The Desert Wears Prada


It was us, Interstate 10, the Hyundai Santa Fe and 36 hours of This American Life. Our stops included Montgomery, Alabama; Austin, Texas; Tuscon, Arizona; and Oceanside, California. A real road trip. A bona fide cross-country schlep. Two pioneers heading westward. Cory and I were moving to California.

We had a short 24 hour respite in Austin where we visited with family. While shopping on Congress, the clerk at a vintage clothing boutique inquired about our route, “So, you’re taking the 10?” she asked. “You should really check out Marfa in West Texas. Back in the 70s this artist, Donald Judd, moved to Marfa from New York City. He like, bought an airport there and converted it into this minimalist artist commune. It’s pretty cool… and they have that Prada store.”

I was confused.

me: “Martha?… Marta?…”
her: “No, Marfa. With an ‘F.'”
me: “Mar-fuh? Praduh?”
her: “Yep.”

Sold. I found Cory, still riffling through records next door, and told him we were going to “Mar-fuh.” He made the same face I did, “With an ‘F’?”



photo credit:

It was the Fourth of July and we were embracing the American spirit: roadtrips, tourist traps and Texas. We reached Marfa city limits around noon and were welcomed with a sign that read, “Marfa’s Mystery Lights Viewing Area.” We pulled onto the main drag, expecting galleries galore and hippies abounding, only to find a ghost town. Nothing. Zip, zilch, nadda. Ok, there was one random food truck, a beautiful courthouse, two prisoners (led by a guard and wearing striped uniforms with shackles around their ankles… really weird, like out of an old Tex Avery cartoon) and the Hotel Paisano.

Hungry, we roamed into the hotel to see if we could find something to eat. What we found was a visual feast. A 1930s southwestern paradise.






Come to find out, Marfa was the set for the 1956 film, Giant (starring Liz Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean… mmmm… James Dean). AND, The Hotel Paisano is where all the movie stars stayed. I was impressed. There were shops, a gallery, a restaurant and quite a few people inside. We roamed around and were told by a local to eat at “Armando’s” … just down the street.

We hopped in the car and were on our way. We made another loop around the courthouse, checked out The Chianti Foundation, saw El Cosmico (a vintage trailer, safari tent and teepee hotel and campground) and passed another stylish hotel called, Thunderbird. But no “Armando’s.” And no Prada.

We kept driving. Passed Marfa. Passed any signs of intelligent life. Then the clouds started rolling in. I guess we missed it.




Suddenly, 30 miles outside of town, I screamed, “STOP! That was it! That was the Prada Store!”  We went from 80mph to 0mph in 1.0 seconds flat. If I hadn’t known a Prada store existed in the desert, I would have completely missed it. Anxious to see inside, we flipped the Santa Fe around and parked out front.

There were shoes and handbags on display, but no handle on the door? It dawned on me that it wasn’t a real Prada store. There were no employees, and it was outfitted with bullet proof glass (with bullet holes in it) and a surveillance camera. It also had quarters glued to the ledges and graffiti on the rear side of the store.

After searching Wikipedia, we learned that it was a permanent sculpture (built in 2005) and was intended to never be repaired, in hopes that it might slowly degrade back into the natural landscape. The artists, Elmgreen and Dragset, describe it as a “pop architectural land art project.” The genuine Prada wares, shoes and handbags were picked out and provided by Miuccia Prada herself. And Prada allowed Elmgreen and Dragset to use the Prada logo. Only three weeks after it was built, it was vandalized and robbed of all the real Prada handbags and right-foot high heels (which they immediately replaced and installed the security system).







I loved reading all the graffiti on the backside – this piece (above: “Without money, we’d all be rich”) was especially poignant in contrast with the landscape and lifestyle of West Texas. Turns out, a fake Prada store is waaaaay more interesting than a real one.




And so, we rode off into the desert sunset… richer than we had started.


August 20th, 2012 | P.S.
One Comment
  1. Marianne | August 23rd, 2012 at 7:01 pm

    Loved your story, and the photos were fantastic. Placed just right.