we could easily substitute Le Corbusier for Koolhaas). Colomina argues that “modern architecture becomes ‘modern’ not simply by using glass, steel, or reinforced concrete, as is usually understood, but precisely by engaging with the new mechanical equipment of the mass media: photography, film, advertising, publicity, publications, and so on.” (p.73) Le Corbusier was consciously engaged in his own historical and intellectual legitimation, as Koolhaas is today, through utilizing the communicative power of the mass media. Thus by the time the Prada store opened, it was already more than a store: it was an historical event.

Meet the Prada

By the late 1990s, the invasion of Soho by retail shopping was almost complete: most art galleries had migrated to Chelsea, while artists had moved on to cheaper pastures. The expansive Guggenheim franchise opened a Soho branch on the corner of Broadway and Prince in 1992, designed by Arata Isozaki, but it struggled and closed in 2001. It was in this same building (the 1882 Rogers Peet Store), in the vaccuum created after the avant-garde community fled, that OMA and Prada founded their New York “Epicenter” store. The Prada store opened in December 2001 with predictable media hype, the staggering cost, upwards of $40 million, was repeated in newspaper and journals. The epicenter store strategy was to create diversity within a single global brand, each store differentiated by its unique design (OMA also designed the LA store, Herzog and de Meuron the Tokyo store). The store itself would help maintain brand exclusivity – there was only one Koolhaas-designed Prada store in the capital of luxury (and of culture), New York.

From the street, large picture windows display the store itself, stimulating curiosity and reminding the consumer that the store’s design is more important than the display of merchandise. Once past the prominent security guard at the entrance, the immediate sensation is a sense of space (the luxury of wasted space in expensive real estate) with a loft-like two storey space. Three key design elements are visible upon entering at ground level – the zebrawood “wave”; the large, circular, transparent elevator, and the (ever-changing) wallpaper mural covering most of one wall. From the Broadway entrance, the wave flows down to the basement area (where the shopping takes place), and rises to the other entrance on Mercer Street (see images of the wave above). Oversize steps on one side are used as display space for merchandise, but double as seats for cultural events when a concealed stage opens out of the wave opposite. Like a choreographed runway show, shoppers sweep down the stairs of the wave to the basement, self-consciously on display from above and below.

The unique glass elevator (see image above), constructed at great expense, takes shoppers down only one floor and is rarely used, adding to the luxury of waste idea. The wallpaper, featuring graphics coordinated by local graphic designer firm 2x4, allows for a constant renewal of the interior, although the graphic material reinforces that this is art (some well-known artists have designed images for this space) or “high” design rather than merely decoration. Continuing the flexibility idea, large industrial cabinets containing clothes hang from the ceiling on a movable tracks (see image below), allowing for different spatial configurations, particular when the space is opened for cultural events. This theatrical articulation of the brand as both luxurious and cultural also appeals to a particular image of New York as the capital of both.

Retail is confined to the basement area, where design also features prominently. The black and white checkerboard marble floor recalls Prada’s main store in Milan, but the main attraction down here is the technological gadgetry. An ephemeral and mediated space is created via LCD screens with streaming images of “aura-related content” that appear amongst the clothes displays (see image below). Some of these are also interactive, with cameras which capture images of the shopper display them, fragmented or delayed on a nearby screen. An LCD triptych consciously evokes a religious communion with the brand, but the nearby fitting rooms were a tourist favourite, with their magic mirrors and switchable glass doors (the latter mostly not working). Technological innovation featured high on the Prada store’s priorities, not only visibly in the store, but with IT innovations such as a global customer database, RFID tags for inventory control or protection from theft, and digital customer loyalty cards that might create a personal “virtual closet”. However, as Greg Lindsay reported in 2004, a quarter of the store’s budget went into IT innovations, but only three years later, “the multimillion-dollar technology spend is starting to look more like tech for tech’s sake rather than an enhancement of the shopping experience”. He detailed the various failures of the IT systems and technological gadgets, such as the fitting room switchable glass, the RFID system, staff PDA devices and the sales and inventory wireless network.

