Step Inside Prada’s Dream Factory With Patrizio Bertelli, Miuccia’s Partner in All Things

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On an evening in late June, as Prada prepared for its spring 2015 menswear show, its head office in Milan—known as Bergamo 21, it takes up nearly the length of an entire city block and has the forbidding effect of a papal seat—was filled with businesslike calm. Male models strolled past, so long and concave they moved like wolves, indistinguishable, their identical blond hair held in identical side partings by childlike barrettes.

That the mood at Bergamo 21 was something like the opposite of panic—that the Prada empire of which it is the capital is now so profitably functional as to make fashion’s trademark hysteria seem like a foreign country—can be credited to its two rulers, Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli, who became joint CEOs earlier this year. The eponymous figurehead, Prada has always been the charismatic creative force—were it not for her designs, and indeed for the foundation of her family business, Prada would not exist at all. But the architect of the empire is her peerlessly driven, all-seeing husband, Bertelli. He has built the machine behind the brand: a living, breathing organism so vast, so well-oiled, and so intricate that it would be the envy of Thomas Edison. Bertelli is imperious by profession but iconoclastic by nature—a combination of seemingly contradictory qualities that has enabled him, as Prada’s chief executive radical, to reimagine its luxury-goods industrial production line as a sort of artisanal utopia (which, in an age of ruthless fast fashion and cruel labor practices, it can actually sort of resemble). And on what a scale: To take a few random figures, the empire employs more than 11,000 people and processes 4 million meters of fabric and 2.2 million square meters of leather each year. As of April, 160 new store openings were planned worldwide through 2016. Its annual revenue is 3.6 billion euros. In an era when other fashion houses have been forced to sell out or shut down, Bertelli’s method may be the key to the riddle of Prada’s dominance, and its independence.

I have come to Milan to meet him.  Well, meet is not quite right. Really I came to find him—in person but also in the land he has imagined and presided over all along. If Bertelli is the emperor of a production line, a production line that seems to have colonized half of Tuscany, then the only way to understand his particular vision is to see its fastidious execution in action. I wanted to know its workings and its character. His office, after all, is not a room but a territory that stretches outward from Milan, and his personality the stuff of legend. Bertelli has compared himself to Steve Jobs—for his freakish levels of quality control, rather than his asceticism, which Bertelli doesn’t remotely share. He is a committed—indeed, encyclopedic—foodie. He drives a Porsche, sails a 75-foot yacht, and travels by private jet. He has broken mirrors because he thought they made people look fat. His black-rimmed glasses can make his face look stern, but he is given to quixotic pronouncements (“Let’s begin with failure—I’m more interested in that than in success”). In order to explain to me that luxury is sensual rather than practical, he told a sort of fairy tale about the cobblestones in Prague, in which one fairy-tale element was that, despite the cobblestones, Prada sold more high heels there than flats. Later he described the auto­mobile industry as “craftsmanlike,” an idiosyncratic assessment of a massive manufacturing sector in which everything can be nevertheless made personal and particular and that suggests Bertelli himself might be fashion’s Henry Ford. If, rhetorically, considerably more left-wing.

Bertelli met Miuccia Prada in 1977, the year she took over the leather-goods business founded by her grandfather in 1913. Bertelli had dropped out of an engineering course at the University of Bologna when he realized how expensive his peers were finding the belts they needed to hold up their flares. He decided to make them himself. When he met Prada at a trade fair, he was already running a successful business. She immediately contracted him to be her exclusive manufacturer of leather bags, and then they joined forces in every way.

