How Prada Works Now
If you are a Prada-phile then paradise lies in Valvigna, Tuscany. Halfway down the A1 highway from Milan to Rome this complex, formally known as the company’s Industrial Headquarters, took 10 years to complete under the instruction of CEO Patrizio Bertelli (who has a helipad on-site) and is only rarely visited by outsiders.
Why such a paradise? Well, Valvigna houses a footwear and bag archive that spans the entire production history of both Prada and Miu Miu ; this contains over 100,000 pieces. Touring the near soccer-stadium-sized depository of Miuccia Prada’s design heritage—hundreds of temperature-controlled storage lockers packed with bags and luggage, tens of meters of tables and trolleys heaped precisely with footwear—is jaw-dropping.
On the day I visited last week, however, my low-flying jaw went entirely unnoticed, because, just like the five-strong Prada team giving me a tour and the several hundred Prada employees—lots, but far fewer than usual—working in the complex, my face was masked.
One of Valvigna’s long-held functions in Prada’s structure is prototyping. It is here that Prada’s craftspeople—nearly all of them women during the shift I passed through—cut, stitch, scythe, dye, paint, and rivet every proposed bag that is passed to them each season by Mrs. Prada and her design teams (and soon Raf Simons, too). Right now, undoubtedly the most important prototype of all under development at Valvigna is not a Prada product, but something much more fundamental: the process of Prada’s production in the time of COVID-19.
“We are obsessed with getting it right. We have to get back to life, and the only way to do that is to have the right protection and to be safe.” This is said by Lamberto Berti, Valvigna’s industrial relations director. Along with Liria Girolami (industrial general secretariat manager) and Mauro Boschi (industrial maintenance manager), Berti, under the direction of Bertelli, has been working to refine Prada’s biosecurity procedures since Italy’s government sanctioned the restart of the nation’s fashion manufacturers on April 21.
The visit starts with the same procedure that all 800 Valvigna employees observe when they come to work: up from the sparsely filled car park, down a pathway lined with beds of grapevine and jasmine, then into a cool concrete atrium, where the temperature is checked by a wall-mounted thermal scanner. Behind a large new Perspex screen, the receptionist establishes that you are below 37.5 degrees Celsius before you are asked to step forward and sanitize my hands. Next you’re handed a pack containing two Prada-made white surgical-style masks.
On the first two days after Valvigna reopened, each of the 200 employees who had agreed to come in had their temperature checked by Girolami, who wore full PPE. On day three Prada installed that wall mounted scanner and has since finessed a system by which small groups of employees are asked to arrive at 20-minute intervals. Says Berti: “This avoids gathering at the entrance, and any gathering here. There is no line to wait in, and the system is very fast, precise, and reliable.”
Down a corridor we come to what used to be Valvigna’s canteen. Like all of this Guido Canali–designed complex, it is hypermodern, rationalist, and clinical. This is where, shortly after reopening, medical staff from Florence’s Careggi hospital came and tested Prada employees at a rate of 100 per hour. In all of Tuscany, around 3,000 Prada workers have now been tested. Of these, eight were positive for COVID-19 and were immediately asked to self-isolate. Prada immediately offered further testing for these employees and their families.
The plan, reports Berti, is to test all of Prada’s employees every month, once an agreement has been struck with all the relevant local authorities across Italy, of which Tuscany was the first to agree. Berti says: “It’s very important to do this because it means you know you are working in a safe environment. After all those days of lockdown, everyone was troubled. But once you see these procedures you understand that we are committed to guarantee the safety of the people who work for us. If you are leaving home, getting into your car, going to work, and then going back to your family this knowledge makes a big difference.”
As I know from being tested myself shortly before visiting Valvigna, knowing your own status is reassuring. And should that status be negative, as mine is, to be confident that everyone in the enormous building around you is not likely to be a spreader of COVID-19 feels almost, almost, like being back in the days before this pandemic struck. Inside Valvigna, however, they operate on the basis that nothing can be entirely certain.
Along from the canteen-turned-clinic, the huge bay that accepts, monitors, then stores all of the raw materials needed for Prada’s leather goods is sometimes thunderously noisy—thanks in part to an outrageously cool robotic picker that boxes packages of hardware and other components needed for orders of bag designs—but it is sparsely populated. The staff who are quality checking leathers before transferring them to huge towers of storage units are easily able to work two meters apart from each other thanks to a split shift system that is currently in place: two groups of 300 workers are working six hours a day.
Upstairs in that prototyping area there are lines of machines shrouded in black covers, awaiting the operators who will arrive to fire them up on the second shift. Dotted between sanitation stations, colleagues who drew the early shift are busy applying the minute and precise actions required to fulfill their component stage in building a prototype bag, from its origin as a sketch, via paper pattern, to cutting, stitching, decoration, and application of hardware, all the way through to the finished prototype product. This is a long, fascinating, and meticulous process, described in detail as we move through the glass-roofed space by Daniele Eclizzetta, technical training manager in the leather goods department. One key new element in this process, he says, is that “there is now tight cooperation to ensure distancing does not break down. So if one colleague is passing a bag on to another, they leave it by their machine, step back, and the colleague steps forward to take the bag.”
This workshop is where all Prada handbags, once conceived by their designer, are fashioned into physical form. And just next to it lies that ultimate Prada nirvana: the archive. For 20 minutes we root through the long lines of storage, each labeled according to date of production, collection, and bag type. Especially beautiful pieces to see again are the Face Art bags from 2014. And there is an incredible set of richly patinated traveling trunks made for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel that I didn’t know existed. My Prada guides laugh through their masks as my eyes widen at the sight of it.
Before I leave, Berti observes: “When we started to think about coming back to work everyone was very concerned for the future, and of course we still are. It is something we have done very carefully and seriously. But the experience of taking that step—of actually going out again to go to work—that has been a very happy and emotional experience in the middle of a very difficult time.”