Norman Leaf MD FACS

Apr 02 2015

The Doctor Wears Prada

The Doctor Wears Prada


The Breakfast Room at the Pierre Hotel, New York City.

"By the way, we're starting a line of Ready-to-Wear," Patrizio mentioned off-handedly via his translator.

Two hours had flown by quickly since we sat down to breakfast with Miuccia Bianchi Prada, her husband and Prada CEO Patrizio Bertelli, her brother Alberto, and Massimo Brandigi, the director of retail for the USA. My wife Judy and I reacted to the news in silence, not wanting to reveal any concern or disrespect. The morning had been too exhilarating for that. After all, we were on the verge of making a deal with what was about to become the hottest new fashion house in the world. Their unique bags and accessories were just beginning to take off among the East Coast fashionistas. Adding clothing to the mix at this stage seemed to be just muddying the waters. How were we to introduce an almost unknown brand to Los Angeles, especially with this new complication? And how did I, a seasoned Beverly Hills Plastic Surgeon but a rank neophyte in the world of couture, fit into this scenario?

The answers came out eventually: slowly, and somewhat awkwardly.One month earlier, Ritz Hotel, Paris.

In February of 1989, we were in Paris for a wedding. Judy was shopping in the St Germaine area, and got caught unprepared in a downpour. She ducked into a shop to get out of the rain, and looked around. It was the new PRADA store, the first one outside of Italy.

Judy had worked in the fashion world most of her adult life and was a very astute observer of that scene. She had in fact seen the original PRADA store in Milano years before, when that shop was known for its old-world leather goods craftsmanship. It was not thought of as a fashion brand in those days. Now, standing in the Paris store, Judy was awestruck by the very new, fashion-forward nylon backpacks and quilted nylon chain bags with the triangular logo. Nobody had done such imaginative things with industrial materials since Levi Strauss took denim from work clothes and made blue jeans.

She grasped very quickly that something very exciting was happening at Prada, and just as quickly grasped several bags and flashed her AMEX. Judy had a long-standing fascination and familiarity with fashion…as a buyer for a retail chain, as a stylist, and as a consumer. She knew what fashion excitement was when she saw it. I was at the hotel when she returned. Judy opened her shopping bags and excitedly covered the bed with her purchases.

"Something's happening at Prada; I don't know what it is, but it's very, very hot!" she said. "Someone should open this boutique in Beverly Hills!"

I had never heard of Prada before, but I trusted Judy's instincts.

"Why don't you do it?"

"I don't know the first thing about opening and running a shop"

Then, my remark, which I regretted, but only for the next two years: "How hard can that be?"

Returning home, I happily turned to my profession lifting faces, breasts, abdomens and self-esteems. Judy began making calls and found that Prada had just opened their first US store on 57th Street in New York. Massimo Brandigi was the newly appointed director of retail development in America, and he and Judy struck up a very friendly banter on the phone. He told her that he had been thinking of Beverly Hills for the next Prada boutique location, and that her call was fortuitous. He made plans to meet her in Los Angeles a week later.

The meeting apparently was successful, and plans were made for us to fly to NYC the next weekend to see the new store. I had not yet even considered the financial burdens this project would create…I'm a doctor, and retail business concepts were quite foreign to my background. Perhaps if I had more experience in that sphere, the whole thing would never have happened. Call it dumb beginner's luck.

The store on 57th Street off Madison was small, elegant, and very old-world appearing, but the merchandise was uniquely modern. Afterward, we had a drink with Massimo at the Plaza Hotel Oak Bar. He started asking me business questions; my medical training had given me the ability to be quick on my feet, even when I wasn't sure of the answers. Apparently, my answers were marginally adequate, because he then looked at me and said, "This is probably going to be a $2 million investment for you."

That was it. I nodded, as if to say that was what I expected. In truth, my nodding was just a cover for my sudden inability to speak. Two million dollars…that was not even close to what I had considered. In fact, up to this point, this whole thing was a lark, based solely on my respect for my wife's great sense of fashion. Hearing that number brought the whole thing crashing down for me.