All the time I was in Tuscany, I attempted to trace the incursions of Miuccia Prada or Patrizio Bertelli into the production process. History will show that every iconic design is hers: the industrial nylon backpacks, the rustling pleated skirts, the jeweled shoes and wedge heels. But the idea of emphasizing her grandfather’s signature cross-hatched saffiano leather, of designing women’s shoes in the first place (1982), or of branching out into clothes at all (1989): Those were Bertelli. “He has an instinct for what will sell,” one Prada footwear designer told me. “Shoes and bags are in his DNA. Often he’ll change a heel height to make it more practical—like from 120 millimeters to 110.” Her involvement is easier to define—everything leading up to a show, more or less—while his is harder to fathom. If it seems unlikely that the story of Prada’s commercial success lies in a difference of a centimeter, perhaps that’s because we’re blind to the Promethean nature of the entire enterprise: It’s built up of decisions just like this, especially in an era when the company is distinguished, as much as it is by its heel height, by its industrial design—and its willingness to see itself, a luxury brand, as a force of the avant-garde. ­Interviewed some years ago, Miuccia Prada spoke about things she had been persuaded to do by “the company,” then added: “And by that I mean my husband.”

My tour of Bertelli’s Tuscan empire took me first to a shoemaking site in Buresta, a small village in Arezzo, and then to a facility an hour away, in San Zeno, where Prada designs its stores. Buresta is—almost comically—like an oasis. Designed by Guido Canali, the 6,400-square-meter building is made of glass all along one side and has plants growing over interior walls. On the main floor of the assembly room, where factory workers are arranged at desks in uncrowded lines, there were not one but three kinds of recycling bin, one of which contained mostly empty yogurt cups. I counted nine different types of coffee in the automated coffee machines. When employees break for lunch, which they seem to do all at once, the food is subsidized.

“We really want the factories to communicate what we stand for,” Bertelli would tell me later, and in his utopian vision, nothing is left to chance. The assembly room is arranged, from left to right, so that sketches are turned into patterns; plotted onto leather; hammered, glued, nailed, and so on, until a design that begins life at one end becomes a finished shoe at the other. It’s not old-world manual labor—there are machines shunting the products around and large numbers of people at work—but it’s not entirely mechanized either: Between each stage of production there are desks where products are inspected and worked on before being moved across. Near the patternmakers, for instance, a row of women sat hammering pieces of leather on blocks of marble; further along someone was hand-sewing Swarovski crystals onto midnight-blue satin. And by the time I reached the part of the room where soles were attached, an older man was looking up and showing off his skills: He spat out tiny nails and hammered them in with the side of a pair of pliers, one hand holding the shoe, the other hand the pliers, his mouth used for speed. “He is a historic person,” my guide told me, referring not so much to the cobbler’s age as his experience. Now in his 50s, he started making shoes in his early teens, and had been working for Prada for more than a decade. He stored the nails behind his lower teeth, he said: up to ten at a time.

In the pattern-making department, a “shirt,” or trompe l’oeil shoe, is typically made out of paper and used to cover a “last,” the heavy acrylic, foot-shaped core around which a shoe is built. Designs in various stages of becoming were scattered about the room: a heelless orange-and-yellow patent-leather sandal; the two-dimensional spread-out top of a purple sneaker; the shirts themselves, a beautiful series of monochrome lines like designer bandages. Once checked, the shirt will be flattened out and become the pattern, its points plotted with a mouse on a computer program. The coordinates are sent to a cutting machine. (Though most materials work best this way, I’m told that crocodile is still cut by hand.) A young man demonstrated all this, and explained that the under-35s are often employed to work on the computers. Older workers are given the more manual tasks, and while they clearly occupy a sort of pride of place here, the precision of the automated part of the facility is breathtaking, too: The laser cutter alone is like a gadget from Mission: Impossible, and it takes just six weeks for a design to come to life, from drawing table to shop display.

Artisanal is a word you hear a lot in Prada circles—so often, in fact, that it begins to lose its meaning. “The product has remained artisanal,” our guide at Buresta announced, while also pointing out—and teaching me the Italian for—an assembly line: manovia. When I eventually met Bertelli, he was quite specific in his understanding of it: “Everybody speaks about craftsmanship,” he explained, “and not necessarily in a positive sense—it can sound a bit cheap.” (He used the English word, in the sense of tacky rather than inexpensive.) “Whereas it’s the opposite—it takes a very long time to learn how to produce a product of quality, and it takes dedicated people to arrive at that mastery. So until the 1960s and ’70s it was Bologna and Veneto that traditionally made shoes. In Milan it was leather goods, bags in particular. And then in Florence you’d find Gucci, Ferragamo. But what we essentially mean by artisan is a top-quality product—it’s not necessarily handmade, but it’s made via processes that have a long history.”

