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Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations

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Although Miuccia Prada (born 1949) was not enthusiastic about the idea of comparing and contrasting her ideas and designs with those of another idiosyncratic Italian female designer of an earlier era, Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973), this intellectually and visually stimulating exhibition really works.

Elsa Schiaparelli

Miuccia Prada

Conceived and organized by Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton, curators of the Met’s Costume Institute, with head treatments and masks by Guido Palau, there is a clarity and simplicity to the presentation that is a welcome change from some of the Met’s “over-the-top” presentations of years past. But that is not to say that this is a simple show. In fact, it is an unusually thoughtful and complex exhibition. One comes away having learned – in a pleasurable way – a great deal about the lives, designs, imaginations and reflections of these two highly unconventional women. Though you don’t have to choose, I have my favorite. No doubt you will have yours.

There were a number of threads that, woven together, shaped this inspired exhibition. First, the Costume Institute acquired a vast Schiaparelli archive from The Brooklyn Museum that they wanted to highlight. However, instead of mounting a one-woman Schiaparelli show (recently done in Philadelphia), Koda and Bolton contemplated featuring two female designers. They recalled a 1936 issue of Vanity Fair with an infamous conceit, “Impossible Interviews,” written and illustrated by the Mexican caricaturist Miguel Covarrubias. He invented oddball conversations between, among others, Sigmund Freud and Jean Harlow and, yes, between Joseph Stalin and Elsa Schiaparelli. Eventually, they came up with the notion of exploring the work and ideas of Prada and Schiaparelli, Italian women born decades apart who shared similar backgrounds as well as a rebellious, idiosyncratic approach to their profession. With the help of filmmaker Baz Luhrmann and his longtime collaborator, Catherine Martin, a real interview with Miuccia Prada was paired with an invented interview with Schiaparelli (played by Judy Davis), with words drawn from her autobiography, Shocking Life. The two women appear to converse (a la Dinner with Andre). We are presented with the full video “conversation” in Gallery 1, and snippets of the conversation in short videos scattered throughout the other 3 Galleries where approximately 100 designs and 40 accessories by Schiaparelli and Prada are juxtaposed.

Gallery 2, “Waist Up/Waist Down,” offers the most illuminating and unexpected insight into the disparate artistic souls of these two women. Schiaparelli, largely because of the social realities of Café Society, focused almost entirely on the Waist Up, particularly on jackets, hats, and jewelry. Prada, instead, focuses on the waist down, particularly skirts and shoes. “Neck Up/Knees Down” hones in on Schiaparelli’s infamous hats and Prada’s infamous shoes, which display a mix of humor, irony and fantasy that add up to compressed works of art.

Galleries 3 and 4 exhibit the two women’s ideas about “Hard Chic,” (referencing menswear and industrial materials) “Ugly Chic” (focusing on materials and patterns in so-called ugly colors and discordant combinations), and “Naif Chic,” (transforming sugary sweet materials into something else). They also explore how the two women interpreted non-Western clothes in “Exotic Body,” draped materials in the “Classical Body,” and fantasy creations in “The Surreal Body.”

Though the two women have distinctly different ideas about what they are up to (Schiaparelli thought of herself as an “artist”, Prada dislikes the word “artist,”), it’s clear that they share similar personalities and attitudes, perhaps because they both came from upper class Italian families and did not focus their attention on fashion until their they were close to 40. Each was equally rebellious, cerebral, unconventional, imaginative and above all, focused on pleasing and defining themself as opposed to some traditional idea of what is feminine or beautiful.

Unlike most press previews, this exhibition was mobbed with well-dressed representatives of the fashion world and press, from Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, to the ubiquitous New York Times’s photographer, Bill Cunningham. It took place on the morning of the Museum’s Costume Institute Benefit whose red carpet is to the fashion world what the Oscars are to Hollywood. Also present was Jeff Bezos of Amazon, which is the exhibition’s chief sponsor, along with Conde Nast.

No doubt this will be a highly popular show, although probably not as sensational as the Alexander McQueen exhibition of last year. But I much prefer it.

For those who seek to further immerse themselves in the exhibition, there is a book, Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations, by Andrew Bolton and Harold Koda, with an introduction by New Yorker writer Judith Thurman. On Sunday, June 17, Thurman will moderate a discussion with contemporary fashion icons, Good Taste/Bad Taste: The Evolution of Contemporary Chic.

Photos of Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada courtesy of the Met. All others photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag.

Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations
The Costume Institute: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
May 10 – August 19th, 2012

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