Deep in the heart of the West Texas desert, sitting conspicuously alongside a lonely and infrequently traveled highway is a Prada boutique. That’s right, a hyper-realistic art installation, built to replicate one of the luxury brand’s high concept stores, has stood in place, unstaffed and virtually inaccessible, for fifteen years. And despite the lack of transactional fashion available, the site remains a steady draw. So how exactly did this desert oasis come to be?
Route 90 runs through the dusty desert town of Marfa—about 200 miles from the nearest major airport. Cellphone service is spotty at best, and there is a limited number of ATMs in town. Perhaps that is why it was chosen to serve as the ultimate 21st-century architectural canvas.
Berlin-based artistic team, Elmgreen & Dragset, crafted a 15-foot-wide adobe brick building with the help of architects Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello. The mission? To create a scathing retort to high-priced commercialism, like the many examples of the ultra-rich responsible for gentrifying cities since the early 1990s US economic boom. And, despite the prescient and problematic world for which it parodies, audiences have responded with intrigue and fascination. Prada Marfa attracts thousands of visitors each year. It is a fixture in fashion and art photography manuals. Even Texas-native Beyoncé is a fan.
Perhaps most perplexing is that despite the perceived unfavorable critique of her eponymous brand, Miuccia Prada donated handbags and shoes to outfit the installation’s interiors, as well as granted the designers the right to use the Prada logo—for a meager $80,000 fee.
Prada Marfa’s “grand opening” took place in October 2005. And because of its precariously placed location, vandals almost immediately ransacked the joint—members of the art world know that no subject is safe from commentary. Eventually, the duo returned to assess and repair the damage, placing deterrents at every turn (today, the products are rigged with alarms, the windows have been reinforced, handbags have had the bottoms cut out, and all of the sumptuous footwear are right-footed only).
While the design duo never expected it to last (they built Prada Marfa using bio-degradable materials in the hopes that the structure would simply recede into the earth—another commentary on materialism), its continued appeal as a bona fide roadside attraction does not diminish its power as art. However you look at it, as long as it stays standing, Prada Marfa will always have something to say.