Christian Dior defined Cristóbal Balenciaga, the ultimate designer's designer as "the master of us all." Miuccia Prada, who shows her Miu Miu collection for the first time in Paris this week, can rightly be described as "the mistress of us all." No other creator has the same ability to distill the essence of what is modern, sampling the cultural heritage, anchoring shifting society and making it all seem relevant.
The Milanese designer, with a touch of the school ma'am (despite her Mr. Punch smile), is fashion's undisputed trendsetter and mood maker.
On Sunday, Prada, 55, will effectively close the international collections, playing the end game role held for so many years by Yves Saint Laurent. He was her fashion hero when she was a young Communist idealist in the early 1970s, studying political science in Milan and theatrical mime in her spare time.
Perhaps that concoction of interior intellect and expressive, nonverbal communication is the recipe for Prada's fashion force. Last week's Milan show was one of those defining moments of change, when a new savagery outmoded the ladylike fashion gestures that Prada herself had created.
"Until 10 years ago it was about changing a bourgeois vision of beauty - then 10 years defining a new beauty," she says. "Now the world is so complicated and loud, unless you scream no one listens."
The Italian designer has shifted from her role as chaste minimalist, pitting simple urban clothes against the maximal sexiness of Tom Ford's Gucci. Now, with her eponymous label and the Miu Miu line, she has earned the global respect that she never quite allows herself.
"I always feel obvious to myself - it's a world I know so much," she says, referring to one of her recent about-turns when she went to Berlin to study Caspar David Friedrich's German romantic paintings as inspiration for a 2004 collection.
She wanted, she says, to take another look at "our values as European people - keeping all this treasure and making it understandable." That these thoughts coincided with the enlarging of the European Community is what makes Prada so exceptional. While designers mostly live in a fashion bubble, she has an urgent connection to what is happening in the world.
That elegy to old Europe, nostalgic, darkly romantic and intense in its decoration, was two decades away from the nylon backpack that jump- started her career in 1985. That was the first minimalist statement in the over-the-top 1980s and a gift to working women - even if Prada's latest show viewed the current female generation as power figures wearing savage furs. They paraded against a video backdrop of an urban jungle, created by the OMA team of her Dutch architect friend Rem Koolhaas.
If designers are divided into architects and decorators, Prada is resolutely of the former kind, although she never puts pencil to paper to draw those linear silhouettes.
"I am never interested in a look," she says. "I work on an idea in general - a concept. I absorb myself in the collection - and afterwards I put it together.
"What I try to do now is to reference the past and do something contemporary," Prada says, describing last year's men's show backdrop, also created with OMA, of a 16th-century Islamic battle - with the heads Photoshopped into video game characters.
"Maybe I like battles because it is what I have to do to survive - a battle is a symbol of struggle in general," she says, claiming that in her Milan studio "although I try to be democratic, in the end I am really tough."
It is the "team" that manipulates computer images and that created another eerie backdrop in which unrelated fragments of news were Googled and projected.
"I don't even own a computer," admits Prada. "It is in my imagination."
Prada is eager to refute the widely held view that her husband, Patrizio Bertelli, whom she met in 1978, the year after she took over the family company from her mother, is the money man to her creative soul. She describes him as being "interested in objects." Bertelli, who came from a family of lawyers and met his wife when he supplied leather goods to Prada, is also involved in design and makes crucial calls about the details or tone of a collection.
Together they set up PradaMilanoArte in 1993, which grew into Fondazione Prada, showcasing artists such as Anish Kapoor, Louise Bourgeois and Marc Quinn, with an upcoming Tom Sachs show from April 6. The foundation is also involved in restoring historic Italian films; it collaborates with the Tribeca Film Festival; and sponsors an intellectual program on current aesthetics through the philosophy department of Milan's San Raffaele University.
Prada says of the foundation: "I've tried so hard to keep it separate. I hate the idea of doing art to sell bags. It is not to sell bags - but because it is beautiful."
