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The History of the Prada Nylon Bag and How It Changed Luxury Fashion

The History of the Prada Nylon Bag and How It Changed Luxury Fashion

The Prada Nylon Bag and How It Changed Luxury Fashion Nylon Bag Navy Blue Gold Details

The famous Italian brand Prada which has become a household name. What many people today do not know is that the company’s development from a family business trading in leather goods into a global brand was heavily influenced by a bag made from nylon. This so-called Vela bag was launched in the 1980s and until today it has been one of the signature designs and materials of the Prada brand. Designed by Miuccia Prada, it was something the fashion world had not seen before – luxury was associated with leather goods, not with an “inferior” performance material such as nylon.[1]

“I have always wanted to mix industrial ways of producing things with past heritage, with artisan tradition.”

Miuccia Prada[2]

You can also watch my video here:

The Nylon Bag and Y2K

Due to the current Y2K trend, the Prada bags have had a revival and they are really sought after. In 2022, Prada’s Re-nylon Re-edition 2000 mini bag was named as “Handbag of the Year” by online shopping platform Lyst. Searches on their platform for the bag had increased by 131% and the #pradanylonbag currently has more than six million views on Tiktok (as of 25 September 2023). This just shows how modern this material still looks today.[3]

Hailey Bieber in the current Y2K-trend with a Prada Re-Edition nylon bag.

This nylon material put Prada on the global fashion map. Today, even people who are not interested in fashion at all have heard of Prada. Today, the Prada Group which also owns the fashion label Miu Miu, the shoe company Church’s and the famous Italian Pasticceria Marchesi, amongst others, is listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange and operates in more than 70 countries with over 610 stores. An entire movie, The Devil Wears Prada, was called after the Italian fashion brand.[4] 

The Beginnings of Prada

To understand why this bag was such an important milestone not only for Prada itself but the whole fashion world, it is necessary to look into the history of the Prada brand which goes back to the mid-19th century when Mario Prada was born in Milan in 1857. Mario worked as a salesman at a leather goods shop and tried to learn as much as possible about the leather trade – from the production process, to quality standards, to sales. In 1913, he decided to venture out on his own and founded Fratelli Prada with his brother Martino. “Fratelli” means brothers in Italian and this name shows that it was a family business. Fratelli Prada dealt with a range of leather goods such as bags, trunks and travel accessories.[5]

The Prada Nylon Bag and How It Changed Luxury Fashion Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II Milan
Mario Prada opened his first store at the prestigious Galliera Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan in 1913. (Picture source: Liz Steiger).

Because of his experience as a leather goods salesman, Mario knew that the quality of products was one thing. But without the right presentation and brand mystique, people would not buy the products no matter how good the quality. He decided to take a risk and rented a store at the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan. This famous Milanese landmark is Italy’s oldest shopping gallery and is still in use today. By opening a store at this prestigious address, Mario Prada wanted to send a signal to potential clients that his products deserve to be seen among the best and soon, he established his business as a premiere shopping address in the country.[6]

In 1919, Prada was named an official supplier of the Italian King. Just a quick note on some history facts: Until the mid-19th century, Italy was not a unified country, the region was made up of smaller kingdoms. In 1860, the House of Savoy led the Italian unification. This royal dynasty originally ruled over parts of France, Switzerland and Italy and ended up ruling the Kingdom of Italy until 1946. Being named an official supplier was also kind of a seal of approval for Prada. Furthermore, it allowed them to use the coat of arms of the House of Savoy which is still part of the Prada logo today.[7] 

The Prada Nylon Bag and How It Changed Luxury Fashion Coat of Arms House of Savoy Logo
The coat of arms of the House of Savoy is still part of the Prada-logo. (Picture sources (coat of arms and logos): Pinterest, adapted by Liz Steiger).

Miuccia Prada Joins the Business and Paves the Way for Global Expansion

Mario Prada – like many men of the time, held the belief that the business should only be taken over by his son. However, his son had no interest in the business and, hence, Luisa Prada took over and ran the business for 20 years. Luisa is the mother of Miuccia Prada who currently runs the business. And there is actually an interesting story behind Miuccia’s name: She was born in 1949 as Maria Bianchi – Bianchi is the family name of her father. Her family and friends called her Miuccia and her aunt adopted her so that she could use the Prada name – but this only happened later, in the 1980s.[8] 

Even though Miuccia has always been passionate about fashion, she did not pursue it as a career from the start. Initially she wanted to become a professional mime and also took classes. Later on, she studied Political Science and graduated with a PhD from the Università degli Studi di Milano. During her studies, she also joined the Communist Party. Some publications assume that she may have joined the party because of her strong views on feminism – she was an active member of the “Unione Donne in Italia” (the “Union of Italian Women”) and as certain branches of communism propagate equality, she may have been drawn to it, but this is speculation in my opinion.[9] What she herself said was:

“But [communism] was very common back then. Every young kid who was vaguely clever was leftist, so it’s not that I was so special. For sure, I decided to be part of a group.”

