Miuccia Prada the designer—she of the black nylon backpacks, whose Italian label is often called fashion's most intellectual—keeps art and fashion separate. "Definitely fashion for me isn't art," she says. "Art is a place for ideas without any other direct concerns. If I'm a good fashion designer, it's because I sell."
But Miuccia Prada the art collector thrives on the interplay of ideas. In the crumbling palazzo that her Prada Foundation now occupies in Venice, a picture of votive candles by contemporary artist Thomas Demand flanks 17th-century Venetian glass figurines. Damien Hirst's oversized beach ball bounces in a room whose mottled windows open onto the Grand Canal.
"The things I wanted to do most were about collaboration and openness," Ms. Prada said of the art in the foundation's new exhibition, opening Saturday during the Venice Biennale.
Over the past two decades, Ms. Prada and her husband, Prada SpA chief executive Patrizio Bertelli, have simultaneously built a fashion powerhouse and a world-class contemporary art collection. Now, Ms. Prada is elevating her art collection to greater prominence. The foundation is debuting a substantial portion of its collection in the same month when the fashion house plans to list its shares on the Hong Kong stock exchange. It's just a coincidence, she says—the result of "so many seeds we planted that are now blooming."
Just as fashion critics praise her ability to push the boundaries of clothing design—she once said she wasn't happy with a lace collection until it was "unsexy"—art critics have hailed her highbrow approach to her collection over the years.
"For me, the thinking behind art is always more important than the aesthetic," says the 62-year-old designer, wearing a blouse embroidered with green triangles and a black apron over a white skirt.
As a result, an eclectic group of paintings, film, photos and sculptures—some created as recently as this year—are jumbled together in the 300-year-old Ca' Corner della Regina, a frescoed building of molded ceilings and marble floors. In exchange for restoring the building, the Prada Foundation gets to use it for up to 12 years.
The building is down the canal from the palazzo where François Pinault, the owner of Christie's auction house and the Gucci fashion house, displays his collection of contemporary art. Until now, the Prada Foundation's exhibitions have mostly been shown in the warehouse-like Milan space where Prada puts on fashion shows. The Venetian exhibition space will coexist with a contemporary art campus that architect Rem Koolhaas is building for Prada in Milan, scheduled to open in 2013.
The Venice Biennale, a biannual gathering of artists, gallery owners, art aficionados and socialites that runs until the fall, is as important in contemporary art as the Milan runway is for Italian fashion houses. At the kick-off this week, a strike of the vaporetto—the public-transport system on water—unleashed solidarity among the early crowds who shared water taxis from one exhibition to the next. Many dressed in Prada.
Art and fashion have developed a symbiotic relationship in recent years. Contemporary artists use fashion labels as vehicles of publicity, and the labels use artists to enhance the value of items with five-figure prices. Takashi Murakami became a celebrity after collaborating on a line of Louis Vuitton bags with smiling cherries and rainbow-colored "LV" logos. Chanel commissioned Zaha Hadid, an award-winning Iraqi architect, to build a mobile pavilion to contain art inspired by its bags.
Ms. Prada pans the idea of tacking art onto her fashion—there will be no Prada products in collaboration with an artist, she says.
Yet she has considered lending her fashion to art. Chinese artist Cao Fei sought Ms. Prada's permission to create a fake Prada factory in China—a play on the counterfeiting and the "Made in China" taboos that pervade high-end fashion. Out of concern for the image of her fashion house, Ms. Prada turned down the idea. But she calls it "genius," teasing, "Who knows, maybe one day."
An independent streak runs through Ms. Prada's life. As a student in the 1970s, she was a registered Communist. For years after taking over the fashion house started by her grandfather, she was uncomfortable in her role. She lashed out by creating high-end fashion out of mundane materials like nylon. Shoes were clunky and skirts librarian-like, never veering into flesh-baring sexiness.
In the early 1990s, when Ms. Prada was beginning to make a mark on fashion, an artist friend suggested she put on a sculpture exhibition. Ms. Prada knew nothing about art, she says, and at times she expressed disdain for collecting art. But she immersed herself in its study, often learning from artists themselves.
Mr. Koolhaas once showed her a table with porcelain mice figurines from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. She transposed that idea to the new Venice exhibition, where 18th-century miniature flowers, animals and characters face off against Jeff Koons's "Fait d'Hiver", a pop-culture porcelain of a woman in a netted dress. "When I showed it to [Mr. Koolhaas], he said, 'You stole my idea,' " Ms. Prada says.
The 1960s became a favorite period, "when ideas were bold and passionate and wanted to change the world," she says. One of her favorites is Walter De Maria's "Silver Portrait of Dorian Gray," which she took off the wall of her home in Milan to hang in Venice for six months.
Like fashion, art doesn't have to be pleasing to appeal to Ms. Prada. In the Ca' Corner della Regina, Charles Ray's "Tub with Black Dye" looks oppressively sinister in the confines of a small room with a low wood-beam ceiling.
In a way, art heightens her appreciation for her job as a designer. "I tell artists I'm lucky because I have this thing that anchors me to reality," she says. "Fashion is important because it's the way people represent themselves, and it reflects current times." - WSJ