THE NYLON BAG: A LIFE BEYOND THE BOUTIQUE
Once considered “the epitome of stealth wealth: expensive and recognisable only to those in the know,” the notorious Prada handbag has now become an attainable aspiration amongst the youth of today
Monday 11th March 2019
Sat in journalist Alexander Fury and his partner Joe Larkowsky’s living room, on their emerald green velvet sofa in their one-bedroom flat just off Kingsland Road, I am handed a book. About A3 in size and concealed in a black sleeve I carefully ease the book out. The cover is black nylon, padded out with a thin layer of foam and held shut with a nylon strip fastening. No words, no images just nylon.
The special edition book, published in 2018 and commissioned by Miuccia Prada herself, was made to “basically get people to buy nylon bags,” Larkowsky explains. Inside it features a series of loose-leaf editorial shots photographed by Willy Vanderperre, alongside a short extract of text, written by Prada fanatic Alexander Fury, the text reads, “In 1978, Miuccia Prada released a bag, a bag that changed fashion. The style was simple, the lines clean, the material unusual – utilitarian, industrial and above all new. The material was black nylon,” he continued, “over forty years, it is a material that has become synonymous with Prada.”
“One back. Two sides. Two zips. Two handles (stuffed). One bottom. Six pieces of monogrammed lining. Four pieces of inter-lining. Seven bits of stiffener and two strips of wire,” is what makes up Prada’s notorious nylon handbag, according to Linda Watson in an article she wrote for ES Magazine back in 1994. Titled, “A Nylon Bag: It’s the ultimate fashion statement, but what’s really in it?” The article - quite literally – pulled apart Prada’s most desired handbag and questioned why people just can’t get enough of it.
Almost 25 years later and this design piece has managed to maintain its cult-like following. However, no longer are the bearers of Miuccia Prada’s synthetic creation solely the elite of fashion society, who can one - afford the bag, and two - manage to get hold of it. Instead, the bag now has another existence, in the world of online resale, lusted over and purchased by the youth of today.
In its earlier days the “it bag” was famous amongst fashion editors, worn by Kate Rearden of Tatler and Kim Stringer of Elle, who again according to Watson, “both have five.” It was also seen on Jackie Modlinger of The Daily Express, who apparently owned “twenty.” Throughout the 90s every fashion editor was dying to get their hands on one, but now, predominantly worn by the elite of Instagram, the bag has become much more accessible to those lower down fashion’s hierarchical scale.
In 1978, at age 28, Miuccia Prada – after years of hesitation – took over her families long-established luggage business. Founded in 1913 by her grandfather Mario Prada, the company specialised in high-quality leather products and luxury items, using only the finest craftsmanship and materials. Fratelli Prada or The Prada Brothers, as it was previously known, had the Italian aristocrats and European royalty of the time in raptures.
Miuccia inherited a business built on luxury and tradition, which she believed was out-dated. Therefore, it didn’t take her long to make her mark on the company, starting with the launch of the first nylon bag in 1978, shorty after she took to the wheel. Classically shaped, but made from Pocone, a synthetic fabric that had been used by her predecessors to line the inside of their Fratelli Prada trunks, Miuccia Prada effectively turned the inside-out. The bags epitomised her love for combining the old with the new. They were small, original and wholly practical, “it’s waterproof, it doesn’t scuff. It’s brilliantly made. Most importantly, it’s got a big shiny Prada badge on the front which says: ‘I paid £230 for my handbag,” Linda Watson later outlined.
The catch was, because no one had worked with this fabric before, which according to Catherine Wilson, for the Telegraph in 1998, was “the stuff military tents are made of,” the nylon bags were even more expensive to produce than ones made from leather, best pleasing Prada’s price-tag conscious consumer and thus making the bags even more desirable.
Although, “in the beginning they didn’t get it,” Miuccia Prada recalled to British Vogue in April 1993, she continued to produce the bags until the customers “came round.” Her perseverance paid off and the bag later became one of the biggest statements in fashion throughout the 90s, as well as Prada’s first commercial success. In a four page spread inside ES Magazine from February 2004, titled “The Prada Saga,” Lydia Slater explains, “The Prada nylon bags were the epitome of stealth wealth: expensive and recognisable only to those in the know.”
In more recent years, after facing several seasons of decreasing sales, for Autumn Winter 2018 Prada bought nylon back in a big way. Referred to by Sarah Mower for British Vogue as, “sketchily put together” and “assembled entirely from man-made materials,” the collection was almost completely made from the infamous synthetic fabric Pocone. Not only did the iconic bag make a bold reappearance itself – held in the hands of pretty much all of the models – but other garments were also designed with the nylon bag in mind. The show opened with model, Anok Yai, dressed in a black button-through Pocone dress, adorned with Prada’s signature triangular logo, the bag quite literally reimagined into a dress.