Miuccia Prada[10]

There is another quote by Miuccia in which she explains why she did not go into the fashion business immediately:

“Dressing myself, I always loved and still love and I think there’s nothing wrong with that. I always wanted to be the first to have everything, to look different from the others. It started at a very personal point. So that I don’t dislike, I don’t reject. … I don’t disown clothing. I always accepted my love for clothes, but I didn’t want to enter into the fashion business. But I did it, I think, because I probably liked it. And the liking of doing it was more than the theoretical dislike.”

Miuccia Prada[11]

Furthermore, looking at the context and Miuccia Prada’s social circles, there is also another dimension to it: Miuccia also faced a lot of disapproval for entering fashion. In the 1970s, feminists did not “bother” with fashion. This was the time when women burned their bras to show their discontent with women’s rights and also the standards imposed by the fashion industry on them. Nevertheless, Miuccia went ahead and said she did it because she loved it so much.

Miuccia Prada.

Miuccia joined the business in 1975 – at that time, Prada was run by her mother Luisa and it was neither a fashion brand nor a household name like today. The business had actually been slowing down and when Miuccia took over the accessories department, she knew that things had to change. The business needed a different approach and ideas to move forward and she started to explore alternative fabrics to leather, one of them was nylon.[12] 

In 1977, the year her mother retired, Miuccia attended a trade show for leather goods and met Patrizio Bertelli who later became her husband and business partner. The two of them started a collection of leather products together and in 1979, Prada introduced a footwear line for women which already marked the path into the new direction of the business.[13] 

The 1980s and 1990s – The “Nylon-Brand”

And now we have arrived in the mid-1980s when the “star” of this article was launched – the nylon bag. This was something unheard of and really new. Luxury fashion was not associated with “inferior” materials such as nylon. Most luxury accessory companies used leather. But this made her move so brilliant: it was unexpected, it was new, it was maybe even subversive. Why did Miuccia choose this material apart from its disruptive statement? It was because for her, fashion should also be functional.[14]

Prada Fall/Winter 1988 Womenswear Collection.

The bags marked another important milestone: Prada became a fashion brand and their first ready-to-wear collection was for Fall/Winter 1988. In general, the collection was well-received, but Miuccia herself was a bit critical of it. Beforehand, many people gave her the advice to not do anything “too much” and to stay within some boundaries. The collection ended up using black and white tones. But even though this could see as a safe collection, it very much clashed with most of the collections from the opulent 1980s, as it was much quieter, much cleaner. In the long-run, Miuccia learned from that experience: she had to find her own voice as a designer and slowly developed the brand’s design language and identity. She knew that the brand had to differentiate itself and be different from others.[15] 

Prada Re-Edition 2005 Bag in Prada Green.

By the 1990s, Prada was known as the “nylon brand”[16]. With its simple designs and approach, the brand was an antidote to the fashion of the time: think about the 1980s which were clearly over the top. At the same time, many designs were extremely conservative. Prada changed that. Another brilliant move was to introduce the “Prada Green” as a signature colour. Not only did Prada launch designs in the signature green, but also did they use it for the interior design of the Prada stores. No matter if someone carried a bag or you peeked inside of a store – the green indicated that it was Prada.[17] 

Prada store interiors in signature green.

This colour also hints at another development within Prada: Miuccia expanded her black-and-white palette and moved towards something which we would call “ugly chic” today. Some even say that Miuccia Prada was the inventor of this movement. “Ugly chic” means that certain colours, patterns and materials are mixed which would usually not work with each other. But somehow, they do. One of the most referred to collections is the Spring/Summer 1996 collection which stands for Miuccia’s strategy of mixing loud prints with simple, clean and elegant cuts. She managed to make the outfits look effortless. She even said “Ugly is attractive, ugly is exciting, maybe because it’s newer.”[18] and this quote illustrates how she always tries to challenge the status quo.[19]

Global Expansion of the Prada Group

Since then, Prada has gone places – and colours were not the only thing to which the brand has expanded. Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli expanded the business globally. It has become a household name, and, as mentioned above, even people with zero interest in fashion have heard about the brand. In 1993, Miuccia Prada also launched Miu Miu – many people do not know that it is associated with Prada. Furthermore, Prada Sports was launched in the 1990s and in 2018 it was relaunched as Linea Rossa. Miuccia and Patrizio have turned the family business into an international powerhouse. In 2020, Miuccia did something else which was totally unexpected: The Belgian fashion designer Raf Simons was announced as a co-creative director working with Miuccia Prada. This was an interesting move because both designers had been successful independent of each other and their first collaboration was the Spring ready-to-wear 2021collection. Prada has moved beyond the fashion world – not only by acquiring companies like the Pasticceria Marchesi but also by its close relationship with the arts. You may have heard of the Fondazione Prada promoting contemporary art and culture.[20]

