WORDS Vésma Kontere McQuillan
The story of the first Prada fashion show done in collaboration with OMA/AMO

Prada is one of those innovative, intellectual, internationally highly regarded Italian fashion design names that has become a kind of benchmark when one speaks about the synergy of society, culture, art, architecture and fashion, sometimes with a political message: power without anger, according to Prada’s emphasis on intellectualism and cultural references, or “calculated weirdness,” as Rem Koolhaas put it, has been imitated by other fashion brands, resulting in a proliferation of similar designs and styles. But, according to him, Miuccia Prada distinguishes herself by having a perfect understanding of bourgeois rules and a rebellious intelligence that refuses to surrender to them. 

Prada has long been regarded as a leading fashion house with cutting-edge designs and an emphasis on innovation. The label has also been lauded for its ability to incorporate cultural and artistic influences into its collections, as well as its willingness to address political issues through its designs. However, it’s usually done so subtly and intelligently that you can’t help but wonder what the design process is behind the scenes. 

On this point, everyone who has a little interest in fashion has heard that one of the important names in architecture of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Rem Koolhaas and his office OMA/AMO, is at the forefront of Prada’s architectural experiments. According to their website, OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) is an international practice operating within the traditional boundaries of architecture and urbanism. AMO, a research and design studio, applies architectural thinking to domains beyond. While collaboration between fashion and architecture on retail projects in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco has been well described by the architect himself and architecture theorists such as Roberto Gargiani, Anna Klingmann and Christophe Van Gerrewey, fashion show production has remained a relatively unexplored area until recently. 

Today, there is a lot of information circulating about the collaboration between Prada and OMA, especially on Instagram, but at the same time, many aspects have yet to be discussed, such as AMO establishing the approach to fashion shows as a medium [referring to Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan’s tenet, “The medium is the message,” which states that a communication medium itself, not the messages it carries, must be the primary focus of study] and the very beginning of fashion show production.

Vésma Kontere McQuilan: This publication comes at an opportune time, as we are currently celebrating the 20th anniversary of the first OMA/AMO for/with Prada fashion show.
I began working with research on the collaboration in 2015, when AMO had already established a specific method for cooperation. However, the first shows were poorly documented, and further investigation was lacking. Therefore, my mission became locating and speaking with those who were working on them. Through conversations, I discovered that the very first fashion show was SS 2004, Collection Tie and Dye. To clarify how all this started, I tracked down Nicolas Firket, former AMO director who designed the very first show. The excerpt below is from an interview I conducted with with him in 2017. 

Nicolas Firket: Miuccia called a week before the show, asking if AMO could do anything. She stated that the SS 2004 collection was about tourism. The collection was concerned with travel. That was it. You must remember, it was the time soon after 9/11, and there was a crisis and recession for several years. Airlines were going out of business. We assumed that Miuccia intended to suggest it was time to get back to travel. The crash of the planes had become a frightening image at the time. The silhouette of an angled Boeing in the sky over New York was a terrifying sight. We used the same airplane silhouette on that SS 2004 Prada wallpaper, created for the show. The shapes of the aircrafts were done in a typical reference to monograms. It was a play on the low-key fashion monogram. The composition was completed with fast and light resources, just hours prior to the event.
The SS 2004 fashion show for Prada was the first of its kind. Mrs. Prada gave three keywords, and I had to respond visually. She said: Tourism, a Woman Traveling, and a Suitcase. The essence of communication with Miucca could be titled cadavre exquis (Exquisite Corpse), a surrealist term for a game where you write a few words, fold the paper, and pass it to the next person. Finally, you unfold the paper to reveal this bizarre poetry. The method we used relates to this idea of cadavre exquis; she said tourism and a woman traveling – AMO had to understand what it meant in the context of the time and visualize it, knowing her, knowing how good she is at capturing the Zeitgeist. She never mentioned 9/11 or the fear of flying. And I returned with the concept of flying: airplanes in the sunset as a fashion monogram. I linked it to 9/11 and the political realities of the time. Prada and AMO’s relationship was mainly based on the state of mind of answering each other with a very particular intuition. 

VKM: Did a wallpaper used as a technique for the set design idea have anything to do with the New York store’s wallpaper?