However, the four closing looks made the biggest impact, particularly on social media, featuring models dressed head-to-toe in nylon, each wearing a different shade of neon – pink, green, blue and orange – their bucket hats matching their oversized utilitarian padded gilets and jackets. Across the chest, each of the four looks was branded with Prada’s “red stripe,” marking the re-launch of their diffusion sportswear line, “Luna Rossa”, that initially ran from 1999 until 2006, subsequently causing a stir amongst lovers of vintage Prada.
Young Prada collectors and couple, Alex Animba, age 20, and Joe Kirkendall, age 19, spoke about how this revival is being received by their generation. Alex explaining that, “If it wasn’t for the prominence of vintage resell culture, I don’t think the Luna Rossa and all the nylon would have been re-released.” Highlighting that she believes online re-sell app, Depop, “appropriated the brand in a new way, that made it more accessible and exciting to younger people – a demographic who wouldn’t have been a consumer before.”
When referring to the nylon bag specifically, her boyfriend Joe, went on to explain, “most of the iconic brands have a specific style of bag that is signature to them. The nylon bag plays that role for Prada.” In a similar way to Alex, he argued that, “re-sale makes it more accessible to people, as it is generally cheaper to buy it from Depop or a vintage shop than buying it from the store. Therefore it brings a new type of consumer to the brand.”
It appears Prada are doing all they can to engage a younger audience and it seems to be working. By bringing back the sportswear influence that inspired their collections in the 80s and 90s, they are appealing to the zeitgeist that has somehow managed to nuzzle its way back into luxury fashion.
However, the irony – which Miuccia Prada is so famous for – lies in the fact that the synthetic bags are so appealing to a younger “millennial” generation of consumers. Consumers that are typically praised for their environmentally conscious and sustainability focused outlook on fashion. As Sarah Mower later explained, the Autumn Winter 2018 collection “provokes questioning. The use of so many unsustainable man-made fabrics is a big one […] Art is art, but fashion is the bigger culprit in damaging the planet. How good it would be to see Miuccia Prada begin to turn her creative intelligence to that subject.” Mower speaks sense and despite the Prada Group hosting two "Shaping a Future" conferences in the past year, as well as introducing a “Social Responsibility” page on their website, little has been done to address issues of sustainability on the runway.
Miuccia Prada, unfazed by trying to be something she isn’t, is yet to engage with a new environmentally friendly way of thinking about fashion. But still, her collections remain adored by and aimed at the youth of today. Again, Sarah Mower, this time in response to Prada’s Spring Summer 2019 collection for British Vogue, recalled, “her address seemed aimed directly to youth,” continuing, “It’s no secret that a new generation of consumers is rising all over the world, and there’s a battle of the brands to win their attention,” inferring that Prada is one of the major fashion houses doing this successfully. In some ways, Miuccia Prada is applaud-able for continuing to appeal to millennials without an utterance of sustainability jargon.
Over the past few years, even prior to Prada’s Autumn Winter 2018 collection, there has been a resurgence in people lusting over vintage Prada, the nylon bag has grown to dominate re-sell sites, such as eBay and Depop. With entire accounts exclusively dedicated to selling Miuccia’s nylon totes, cross-bodies and rucksacks. Depop seller, who chose to remain anonymous but runs the account Designer Pick, profits entirely from re-selling nylon Prada bags and has accumulated over four thousand followers. “Whenever a new bag goes up, it’s gone within a couple of hours, if not minutes […] I’ve experimented with selling other accessories from other brands before, but I never get a reaction like the one I get from the Prada nylon bags,” he explained. When asked why he thinks they are so popular he continued, “they are timeless, they came around what, over forty years ago and they still look new and fresh, not many designers have ever been able to do that.”
This suggests that because the price point of retail Prada is still inaccessible to many young people, the nylon bag now lives its own life re-sold online. Alex later explains that the reason Prada is so “massive” online is because she believes, “it aligns with social media culture and our generation who are obsessed with looking better than everyone else, and looking like they have wealth,” she continues, “its all about image and money.”
Whether you like nylon or not, it has and will continue to be the beating heart of the house of Prada. From beginning to end (well, its not quite over yet) the fabric, in bag form or not, has successfully enticed the Prada customer. Whether it’s fashion leaders of the 90s or the all-important millennials this era seems to be so obsessed with, Miuccia Prada has got them under her thumb. Snared in a trap of synthetic but brilliant fakery.