The Launch of the Nylon Bag

Let’s come back to the bag: This important bag was called the “Vela bag” and it actually was a backpack. This first iteration was launched in black and brown and it was made from a special type of nylon called “Pocono”. The backpack had a flap top, a D-ring strap closure and drawstring opening and there was no branding. Shortly after this first iteration, Prada launched the “Rucksack” which had additional pockets on the outside, was a midsized version and came with the signature metal logo label in triangular shape. This metallic seal instead of the traditional Prada logo reconfirmed Miuccia’s statement that Prada had moved on from his heritage as a leather goods supplier to the Italian royal family. Nylon was the complete opposite of leather which Prada had used before. At the time, leather may have been considered a bit snobbish even. In contrast to leather, which may have even been considered snobbish, nylon was practical, it was waterproof and durable.[21] 

Iteration of the Vela backpack.

As I said before, the 1980s were either very opulent or conservative. This new bag was neither. Pocono nylon was used by the Italian military for tents. Miuccia Prada got inspired when she visited a factory which produced military tents and parachutes using thin thread on machines from the 19th century. This lightweight and durable material intrigued Miuccia and she decided to use it for a collection of bags. Let’s put this into context – this was the time just after the psychedelic and colourful designs of the 1970s. But it was also a time where many new materials were introduced in fashion.[22]

Can you imagine? Tent material for a luxury bag? But the Vela bag successfully managed to redefine what people considered as luxury. Some called Prada even avant-garde. Miuccia Prada recalled years later: 

 “Suddenly nylon started to look more intriguing to me than couture fabrics. I decided to introduce it to the catwalk and it challenged, even changed, the traditional and conservative idea of luxury. I am still obsessed with it.” 

Miuccia Prada[23]

This material may have been new and disruptive; it may not correspond with what people considered luxury. But it was not a cheap material. Miuccia Prada explained in 2004 that producing those bags was more expensive than using leather because it took them three to four years to learn how to work with the nylon and develop their own technique. She found a company which was spinning a special type of nylon in the 1990s and said in an interview that the thread was very thin and, consequently, quite precious and more expensive than silk.[24]

It took another decade until the bags reached their cult status but until today, they remain a core part of the Prada identity and as I mentioned earlier, Prada has been coming up with new iterations of the bag.[25]

The Prada Nylon Bag and How It Changed Luxury Fashion Nylon Shopper Black
Prada nylon shopper in black, late 1980s/early 1990s (Picture source: Liz Steiger).

I have chosen two versions to show how differently the nylon material can be used. The first one (see picture above) is a shopper in black which has some details on the side and the logo is not too visible and it stands for the durability of Prada.

The Prada Nylon Bag and How It Changed Luxury Fashion Nylon Bag Navy Blue Gold Details
Prada nylon bag in navy blue with gold-coloured metal details, late 1980s/early 1990s. (Picture source: Liz Steiger)

The second one has a very different look, the nylon looks very elevated. The bag is navy blue and the gold-coloured metal straps and details add an elegant touch. It also comes with the signature metal logo-label. 

In January 2019 Miuccia Prada explained her love for nylon after her fashion show: 

“I have a passion for nylon – to death. Nylon is the emblem of an industrial aspect and when we started to make it, it was completely new.”

Miuccia Prada[26]

This quote also relates back to something mentioned above: Miuccia Prada always wanted to look different. And nylon was so far off anything else on the runway that it really reflected her character and attitude. Furthermore, she is said to have commented that she did not like anything already out there, she found most things bourgeois, old-fashioned and boring.[27] 

Prada used nylon for the Fall/Winter 1994 Ready-to-Wear collection.

The use of the nylon fabric moved beyond bags and was incorporated in the Fall 1994 collection. Prada used simple cuts and there are some nods to the military as well – probably to close the circle with Pocono nylon originating from the military. There are tailored jackets, skirts and coats which make the nylon fabric look very smart. Who would have thought that a performance material could look that chic? Soon, the Pocono nylon became synonymous with the Prada brand.[28] 

The message was clear: moving away from the conventional “codes” of luxury. Furthermore, the material worked really well for the minimalism-movement which was promoted by Prada and other designers to counter the maximalism of the 1980s. Until today, the material and bags have stayed very popular. In 2020, Prada introduced the Re-Nylon Re-Edition of 2000 and 2005 bags – a collection of several bags in multiple colours in addition to their signature black.

