The company was started in 1913 by Mario Prada and his brother Martino as a leather goods shop – Fratelli Prada – in Milan, Italy. Initially, the shop sold animal goods and imported English steamer trunks and handbags.
Mario Prada did not believe that women should have a role in business, and so he prevented female family members from entering his company. Ironically, Mario's son harbored no interest in the business, so it was Mario's daughter Luisa Prada who took the helm of Prada as his successor and ran it for almost twenty years. Her own daughter, Miuccia Prada, joined the company in 1970, eventually taking over for her mother in 1978.
Miuccia began making waterproof backpacks out of Pocone, a nylon fabric.She met Patrizio Bertelli in 1977, an Italian who had begun his own leather goods business at the age of 24, and he joined the company soon after. He advised Miuccia on company business, which she followed. It was his advice to discontinue importing English goods and to change the existing luggage.
Miuccia inherited the company in 1978 by which time sales were up to U.S. $450,000. With Bertelli alongside her as business manager, Miuccia was allowed time to implement her creativity in the company's designs. She would go on to incorporate her ideas into the house of Prada that would change it.
She released her first set of backpacks and totes in 1979. They were made out of a tough military spec black nylon that her grandfather had used as coverings for steamer trunks. Initial success was not instant, as they were hard to sell due to the lack of advertising and high prices, but the lines would go on to become her first commercial hit.
Next, Miuccia and Bertelli sought out wholesale accounts for the bags in upscale department stores and boutiques worldwide. In 1983, Prada opened a second boutique in the centre of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan's shopping heart, on the site of the previous historic "London House" emporium run by Felice Bellini from 1870 to the 1960s, reminiscent of the original shop, but with a sleek and modern contrast to it.
The next big release was a nylon tote. That same year, the house of Prada began expansion across continental Europe and the United States by opening locations in prominent shopping districts within Florence, Paris, Madrid, and New York City. A shoe line was also released in 1984. In 1985 Miuccia released the "classic Prada handbag" that became an overnight sensation. Although practical and sturdy, its sleek lines and craftsmanship had a luxury that has become the Prada signature.
In 1987 Miuccia and Bertelli married. Prada launched its women's ready-to-wear collection in 1989, and the designs came to be known for their dropped waistlines and narrow belts. Prada's popularity increased when the fashion world took notice of its clean lines, opulent fabrics, and basic colors.
The logo for the label was not as obvious a design element as those on bags from other prominent luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton. It tried to market its lack of prestigious appeal, including of its apparel, by projecting an image of "anti-status" or "inverse snobber
Prada's originality made it one of the most influential fashion houses, and the brand became a premium status symbol in the 1990s.
Sales were reported at L 70 billion, or US$31.7 million, in 1998. Partrizio di Marco took charge of the growing business in the United States after working for the house in Asia. He was successful in having the Prada bags prominently displayed in department stores, so that they could become a hit with fashion editors. Prada's continued success was attributed to its "working-class" theme which, Ginia Bellafante at The New York Times Magazine proclaimed, "was becoming chic in the high-tech, IPO-driven early 1990s." Furthermore, now husband and wife, Miuccia and Bertelli led the Prada label on a cautious expansion, making products hard to come by.
Men's ready-to-wear collections were launched in the mid-1990s. By 1994, sales were at US$210 million, with clothing sales accounting for 20% (expected to double in 1995). Prada won another award from the CFDA, in 1995 as a "designer of the year" 1996 witnessed the opening of the 18,000 ft² Prada boutique in Manhattan, New York, the largest in the chain at the time. By now the House of Prada operated in 40 locations worldwide, 20 of which were in Japan. The company owned eight factories and subcontracted work from 84 other manufacturers in Italy. Miuccia's Prada and Bertelli company were merged to create Prapar B.V. in 1996. The name, however, was later changed to Prada B.V., and Patrizio Bertelli was named Chief Executive Officer of the Prada luxury company.
1996 can also be seen as marking an important turning point in Prada's aesthetics, one that fueled the brand's worldwide reputation. Journalists praised Miuccia's development of an “ugly chic” style, which initially confused customers by offering blatantly unsexy outfits which then revealed to offer daring and original takes on the relationship between fashion and desire. Since then Prada has been regarded as one of the most intelligent and conceptual designers.