Nicolas Firket: It’s true that after working on the NY Soho flagship store, the wallpaper became a keyword in qualifying space, an instrument that could turn walls into other dimensions. We wanted to avoid making a connection between the NY store and the Milan show. But since wallpapers were in the vocabulary, it became an evidence in the space of via Fogazzaro (former Prada Fondazione). So, it was more like accidental recycling. We were typically “declensing” ideas and methods (like Latin declension), as to reinforce them, enrich them…
There was a large and extremely eclectic range of projects made for Prada from 2003. Between 1999 and 2001 – it was the time of the “epicenter projects,” or the flagship campaign, leading to the opening of the Soho flagship store. The key concept was “Prada is Content.” AMO great minds such as Jens Hommert, Markus Schaefer were diving into Prada’s internal, intimate culture and the range of activities it was conducting, even factory production, America’s Cup, art world implications… as the ways to capture content that would tell the story of Prada’s DNA. We created such a state of mind around understanding and transposing what we had developed with Prada as an essence, that went beyond any discipline, not being marketing, nor graphic design, nor advertisement, nor conceptual art, and not even just architecture. We created a weird state of mind and creativity that started to be interesting for Miuccia because it was tailored to her way of thinking and the soul of her work and brand. We did a lot to express something that was more than a brand. It was a “Gesamt” state of mind. It’s very much how she works that makes Prada something more than a luxury brand. My opinion is that the aura of Prada is superior to the likes of Gucci, Armani, or Versace because of her personal spiritual and political input. 

Markus Schaefer, who was leading AMO before my time, was interested in technology and branding – he strived for an alternative business model for Prada. AMO was incredibly visionary for the time and developed a “Prada Tablet” for the stores, ten years before the iPad. But, of course, everything was costly and didn’t really end up being used. Nevertheless, Prada had tablets in its utopian flagship store years before the iPad was launched! They were custom-made and super thick; the staff was struggling to use them. It was romantic and, at the same time, nerdy. They are real museum pieces by now.

The beauty of the early AMO shows for Prada is that they weren’t systematic.

We did it that first time, and she was extremely happy, but the next season, she went without scenography. Sometimes, it wasn’t themed enough to create an explicit conceptual idea for a scenography, and sometimes we declined a crazy idea that came from Prada because we were already working on another crazy idea for Prada. She would involve AMO if she felt the themes were conceptually strong. Sometimes she made good collections, but with more diffused political or art direction behind them. You can have good collections without a bold theme. You can make a good collection when the collection speaks on its own and doesn’t need an external theme or inspiration or keyword and concept that comes and animates it. 

A part of the beauty of these pioneer moments was that it was a dialog taking different forms in a constant and improvised discovery of its own potential. At that time, OMA was smaller, and AMO was not well organized yet. The beauty of those fashion shows was that AMO’s input was wholly amateurish and improvised, yet we nailed it with luck. You can look at the history of AMO through Prada fashion shows. There was this pioneering moment, the source of fresh inspiration that Miuccia always liked. Rem had captivated Prada with an ability to formalize their thinking. We weren’t professionals in fashion; we were architects. We were just people with the potential to relate and express things. 

Venice sunsets. The flowers on the Air Italia route map. The planes are taking off and landing in the sky. The collection and skirts were inspired by vintage postcards from a time when tourism did not exist. 

It was a low-key show production with only one print on wallpaper in the industrial place, via Fogazzaro, at Prada’s headquarters. However, it added something new: It emphasized the importance of creative collaboration, intuition and improvisation in producing successful fashion shows and, later, developing a distinct brand identity. Moreover, it was a novel practice for an architectural firm, as few were involved in fashion show production at the time (or even now). According to Nicolas Firket and Marcus Schaefer, “The fashion show is the heartbeat of Prada, an unrelenting mechanical rhythm that sources 75% of Prada content.” 

The most recent AMO x Prada show took place at the Fondazione Prada Deposito in Milan, a one-of-a-kind complex designed by OMA to exhibit contemporary art. AMO transformed it into an underground parking lot with a moving ceiling varying from 2.7m to 9m during the show, demonstrating architecture’s capabilities as an engineering discipline and reminding us that Prada’s experimental architectural interventions are still among its most valuable assets.