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Prada, sailing to new horizons
Lifestyle

Prada, sailing to new horizons

Tristan Rutherford
29th October 2019

For good reason has Prada navigated farther than other fashion brands. For over a century it has clothed adventurous sailors, frequently using naval nylons and travelling trunk designs. Now the world’s fastest - and most fashionable - yachties wear Prada. As a current America’s Cup sponsor, the label will turn heads this season.

Nearly a century ago Italian liner SS Conte di Savoia was the pride of her class. In all, 578 First Class passengers could glide from Napoli to New York on a seven-night extravaganza of bellini cocktails, ballroom dancing and piped Caruso arias. The 248m vessel was built to last at Trieste's Fincantieri shipyard. Today the boatbuilder crafts many of the world's largest superyachts including 140m Ocean Victory, which was designed by Espen Oeino for a Camper & Nicholsons’ client.

Then, as now, a Milanese firm sailed in the wake of these high society habituées. In 1913 Mario Prada opened a shop selling steamer trunks to transatlantic travellers. His head-height cases featured a dozen drawers, costume hangers and detachable grips. Signor Prada’s luggage became synonymous with hard-wearing style, although one must pity the porters who had to lug them aboard each liner. Each case came embossed with a company address in Milan: Galleria Vittorio Emanuele 63. It remains the flagship Prada store to this day.

Prada embellished its brand thanks to a century of innovation. In 1975 Mario’s granddaughter, Miuccia Prada, joined the family firm. A few years later she launched a backpack made from the same army spec nylon that her grandfather used to cover steamer trunks. A shoe line followed in 1979. In 1985 Miuccia released a black tote so popular it became known simply as “the Prada bag”. As she once told The New Yorker magazine: “I want always to mix the industrial way of doing things, with the patrimonio of the past.” It’s a savvy mix. So much so that Prada trunks, hand-me-down heels and original it-bags are fought over in vintage stores from Rellick on London’s Ladbroke Grove to L'Arabesque on Milan's Via Francesco Sforza.

Signor Prada’s luggage became synonymous with hard-wearing style, although one must pity the porters who had to lug them aboard each liner.

The high seas are like high fashion. If you stay still, you sink. Similarly, throughout the 20th century Camper & Nicholsons constantly reinvented itself by pioneering Marconi rigs, laminate wood constructions, commando surf vessels and flying boats, while producing the largest sailing and motor yachts the world had ever seen. Like a Prada purse, the boatbuilder’s style keeps its value. For example, teak sailing yacht Ippogrifo II, designed by ocean racing architect Germán Frers and built by Camper & Nicholsons, still garners knowing looks from Porto Cervo to the Port de Nice.

In 1997 a seafaring innovation placed Prada on the global map. Patrizio Bertelli, Miuccia Prada’s husband and company CEO, opined that no other race coupled style, energy and global allure like the America’s Cup. If Prada entered the 30th edition of the race in 2000 it would be good publicity. If they won, the entire world would see the red Prada rectangle stamped on a gunmetal grey hull. A conversation with Germán Frers resulted in Luna Rossa, a flush-decked racer that only a Milanese fashionista could commission. Prada’s punt was a long way from liner luggage. The question was, how would it sail?

Rarely have as many as 11 challengers sailed to an America’s Cup start line. Nor has a race boasted as many big name captains as the 2000 tournament. These included American Yachtsman of the Year Paul Cayard, Route du Rhum champion Marc Pajot and four times America’s Cup winner Dennis Conner. All had competed in both the Olympic Games and the Whitbread Round the World Race.

Luna Rossa beat them all. Her skipper Francesco de Angelis became the first Italian to win the challengers’ trophy. He was ably assisted by Max Sirena as mid-bowman - traditionally the toughest job onboard. In short, the Prada yacht won the right to challenge Team New Zealand for the America’s Cup proper. The race also marked the first time that all American attempts to lift the Auld Mug had been eliminated before the final round.

Luna Rossa looked spectacular in the America’s Cup sail-off, with her Prada-clad grinders half-submerged by Auckland's raging Hauraki Gulf. But trophy defenders Team New Zealand, led by Kiwi Olympic champion Sir Russell Coutts, proved too strong. Prada challenged again in Auckland in 2003, and Valencia in 2007, while her successor boats plied their colours in harbours from Marseille to Malmö, from Sardinia to Singapore, before racing under San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge in the 2013 America’s Cup.

Solid showings in the America’s Cup did the Prada brand no harm. New Prada flagship stores in Seoul and Tokyo were designed by Pritzker Prize winners Rem Koolhaas and Herzog & de Meuron. A 2006 biopic of American Vogue could only be called The Devil Wears Prada.

The tournaments also proved that top teams must sail ahead of the pack. Prada once sold luggage to wealthy Italians, but now makes headway purveying eyewear and fragrance to Brazilian industrialists and Chinese millennials. In another novel twist, the company isn’t listed in Milan or New York, but on the Hong Kong stock exchange. In Miuccia’s own words: “I always wanted to be different. I always wanted to be first.” It’s a lesson for fashion icons and sailors alike.

Next year the America’s Cup returns to New Zealand. Luna Rossa’s skipper will be Max Sirena, the former bowman from Prada’s original challenge 20 years ago. The Italian will be hoping for a sterling silver trophy to match his Prada shoes.

Luna Rossa’s skipper will be Max Sirena, the former bowman from Prada’s original challenge 20 years ago. The Italian will be hoping for a sterling silver trophy to match his Prada shoes.

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