The Prada Nylon Bag & Sustainability

The nylon bag comes with a flipside: Even though nylon is the signature Prada-material, it is not considered sustainable. Prada is well aware of that and introduced the “Re-Nylon”-line using “Econyl”. This sustainable yarn is made from waste, such as old fishing nets, carpet flooring, or industrial plastics collected from landfills or the oceans. With a chemical process in factories in Slovenia and ITaly, the waste is recycled back to its original purity and transformed into polymers and threads. The company claims that Econyl can be recycled indefinitely. Furthermore, since July 2023, 1% of the Prada Re-Nylon proceeds fund their “Sea Beyond Project”.[29]

I am very curious where this project is going and I cannot wait to hear about the feedback about its sustainability impact and recycling. Especially the latter I find particularly interesting as there are many studies which point out that multiple rounds of recycling of plastics in clothing is challenging or even impossible. Let’s see what Prada will achieve in this field and what Miuccia Prada, Raf Simons and Patrizio Bertelli have planned for the future of the brand.

What about you? What is your view on Prada? Do you own a nylon bag? Or are you thinking of buying one (vintage or Re-Edition)? Let me know in the comments below or on my Instagram.

You can also watch my video on YouTube and give me a like or subscribe to my channel if you enjoyed it, that would help me spread the word 😉


Footnotes

[1] Harper’s Bazaar 2023, Icon-Icon 2023, Threaducation 2023.

[2] Icon-Icon 2023.

[3] Glam Observer 2023, Harper’s Bazaar 2023, Lyst 2023, TikTok 2023, W Magazine 2023. 

[4] Prada Group 2023a.

[5] Glam Observer 2023, Prada Group 2023b, Selfridges 2023, Threaducation 2023.

[6] Prada Group 2023b, Selfridges 2023, Threaducation 2023.

[7] Glam Observer 2023, Prada Group 2023b, Threaducation 2023.

[8] Glam Observer 2023, LinkedIn 2023, The Cut 2023, Threaducation 2023.

[9] ibid.

[10] The Cut 2023.

[11] ibid.

[12] Prada Group 2023b, Threaducation 2023.

[13] Celeb Family 2023, Prada Group 2023b, Threaducation 2023.

[14] Prada Group 2023b, Threaducation 2023.

[15] Glam Observer 2023, Prada Group 2023b, Threaducation 2023.

[16] Threaducation 2023.

[17] Glam Observer 2023, Prada Group 2023b, Threaducation 2023.

[18] Threaducation 2023.

[19] Glam Observer 2023, Material Magazine 2023, Threaducation 2023.

[20] Glam Observer 2023, Prada Group 2023b, Threaducation 2023.

[21] Icon-Icon 2023, Minnie Muse 2023, W Magazine 2023

[22] Icon-Icon 2023.

[23] Prada Group 2023c.

[24] Vogue 2023.

[25] Minnie Muse 2023.

[26] Icon-Icon 2023.

[27] Glam Observer 2023, Icon-Icon 2023, Prada 2023, Vogue 2023.

[28] ibid.

[29] Prada Group 2023d, Vogue 2023.


Sources

See Also
Iconic Bags and the Women Who Inspired Them

Celeb Family, Miuccia Prada Family, last accessed on 28 September 2023.

Glam Observer, The History of Prada, last accessed on 28 September 2023.

Harper’s Bazaar, History of the Hero: Prada nylon bags, last accessed on 28 September 2023.

Icon-Icon, The Pocono, Iconic Prada Material, last accessed on 28 September 2023.

LinkedIn, Miuccia Bianchi Prada, last accessed on 28 September 2023.

Lyst, Year in Fashion 2022, last accessed on 28 September 2023.

Material Magazine, The Impact of Ugly: Why 90s Prada Is Still So Relevant, last accessed on 28 September 2023.

Minnie Muse, Prada’s First Nylon Backpack, last accessed on 28 September 2023.

Prada, Fashion Shows, FW 1994 Womenswear, last accessed on 28 September 2023.

Prada Group a, Group Profile, last accessed on 28 September 2023.

Prada Group b, History, last accessed on 28 September 2023.

Prada Group c, Know-How, Prada Nylon, last accessed on 28 September 2023.

Prada Group d, Re-Nylon, last accessed on 28 September 2023.

Selfridges, A Brief History of Prada, last accessed on 28 September 2023.

The Cut, Miuccia Prada on Communism and Why She’s Against Beauty, last accessed on 28 September 2023.

Threaducation, YouTube Channel, The History of Prada, last accessed on 28 September 2023.

Tik Tok, last accessed on 25 September 2023.

Vogue, A History of Prada and Nylon – How the Textile Earned Its Fashionable Place, last accessed on 28 September 2023.

W Magazine, From Chanel’s Tweed to Prada’s Nylon, Fashion’s Most Iconic Staples Are Suddenly Fresh Again, last accessed on 28 September 2023.


Disclaimer

All information as of the date of publishing. Written based on the above-mentioned sources and from the personal point of view of Liz Steiger. No fees were received by the organisations or people mentioned above.


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