Bertelli and Prada understood instinctively the power of architecture to define a brand, using Koolhaas to create in New York's SoHo a dramatic and original store (which will reopen at the end of March after a fire earlier this year). They tapped the Swiss architectural duo Herzog & de Meuren to create in Tokyo's Aoyama a glass menagerie, which hosted in 2004 an exhibition of Prada skirts called "Waist Down."
Prada mostly wears skirts, although she significantly took her bow at last week's show in black sweater and pants as though to say: The lady game is over.
At lunch at the Hotel Crillon in Paris, she wears a full-skirted cotton striped dress like the girl next door in a 1950s Italian movie. But she claims: "I corrected mistakes on the stripes 25 times," explaining how each line is hand painted.
Prada's predilection for dirndl skirts is rooted in her childhood, when her grandfather Mario, who founded the company in 1913, turned toward Austria (then the prime supplier of fine leather) and toward Germany.
"He was fascinated by Hitler's parades and he was obsessed by German culture," says Prada, recalling photographs of her mother in Tyrolean dress and remembering how she and her brother and sister would dress in leather trousers or dirndls - as she still does when she vacations on the Italian lakeside with her mother.
But Prada does not see her early years as formative.
"I was isolated as a child and very much alone," she says. "I can't say I had a bad youth - it was just neutral."
Then came the intellectual intensity of her college years, when legend has her distributing Communist leaflets with her close friend Manuela Pavese, both dressed in YSL. She says that China (which she visited in the 1970s) presented to intelligent Italian youth "a hope for the future" and that it is only now that "being a Communist sounds such a big deal."
She also admits that she was "mad about fashion, clothes and beauty," wearing big, dramatic hats with veils. ("I was very vain.")
"I would like to wear a hat all the time - something in the hair is fundamental," she says of her quirky Alice bands and bird-feather bucket hats.
For her, fashion was - and perhaps still is - a rebellious act.
"I have to be the first to wear anything - to be different - that is my obsession," Prada admits.
Prada's mother, a fixture at the till of the family store in Milan's Galleria, became a merchant after her father lost interest in the business after the war. Her daughter's injection of energy, with the help of a partner she always calls "Bertelli," was a slow-burning fuse.
The elder of their two sons (now 18 and 16) was an infant when Prada first produced a nylon parka and developed the minimalist aesthetic that was the essence of the 1990s. (Although the designer herself will deck the plainest of cardigans with antique jewels.)
Prada's early fashion statement was the "ugly aesthetic": skewed proportions, awkward combinations and "off- colors" such as lime green and kidney brown.
"I always try to fight good taste and my knowledge of beauty," she says.
Then there was the forward march - for both sexes - of the uniform; clean, perfectly pressed khaki shirts and flat-front pants.
"I love uniforms - I think I like them because they are proper and you can hide yourself," she says. "It is such a dignified position, private - and you don't want to declare who you are to everybody, but to keep your own person for yourself."
After "geek chic" came the return of the lady, ushering in the vogue for vintage-style coats and dresses in a sly take on the bourgeois world Prada had been so eager to abandon. Funky, clumpy shoes were replaced by sugar- sweet pumps covered with roses. Dresses were printed with Italian tourist brochure postcards - although that, too, was subversive, because the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had made tourism scary rather than innocent.
Nothing was more subversive than Prada's sudden embrace of hooker sex, with transparent raincoats and porn- shop shoes.
"I like to touch aspects I don't like," she says. "Every season I am intrigued by something. And that was really at the edge."
Prada answers questions thoughtfully, measuring her replies. Does she ever feel, as Sonia Rykiel once said of herself, that "she is too intelligent for her métier"?
"I don't agree - if you use intelligence to make work better," says Prada.
Yet she is alone in being the only woman at the head of a mighty brand with annual revenues for 2005 estimated at €1.44 billion. The company is founded on accessories but constantly branching out - even if Bertelli's dream of building a luxury group fell apart. The Prada Group sold its share in Fendi, and Bertelli supposedly riled both Helmut Lang and Jil Sander, whose business is now on the cusp of being sold to a British equity group.
Prada says that she works harder than ever, worrying about the speed of modern "fast fashion" and the need to keep up.
"Fashion is such an interesting world," she says. "More and more fashion can be central to certain changes. The work you do has to define your moment and your period."