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IMPOSSIBLE CONVERSATIONS Story : Frances Doherty | Photography : The Metropolitan Museum of Art

SCHIAPARELLI AND PRADA: A CONVERSATION WORTH OVERHEARING.

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“THE DESIGNERS ARE SEPARATED BY TIME BUT UNITED BY CREATIVE SIMILARITIES.”

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egarded by the fashion set as the most important night on the sartorial calendar, the annual Costume Institute Gala re-evaluated notions of good taste with the “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations” retrospective this May. The exhibition, which runs through 19 August at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, explores the striking affinities between two of the world’s most iconic and influential female designers: Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada. Renowned ensembles from their respective collections are laid out alongside videos of simulated conversations between Schiaparelli and Prada, which were directed by Baz Luhrmann. The exhibition features some 100 designs and 40 accessories by Schiaparelli (1890–1973) from the late 1920s to the early 1950s, and by Prada from the late 1980s to the present, drawn from The Costume Institute’s collection and the Prada Archive, as well as other institutions and private collections.  Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton, the masterminds behind last year’s blockbuster Alexander McQueen retrospective “Savage Beauty,” set out to engineer a show that was less visual spectacle and more academic. The result is a bit of a brainteaser, a thought-provoking and clever show that is most successful when it challenges culturally accepted ideas of beauty and femininity.

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Eight short videos created by Lurhmann, in which Prada talks with Schiaparelli (played by actress Judy Davis), animate the entry gallery and the seven themed sections of the exhibition, providing a thread that connects the objects. The videos focus on how both women’s work explores similar themes through different approaches, offering new readings of their most innovative works, while placing the viewer in the role of eavesdropper as the designers discuss their lives and creations.  Obviously the conversations didn’t take place in a literal sense. Schiaparelli died in 1973; hence the imagined conversation and the consistent point of contrast that disconnects the two designers, namely the history that divides them. Co-curator Bolton notes, “The designers are separated by time but united by their creative and conceptual similarities. Both Schiap and Prada are known for their deliberate fashion provocations that confront established ideas of taste while never forgetting the practicalities of fashion.” In bringing the formidable Italians together, the exhibition sees the convergence of fashion and art, past and present. The conversations occur at a dining table and are composed of paraphrased excerpts from the late Schiaparelli’s autobiography Shocking Life combined with Prada’s filmed remarks. The verbal exchanges imagine what a conversation between the two might sound like. It centres on their ideals, influences, lives, design philosophies and the question that refuses to go away – can fashion ever be considered as art?  Harold Koda, chief curator at the Costume Institute suggested, “Juxtaposing the work of Elsa Schiaparelli and Muccia Prada allows us to explore how the past enlightens the present and how the present enlivens the past.” Koda and Bolton draw from Vanity Fair’s “Impossible Interviews,” created by Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias, in which he contrasts two figures from history and spurs them on with curt captions. After Schiaparelli’s controversial visit to Soviet Russia, the magazine published an imagined conversation between her and the “Man of Steel,” Joseph Stalin, during which he protests, “You underestimate the serious nature of Soviet women,” to which she counters that he underestimates “the natural vanity of women.” Here lies a central theme of the exhibition – invincible female self-possession. Prada once told British Vogue that her life’s work could be interpreted as “Making ugly appealing.” Indeed, the woman who is regarded as the world’s most influential fashion designer is one who fights against her good taste. “Brown is a colour that no one likes,” she told Bolton, “so of course I like it because it’s difficult.” She has often said that when she hates something herself – crochet, for example – she works out her aversion in a collection. It


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THE FIGURES CAME TO PROMINENCE DURING PERIODS OF UPHEAVAL.

gives her the space “to be intrigued.” It is telling that both Schiaparelli and Prada’s experience of the real world appears to have made them intolerant of female passivity and desperation. Such disdain for the conforming female would drive them to break and rewrite the rules of fashion, redefining conventional ideas of beauty along the way. Prada notes in her interview with Bolton, “Most of my work is concerned with destroying – or at least deconstructing – conventional ideas of beauty, of the generic appeal of the beautiful, glamorous, bourgeois woman. Fashion fosters clichés of beauty, but I want to tear them apart.” As a child, Schiaparelli was berated by her mother for her plain appearance, and as a result she placed flower seeds in her ears, nose and mouth, hoping they would transform her into a blooming beauty. At home, Prada appraises herself in three slices of mirror, revealing different aspects of her appearance but never its totality. In a way, their approach to aesthetics is reflected within their own physical features – both ladies possess unconventional looks – as they themselves are goodlooking-ugly-women. The two bold and brilliant designers were born six decades apart; neither was fashion conscious nor particularly competent in the art of sewing, yet both would enter the fashion world later in life, discovering it to be the best 020