We graciously thanked him for the meeting, suggested that we would be talking to him again soon, and left for the airport, in near-total silence…barely a word for the entire 5+ hour flight home. There was simply no way we could come up with that amount of money. It was a non-starter.

Two days later, Massimo called from New York. "The Prada family is coming here next weekend and they'd like to meet you."

What to do? We had agreed there was no way we could manage the finances needed to get the store going. But do you turn down an invitation from the hottest new designer in the world of fashion? Probably not. So we flew back, having no idea where the meeting would lead us.

They were cordial and greeted us warmly, altho Muccia maintained a sense of old-world reserve and propriety. Much of the conversation was Patrizio speaking brusquely in Italian to Massimo, who translated with great deference. Every sentence would start out with "Mr. Bertelli wants me to tell you," or "Mrs. Miuccia says that…" Miuccia's brother offered nothing but meek silence, which, as we later learned, was at east partially a result of Patrizio's overwhelming personality.

After about four hours of coffee refills and penciled notes, we shook hands on a deal. Were I less of a doctor and more of a businessman, it probably wouldn't have happened. As it was, we walked away thinking we had snared the deal of the century, and that we simply couldn't help but make a huge success. The terms were such that I felt that all we had to do was to come up with enough money to build out a store, and the sales would take care of everything else from there. I was blissfully unaware, or perhaps chose to ignore the fact that bills would need to be paid before enough sales had come in to pay them.

The most fortuitous part of our agreement was that, at our insistence, we would have the exclusive right for sales of the brand in Los Angeles County. There was no way we could compete with the big players in Beverly Hills retail. At the time, Prada was already carried in small amounts at Maxfield's, a very avante-garde fashion boutique, and at I. Magnin, an elegant women's department store. Because their agreements predated ours, they would remain exempt from our exclusivity.

Fortune was on our side. Amazingly, I Magnin went out of business shortly after we opened our store, and Maxfield's had so many other brands that they weren't that interested in carrying very much Prada. So it came to happen that our little store, around the corner from but not ON Rodeo Drive, became the only outlet for Prada in the entire county. I'm not sure that the company realized how large LA County was, but it meant that Saks, Neimans, and Barney's couldn't carry the line. We were IT.

Once the agreement had been reached, we were invited to go two weeks later to Milan for their first fashion show, to be followed by our ordering of merchandise for the store. Things were happening so fast…I couldn't believe that I was actually going to Milan, the epicenter of Italian fashion, to a real fashion show. Here I was, a doctor, a serious one, and although I had been interested in dressing nicely (for a guy) since college days, I never in my wildest dreams would have thought I'd be sitting on one of those little gold chairs at a real Milanese event.

The Prada headquarters at that time was a three-story house on via Melzi d'Eril, an elegant mostly residential street. The main floor had a few large rooms, one of which displayed the clothing on racks. The second floor had many interconnected rooms, lined by shelves filled with handbags of all sizes, shapes and colors. A smaller room was reserved for accessories; wallets, card cases, etc. The third floor, which was a nicely finished attic with dormer windows, was where the shoes were displayed.

There was a finished basement for offices and a lunchroom, where the most delicious home made food was served daily at communal tables. Lunch was my favorite time there, not just because it was so amazing, but because it was a life-saving break from the stressful, tedious, and exhausting process of gambling on our huge open-to-buy selection.

The fashion show took place on the ground floor. The larger rooms were lined with Charivari folding chairs, and the models strode purposefully around the different rooms as models do on the much more expansive runways we would see in the years to come: tall, skinny, elegant, with expressionless faces. The clothing that first season was to my unpracticed eye, unwearable. It seemed to be all about long tunics worn over short shorts. It turned out that customers pretty much agreed with that initial assessment…we sold almost none of it that first year.

After the show, we were invited by Miuccia and Patrizio to have dinner at their home on Via Porto Romano. This, we would learn later, was a rare event…they were exceptionally private people. The home was where Miuccia had been raised, and was a beautiful combination of traditional architecture and ultra-modern interior design. Brilliant contemporary painting, sculpture, and furnishings complemented the shelves of books. The Prada family lived elegantly and well. Their commitment to culture was everywhere.