Interior Design vs. Architecture

Finally, in rethinking the Prada flagship store as an interior, it is worth noting the similarities and differences between it and Naomi Leff’s Polo/Ralph Lauren flagship store, Rhinelander Mansion. Both stores were interior projects, retrofitted into existing 19th century structures; both responded to the interior as ephemeral, creating a basic, iconic framework within which changing component parts could reinvigorate the space; and both were designed as “experiential spaces” for staging identity in which customers could become part of the complete, seamless artifice comprising fashion collections, advertising campaigns, graphic styles and the stores themselves. Once considered the essence of fashion, material products such as clothing and accessories were reconceived with these interiors as props within carefully orchestrated narratives of lifestyle and identity. However, there remains a fundamental difference, between the two: the Prada store is architecture.

Following the popular understanding of interior design, Rhinelander revels in its fakery – antique copies sit next to real antiques in a creative restoration – while the Prada revels in modernist “truth” (to materials and to forms). Rhinelander’s hand-crafted historicism seems opposed to Prada’s futuristic technologies. Luxury is equated with “Intelligence” by Koolhaas, and “intelligence”, in turn, is uncritically equated with digital technology. Leff’s Rhinelander Mansion appears (at least on the surface) intuitive and feminine compared to Koolhaas’ intellectual and masculine Prada store, the latter driven by, and legitimated by, academic research. Finally, the populist culture of Ralph Lauren (whose fantasies derived from Hollywood movies) seems opposed to Prada’s self-conscious cultural elitism (avant-garde art, design and architecture). To further this distinction, Prada’s epicenter stores were part of a more general strategy designed to enhance luxury through the association with avant-garde culture, which included establishing the Prada Foundation in 1995, directed by curator Germano Celant. Through conflating its brand identity with that of avant-garde art and architecture and its (assumed) values – progressive, critical, liberal – Prada appealed to a particular cosmopolitan class who might buy into such cultural capital.

Despite these differentiations, the elaborate spectacle of store obscures the realities of mass produced commodities. Just as an empty store is transformed via designer transubstantiation into a cultural space, so to a bag produced for a pittance in Vietnam is transformed into a luxurious commodity. Curiously, the voluminous Koolhaasian research fails to address issues of globalization in relation to the production of Prada’s clothes (Who makes them? Where? How much are they paid? Under what conditions do they work?). Finally, the two stores might be seen as illustrations of the difference between globalization of the 1980s and 1990s – Rhinelander’s aura of tradition, stability and patriotism seem to complement the Reagan-Bush values that accompanied American capitalist expansion, while Prada’s more global associations and appeal (Italian brand, Dutch architect) reflects more recent multinational capitalism and the mobility of a wealthy cosmopolitan class without national allegiances.

See the full Sex in the City clip here, with a bonus hidden video tour of the store and critique.

Selected Bibliography

Alan Brake, “Prada World’s Price Tag”, Architecture, Vol. 91, Issue 3, March 2002.

Joseph Giovannini, “Finally, Prada”, Interior Design, Vol. 73, No. 4, 2002.

Rem Koolhaas, Jens Hommert and Michael Kubo, OMA/AMO, eds. Projects for Prada Part 1, Fondazione Prada Edizioni, 2001.

Rem Koolhaas, Chuihua Judy Chung, Jeffrey Inaba, Sze Tsung Leong, eds., Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, Cologne, New York and London: Taschen, 2001.

Rem Koolhaas and Brendan McGetrick, eds., Content, Cologne: Taschen, 2004.

Greg Lindsay, “Prada’s High-Tech Misstep”, Business 2.0, March 2004, online here.

Philip Nobel, “Waiting for Prada”, Interior Design, Vol. 72, No. 4, 2001.

Joan Ockman, “The YES man”, Architecture, Vol. 91, Issue 3, March 2002.

Nicky Ryan, “Prada and the Art of Patronage”, Fashion Theory, Vol. 11, Issue 1, 2007.

Michael Sorkin, “Brand Aid”, Harvard Design Magazine, No. 17, Fall 2002/Winter 2003, online here.

Michael Sorkin, “Riff on Rem: Sorkin’s Take on Multinational Style”, Architectural Record, Vol. 190, No. 1, Jan. 2002.

Carl Swanson, “The Prada Armada: Interview with Miuccia Prada and Rem Koolhaas”, New York Magazine, 16 April 2006, online here.