platform from which to express their ideals. While it would take an impossible conversation held in the 21st century to unite the two, the similarities between the women are abundantly obvious. Both were born into middle-class, strict Catholic families. The young Schiaparelli and Prada had traditional expectations bestowed upon them, but they both defied such expectations. The two figures both came to prominence during periods of political and artistic upheaval that offered them a platform from which to express their disdain for conformity. Schiaparelli was involved with the Dada movement at its birth in New York’s Greenwich Village after the First World War; Prada was a left-wing graduate student in Milan during the radical upheavals of the 1970s. Bolton and Koda use categories for the exhibition including “Hard Chic,” “Ugly Chic,” “Naïf Chic” and “The Surreal Body.” The section entitled “Waist Up/ Waist Down” looks at Schiaparelli’s use of decorative detailing as a response to restaurant dressing in the heyday of 1930s café society, while showing Prada’s below-the-waist focus as a symbolic expression of modernity and femininity.  An accessories subsection of this gallery called “Neck Up/Knees Down” showcases Schiaparelli’s hats and Prada’s footwear. “Ugly Chic” reveals how both women subvert ideals of beauty and glamour by playing with good and bad taste through colour, prints and textiles. Here, Koda recounts a little anecdote about Schiaparelli reprimanding someone for making fun of her mismatched shoes by saying, “You wouldn’t know chic if it hit you on the head!” “Hard Chic” explores the influence of uniforms and menswear to promote a minimal aesthetic that is intended both to deny and enhance femininity. “Naïf Chic” focuses on Schiaparelli and Prada’s adoption of a girlish sensibility to subvert expectations of age-appropriate dressing. “Classical Body” explores the designers’ engagement with antiquity through the gaze of the late-18th and early-19th centuries. “Exotic Body” touches on the influence of Eastern cultures through fabrics such as lamé, and silhouettes such as saris and sarongs.  While the parallels between the two are unmistakably obvious, so too are their disparities, particularly when it comes to their opinions on whether they should be labelled as artists or designers. During the conversation, Schiaparelli professes that if she not been a dress maker, she would have been a sculptor. To which Prada responds, “I’ve never wanted to be an artist. I’ve never wanted to be called an artist. The term itself seems old-fashioned.” Schiaparelli is largely regarded as being rooted in the origins of the fashion-as-art debate, collaborating on the first art/fashion hybrids alongside Salvador Dali – most


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“I’VE NEVER WANTED TO BE AN ARTIST... THE TERM ITSELF SEEMS SO OLD-FASHIONED.”

famously the belt buckle in the form of lips and cocktail hat in the shape of a lamb chop. While Prada is a central figure in the art world, known for her willingness to invest and collaborate, she is firm in her belief that fashion is not art, nor the body the metaphor fashion needs to convey itself as an art piece. Prada maintains that fashion’s dependency on commercialism prevents it from being considered art. She has refused to collaborate on limited editions of Prada merchandise with any art stars, including Damien Hirst. “Anything that doesn’t sell,” she once told British Vogue, “is a limited edition.” Dr Chris Townsend, fashion historian and senior lecturer at The Royal Holloway London, considers the exchange between art and fashion to be purely financial: “In recent years it boils down to money. Fashion has it and the art world needs it. Each is increasingly vacuous. I think we are long past the point where fashion was interesting to art at a formal level. These days they are both about celebrity products.” Giorgio Armani famously made a significant donation to the Guggenheim before they offered him a retrospective, much to the dismay of the art crowd which was appalled that fashion would be held in the same space as traditional art. Townsend disagrees with the media’s approach to 022

art/fashion exhibitions, saying, “When I put together the ‘Arts Seduction by Fashion’ exhibition I was not trying to pose fashion as an art object. I was interested in establishing the case for two-way traffic, in which fashion appropriated art and art found new ideas in fashion. The problem was that the marketing people took over, and inevitably it ends up with the question: Is fashion art?” He continues, “I was not interested in that question in the slightest, but in the way formal exchanges and social patterns got worked out. Both high-end fashion and art simultaneously long for a mass audience and exclusivity. I do not think it matters if fashion is considered art or indeed art is considered art. It is a category of distinction with its historical roots in the enlightenment and is utterly redundant in today’s world.” This year, more fashion exhibitions will open around the world than ever before, which should testify to fashion’s popularity as a historical and social source as well as product for consumption. Does Prada consider fashion art? “In the end I decided, who cares what it is?” she told Bolton. “The important thing is if it’s good or not.” Impossible Conversations runs through 19 August 2012 at New York’s Metropolitan Museum. For more information, please visit: www.metmuseum.org/impossibleconversations

Schiaparelli and Prada: a conversation worth overhearing  

Regarded by the fashion set as the most important night on the sartorial calendar, the annual Costume Institute Gala re-evaluated notions...

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