It took me a while to understand what I was seeing at Buresta. Despite the fact that shoes are made there, it is not in any way a factory. It’s a laboratory. Later, Bertelli would refer to it as a “research center,” and in retrospect the people in white lab coats seemed less like cobblers than scientists, conducting the small-scale experiments that would eventually lead to the Prada industrial complex. Every year, 20,000 prototypes are made at Buresta; only 60 percent of those ever go into production, each in an elaborately refined process meticulously overseen by Bertelli—not just the lead scientist but the maddest one.

On the outskirts of the tiny stone village of San Zeno, past fields full of hay bales, is a set of low, nondescript cement buildings. The complex was renovated in the late 1990s, in the period when Prada dreamed up its “epicenters”—futuristic hybrids of boutique, gallery, performance space, and general ingenuity that attempted to revolutionize the idea of shopping. As at Buresta, nothing really turns out to be made here: San Zeno is a testing ground, where every single Prada store, window, or installation is meticulously practiced in advance. I understood that this was where the models were—and
indeed there are one or two small maquettes that would be to the consumerist dollhouse lover what diamonds were to Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. But, as my guide through the facility told me, most models are built on a scale of 1 to 1.

For a moment, I thought I’d mis­remembered my math. “You mean they’re built the same size?” I asked. He nodded. “The same level of planning goes into windows and buildings as for stitching on a bag.” Earlier this year, he explained, they did a window display for Bergdorf Goodman. All the Fifth Avenue windows, plus the small vitrines in between, were re-created here, life-size. As he walked us over to the vast hangar in which these models were built, I said that was reminiscent of the days when Hollywood studios would build façades in the desert. My guide laughed and said that was exactly the reason for San Zeno’s nickname. “Welcome,” he said as he opened the metal door, “to Cinecittà!”

Inside, Fifth Avenue faced London’s Old Bond Street. Shop front followed shop front—PRADA PRADA PRADA, they read, as you walked beside them across beige­-colored carpet. Behind a door marked NO PHOTOS was a replica of the future Miu Miu store in Tokyo, designed by Herzog and de Meuron and not due to open until December. A cantilevered sheet of stainless steel gave the façade the effect of a pagoda; inside, the walls were lined in lime-green damask fabric, with sections of hammered copper.

Beyond that was the archive: Every material ever used or considered is stored there, from acid-green pony skin to black carpet with 3-D red polka dots. Special movable cases had been built to store dozens of varieties of stone: yellow marble from Tuscany, white marble from Carrara, lapis-colored stone from Brazil, pink onyx from Portugal. Options for wooden floors, in every kind of finish, were arranged vertically in tall sliding cabinets.

At first, it was astonishing how lifelike the fakes at San Zeno could be. The craftsmanship is as good as the final effort—it’s just the materials that are different. (Though in fact, Prada uses a separate company to make the mock-ups, on the psychological grounds that if the same contractors did both, they’d save their best work for the real thing, and their models wouldn’t meet Prada’s high standards.) But by the time we’d walked through Miu Miu world, a space that was essentially an empty shop in search of merchandise, the opposite seemed true: I wondered not about how uncanny the simulacra were, but why the “real” shops were any realer.

The answer, I suppose, is related to the ghost I felt in both of these places, the ghost of Patrizio Bertelli. Every Prada office or meeting room, in Tuscany or Milan, is equipped with the same notepaper, the same red-and-black branded pencils, the same plastic espresso cups, and, if you’re lucky, the same Bahlsen chocolate biscuits. “Mr. Bertelli chose those biscuits,” I was informed, and the theological message was clear: Bertelli is in every detail.

