Uma Thurman ought to get a commission. Her appearance in a one-of-a-kind lavender gown at the Academy Awards (winning her the unofficial Best Dressed award), has given young Hollywood a new label to drop. Michelle Pfeiffer and Annette Bening can have Armani. For Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bridget Fonda, Winona Ryder, and Nicole Kidman, minimalist elegance is spelled P-R-A-D-A.
The fashion press uses words like obsession, addiction, and epidemic to describe the phenomenon of the Prada feeding frenzy. The history behind the hysteria is simple: Miuccia Prada, 44, took over her family's fine-leather-goods company, Fratelli Prada, in the late '70s and turned tradition on its head. The staple of the Milan-based company was once the heavy leather suitcase. Today, it's the light-as-a-feather, black-nylon backpack (the smallest goes for $350) that is surgically attached to the back of every fashion editor on Seventh Avenue. And the clothing line isn't far behind: Started by Miuccia in '92, it is already a multimillion-dollar business, despite staggering price tags (dresses can cost from $800 to $3,000; suits, from $1,200 to $2,000). One theory behind this stunning success: At a time when the rich and famous are shunning extravagance for a '90s sort of nuance, Prada manages to exude quality, luxury, and style quietly.
k.d. lang has said the clothes have to do with confidence and authority. But they have as much to do with timelessness. At once thoroughly current and unapologetically nostalgic, Prada designs would have been as appropriate in an Antonioni movie, circa 1966, as on the body of supermodel Kate Moss. ''Miuccia's clothes have the taste of retro, but they are also completely modern,'' says Paul Cavaco, fashion director of Harper's Bazaar. ''They don't scream a particular season, and they allow you to have your own personality, which celebrities like. Prada is clean, elegant, and the most classic manifestation of very hip clothes.'' Just what your mother always wanted you to buy on sale, of course.