The Fake Prada Store in the Texas Desert That Became an Art Mecca

Alina Cohen
May 25, 2018 12:00PM

Photo by Brandon Burns, via Flickr.

In 2005, YouTube launched, cargo pants were in, and the art world got one of its greatest selfie destinations to date: Prada Marfa.

The sculpture by Elmgreen & Dragset (a Scandinavian duo comprised of Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset) resembles a one-room Prada shop with a white stucco exterior, offset from the road on a dusty plot of land that is surrounded on three sides by a fence. At night, a warm glow radiates from the shelves of shoes at the back, illuminating the handbags up front and the glass façade. There’s no functioning door, which precludes actually entering or exiting. Standing in front of Prada Marfa, visitors can also see the patchy low brush and hills beyond. An empty, luxury retail shop appears to have just landed in the middle of the barren desert. Tinged with surreal humor, it’s possibly the world’s strangest boutique.

Thirteen years later, this high-fashion ready-made has become a mecca for art enthusiasts, collectors, and pop culture devotees alike. Even Beyoncé has visited; she Instagrammed herself leaping in front of the faux Prada store in the middle of the desert. The bemusing sculpture may have suffered some wear and tear over the years, but that’s by design.

Prada Marfa is located on U.S. Highway 90 in western Texas, about a half-hour drive from the small city of Marfa. Minimalist sculptor Donald Judd first brought attention to the area when he decamped here from New York in the late 1970s, setting up a studio and inspiring the eventual rise of cultural institutions like the Chinati Foundation, adult summer camps, and boutique hotels (including El Cosmico, which offers teepee and yurt options).

Interior view of Elmgreen & Dragset, Prada Marfa, 2005. Photo via Flickr.


Thanks to the internet, the project has far outgrown the artists’ original intentions. In 2001, Elmgreen & Dragset mounted “Opening Soon/Powerless Structures, Fig. 242” at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in Chelsea. The show featured a white sheet of paper sealing off the window, which read: “Opening Soon PRADA.” (Inside, the only work on view was a clock in the corner.) At the time, the Italian fashion brand itself was about to open its Rem Koolhaas-designed “epicenter” in the Guggenheim Museum’s former SoHo location; the artists were wryly commenting on how fashion and branding were infiltrating the art world.  

Elmgreen & Dragset recall that people called Bonakdar, both telling her they were sorry the gallery was closing and asking who was designing the new shop. “We realized the power of fashion branding within the art world, and how prevalent this is in people’s minds,” the pair tells Artsy via email. “We got the idea of dislocating a luxury goods shop, totally out of its normal urban context, to a desolate location.” They had no idea how popular the structure would become.

Initially, Elmgreen & Dragset wanted to mount their fake Prada elsewhere; they particularly liked the sound of “Prada Nevada.” They struggled, however, to find support in the state. The New York-based Art Production Fund stepped in, connecting the artists with contacts throughout the small Texan city, including arts institution Ballroom Marfa. “Marfa turned out to be the perfect location for the work, with the nearby Judd Foundation and the legacy of Minimalism,” the pair tells Artsy. They believe that Judd’s simple sculptures, which were often made of wood or metal and could resemble furniture, impacted the future aesthetics of retail interiors. The duo views its own work as a time capsule, an investigation into how humans mark the natural world.

Photo by Debra Luena Engelbrecht (@luena_imaging).

Prada Marfa has aged over time, and it still features the original, now-out-of-season luxury merchandise. Elmgreen & Dragset believe the biggest change has been the work’s increased online presence. (They note that, in 2005, Instagram wasn’t even around yet.) Beyoncé’s fandom, and the fact that a sign with mileage to Prada Marfa once adorned a Gossip Girl set, helped launch a massive audience. “Its popularity has grown in conjunction with Marfa’s as a hip art destination to visit,” the artists say.

At first, Elmgreen & Dragset wanted to let the sculpture decay without intervention or conservation, but the community opted to repair it after some episodes of vandalism (graffiti, break-ins). Over time, various tags have read “Dumb” and “Dum Dum,” and one offender posted TOMS shoes stickers all over the window in 2014. Local artist Boyd Elder now serves as Prada Marfa’s caretaker. Overtime, the sculpture has helped define the local landscape.  

As for Prada, the label willingly loaned its color code, interior, shoes, and bags. “They were so cool about it, even though they understood the underlying criticism,” Elmgreen & Dragset offer. If the faux shop uses unexpected architecture to raise ideas about displacement, it also provides windows that look out onto enviable territory that’s ultimately inaccessible to the viewer. Come to think of it, that’s a bit like Instagram itself.

Alina Cohen