The menswear show was due to start in an hour or so, and the cavernous space that’s transformed for every collection was ready, with dramatic raked steps and a plush, rectangular runway around a pool of royal-blue water. A number of early attendees dipped their hands in—it was hard to tell if the water was real, so low was the lighting and so ingrained Prada’s reputation for clever materials. Was the bottom painted? Was it dyed?

With all these people milling about, I was led back, past Miuccia’s famous spiraling, 100-foot Carsten Höller slide, and into an office described to me as “one of Mr. Bertelli’s favorite rooms.” One wall was glass, and on another was a large-scale painting. Bertelli walked in, shook my hand, and sat down at a large table in front of it.

Perhaps I had expected him to be larger than life; at first Bertelli was, if anything, a little smaller. He was tired, he explained, his speech a low growl that revved up only gradually. He was wearing a slim navy tie and a pale-gray suit, with red suspenders just visible beneath it. He is both stocky and sleek, with a sweep of white hair and a commanding nose that invites comparison with Roman emperors. But by the end of our conversation, I was inclined to think he was more like a Saul Steinberg than a Caesar. He can answer questions directly if necessary—he is a businessman, after all—but his preferred form of communication is the elaborate digression. For instance, did you know—as he told me in response to an inquiry about the way he works with his wife—that the Italians invented salad?

Or this, about his two sons with Miuccia, Lorenzo, 26, and Giulio, 24. “They’re doing what I want them to do. The older one has graduated with a degree in philosophy, and now he’s a rally car driver.” A philosophical race-car driver? “Yes,” he said proudly. “Typical of the Bertelli family. The other one has done three years of architecture in London, and now he’s sailing around the world.”

Or take this, on the matter of his politics: “I hope I’m educated enough to realize that we’ve been dragged around too much by consumerism,” he replied, “which is a little useless at times.” He paused for emphasis. “I said useless. The word is important.”

There was a digression then, about the history of department stores—a phenomenon that came to Italy relatively late. When I asked if Prada wasn’t also in the business of consumerism, Bertelli paused. “Yes and no,” he said. “I think of consumerism without a purpose to be a purely financial view of things, without consideration. If you take finance and compare it to, I don’t know, culture or the environment, it’s not necessarily a given that finance has to prevail. You have to make strategic decisions—for instance, where to open a factory. It may be one location because you want to safeguard employment there, or another country because it’s more profitable.” I asked whether he considered the politics or the human-rights records of the countries to which he was planning to expand. Bertelli paused. “These are, without a doubt, the things that strike us most,” he said, “on a professional and a personal level. We’re not blind.”

By now Bertelli had hit his stride. When he and his wife argue, I asked, who wins? “Actually, we don’t argue,” he said. “We get to the same point by different means. I have a more analytical, rational approach—I look at history a lot. Miuccia is at times a little disturbed by looking at history. For me, that’s fundamental. I’m reading a very interesting book about cooking, and there’s a whole chapter dedicated to the history of the fork—which was introduced by Italians, of course. To think that in England it was only adopted in the 1600s. Whereas here it was already around in 1000 A.D. The English considered it to be unmasculine, too decadent.”

Are you saying Italians are avant-garde, I asked, or … ?

“In food terms, absolutely. Everything stems from Latin countries. Even salad—the word insalata, typically Italian: In 1300, it was the done thing to eat raw vegetables before meat. There’s a new book in French that covers the subject of salad. There’s a testimonial from a French chef in the 1200s who criticizes the Italians for eating raw vegetables, as though we were animals. It’s one of many things that mirrored the magical centuries in Italy—the period of the Renaissance.” He considered this for a moment, and my mind wandered, too—to the time-travel-like tour I’d just been given of Buresta and San Zeno, where old-world ateliers met space-age cleanliness and efficiency, and to the expansive enthusiasms of Bertelli himself, somehow both producer and patron of new works. “Miuccia would say I’m fixated on the Renaissance,” Bertelli said finally. “But it’s not necessarily true.”

*This article appears in the August 11, 2014, issue of New York Magazine.

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