A word about Miuccia background: she grew up as an intellectual and a member of the Italian Socialist party. Yet she dreamed of haute couture…Correges was one of her idols. This philosophical dichotomy has worked to shape her esthetic…many of her most elegant fashion statements hint at a proletariat, almost militaristic style, and her fabrics are often modern synthetics rather than silks and rich woolens, and sometimes trimmed with luxe furs. Conflict often produces beauty.

The buying process was pretty unnerving, and it didn't get mush easier over the next ten years. We were spending an enormous amount of money, gambling that our customers would like this new brand and like our selection of the merchandise from that brand. We ordered much more than our business plan had outlined, in an effort to carry more of what we knew was already selling very well: the backpacks and the quilted nylon chain bags.

We took out a second mortgage on our house to build the store. We had found a beautiful little 1600 square foot storefront boutique on Brighton Way, off Rodeo (and about 75% cheaper than the rents on Rodeo) and, as per our agreement, summoned architect Roberto Bacciochi, Patrizio's old school friend from Arrezzo to do the design. The exisitng space had a staircase on the left side, leading to a mezzanine around three of the walls, with beautiful skylights in the tall ceiling. We cautioned Roberto that we really wanted to do very little in the way of structural changes, just the necessary remodeling to make it look like a Prada store.

Roberto took the measurements carefully, made some sketches, then flew back to Italy to make the drawings. After about three weeks, Roberto returned and rolled out his blueprints with a flourish. "Ecco!" I immediately saw that my words of caution were never seriously considered.

"Roberto, you've got this wrong. The stairs are on the left side…you've drawn them on the right."

"No no, we must move them to the right side!" he said emphatically. I don't have a clue why that was, but we had agreed that Prada did have the right to design the store. I could see that this was going to be much more expensive than I had originally planned…the two million dollar comment was beginning to sink in.

Another expensive problem was that Roberto's drawings were all in the metric system. American builders need their measurements in feet and inches, so we ad to hire another architect, and American one, to transpose all those figures…at a substantial additional cost.

A third bunch of more expense came because all the shelving and furnishings were to be made in Arezzo and shipped to Beverly Hills for installation. And because the construction was taking so long, the opening of the store would miss the Christmas season unless we air-shipped all the construction, and paid for four of their carpenters to come and put it all together. I still have the mid-five figure FedEx bill somewhere in my files.

Despite all odds, the store opened its doors the first of December. That first very short season met its numbers, as did most of the seasons after that. And by the third year, the PRADA brand was becoming very respected among fashionistas and Japanese tourists. At times busloads of Japanese tourists would crowd the store. To avoid running afoul of the fire department regulations, we needed to lock the front door, only letting in a small group when an equivalent number of shoppers had left. And to avoid becoming totally dependent on our Asian tourists, we would let some of our regular locals in through the back door.

The success of the little store is still talked about amongst retail experts in the Beverly Hills area. Projections for retail sales are usually linked to the square footage of the store. Because PRADA was such a hot commodity, those projections were completely inadequate. We sold more merchandise per square foot than any other store in Beverly Hills.

I was even able to integrate the experience with my plastic surgery practice. Most times when I went to Milan for the collections, I would bring a small amount of Botox or filler with me. Models always needed something. And closer to home, I would give nylon make-up bags to my facelift patients with their before pictures and some skincare products in them at the three-week post-op visit.

All good things eventually come to a close. The restrictive clause in our agreement was preventing Prada's expansion in the community, and after some negotiations, they agreed to buy out the remainder our contract. We had an extraordinarily successful ten-year run, had worked and dined with famous and infamous luminaries at the highest level of the fashion world, and made some remarkable friends that I'm still close to today.

We did pretty well for novices, and obviously PRADA has done very well...I doubt there's anyone over the age of twelve in the country who hasn't heard of the brand. I'm proud and actually pretty amazed that we were there at the beginning, and were responsible for bringing the brand to Southern California.

Needless to say I have kept my 'day job' doing what I love and what I do best. PRADA continues to grow creatively and commercially; if you're interested in following their progress, here is the Fall-Winter 2015 Fashion Show, straight from the showroom in Milan.

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