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On Set | The Making of Prada’s Most Iconic Bag

By Laura May Todd

When it debuted in 2007, Prada’s Galleria bag, a pared-back leather zip-top tote with rounded handles reminiscent of the medicine-style bags popular in the 1950s, already had the makings of a classic. A sober answer to the era’s flashy It-bags, its clean lines and functional design quickly made it a favourite among customers searching for a versatile accessory with a more timeless, cerebral feel. (Its cinematic appeal was further solidified in 2015, when the brand commissioned the American director and photographer Autumn de Wilde to create a series of surreal short films, later reprised in 2017, inspired by the bag.) As Prada prepares to enter a new era — in which Raf Simons will join Miuccia Prada as the company’s co-creative director — the Galleria will remain, its ongoing popularity a testament to the brand’s heritage. And, with many of Italy’s manufacturing businesses now operating once again and shops poised to reopen after being hard hit by the global pandemic, the leather artisans who create each iteration of the bag have recently been able to resume their craft.

“The Galleria is the iconic bag our customers identify with Prada,” said Guido Savy, who oversees the production of leather goods at the brand’s factory in Scandicci, a 38,000-square-foot chrome-and-glass complex on the periphery of Florence. The Galleria is beloved, too, he added, “because of the type of leather we use”: Prada’s signature Saffiano leather. Defined by its loosely crosshatched texture, Saffiano is the product of a hot-pressing process that renders the calf leather scratch- and water-resistant. The material was patented by Mario Prada, Miuccia’s grandfather, in 1913, the same year he opened his first shop in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the historic 19th-century Milanese shopping arcade that lends the Galleria bag its name.

In the weeks before Italians were instructed to sequester themselves in their homes, I visited the factory in Tuscany. The region was still unscathed, and it was business as usual: Teams of artisans in pressed white lab coats clustered around workbenches on the pristine white factory floor piecing together sections of colourful leather. In Tuscan-accented Italian, an artisan named Antonella Bretti described the work as her “passion”; this region has been a leather-working centre since at least the 13th century, and the trade, as it was in Bretti’s case, is often passed down through generations. “A lot of brands have developed factories in this district,” said Savy. “There is manpower here with the necessary skills because of this traditional culture.”

After the leather has been treated, cut and thinned, he explained, it takes over half a workday for an experienced artisan such as Bretti to assemble the Galleria’s body. Each bag is made up of 83 pieces that are carefully adhered to one another with glue and then sewn in place: an assortment of leather panels that form the structure of the bag; a logo-adorned nylon jacquard lining; zip closures for three pockets, two exterior and one interior; a leather and gold-toned triangle-shaped metal Prada plaque, onto which the letters are pinned one-by-one; a small leather-bound name tag; handles and detachable shoulder straps, whose raw edges are smoothed and hand-painted to match the dyed leather. To affix the handles, inch-long rectangular strips of leather called mandorle (or “almonds” in English) are lined up against the front and back panels using a paper guide and glued for stability. The bag is then ferried over to one of the industrial sewing machines installed around the edges of the sprawling room. Once nearly all the pieces have been stitched together, the bag, which is assembled inside out, is gingerly flipped the right way around — the step that Savy described as the most delicate — before it is finished and passed through quality control. “You have to pay attention when you turn it because if it isn’t done correctly, the seams can stretch,” he explained. But for Scandicci’s adroit workers, the process is second nature.

Weeks later, after production in Italy had uniformly ground to a halt, Prada would enlist artisans at its garment factory in Montone, 65 miles southeast of Scandicci, to create medical overalls and face masks for Tuscan hospitals, which, like many across Italy, were running dangerously low on protective equipment; it was one of several initiatives, including donating multiple intensive care units to Milanese hospitals and funding scientific research into the new coronavirus, that Prada has undertaken during the crisis. “We are an industrial company,” Savy told me in February, unaware of exactly how vital the brand’s team of skilled craftsmen would become in just a few weeks, “but the artisan is very important.”