Musing on Prada and Schiaparelli’s Conversations
At the MET - This was my first visit to one of the costume exhibitions at the iconic art museum, and yet, these two women are discussing whether their work is art or not, even more, what art is and what artists stand for. Miuccia Prada drops the subject stating: “Who cares?” and they agree to disagree. Even so, their works are protected, sometimes by a glass wall, almost sanctifying them – like art.
The latest fashion exhibition by the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is called “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations,” and it, figuratively and literally, is about the intertwining between Miuccia Prada and Elsa Schiaparelli’s work. Impossible, as they live in different periods – Schiaparelli, or Schiap, are her friends called her died in 1973 and the highlight of her career were the 30s and 40s, whereas Prada has been leading the course of fashion ever since the late 1980s when she took the head of her family business founded by her grandfather Mario Prada. Her collections continue to be as mouth dropping as they were when she made utilitarian nylon the ultimate fabric for accessories - and clothing – so much that her fall/winter 2012 collection is showcased at the museum, without having hit the stores yet. The collection will certainly be a sellout, as fashion editors all over America and Europe are fighting for exclusive samples for their most expected September issues.
The clothes are displayed in red, white or transparent open “boxes” in front of a projection of bits of Prada and Schiaparelli’s conversation on the themes showcased in front. The two iconic Italian fashion designers are having quite the glamorous talk over drinks on opposite sides of a dark wooden table under a crystal chandelier. The short film was directed by Baz Luhrmann, and in the dialog – based on Schiaparelli’s memoir and Prada’s own persona – they converse around anecdotes of how they ended up in fashion and their intentions as women designers.
Prada and Schiap’s conversations appear intrinsically in the correlations of their work. However, the relationship is never literal – not like Prada being inspired by Schiap’s jackets, and then creating her version of such (everyone is tired of that) – but rather both designers ultimately discus relevant issues in the lives of women, and the value of clothes in that sense.
Neither Prada nor Schiaparelli were considered pretty girls when they were young – Schiap said her own mother told her she was ugly. Prada didn’t feel like the most beautiful as a young girl in Milan either. In a way, fashion was their escape to all of that. Not as a way to hide their insecurities, but as a creative medium to discuss what is beautiful, and what makes a woman attractive. Yes, they are feminists.
And yes, their ideas of beauty are not the same, even if they have a taste for beadings, new, unconventional materials, and art in common. Elsa Schiaparelli, a designer from the 30s and 40s who died in 1973, far before Prada even started thinking about a career in fashion, draw the attention to the woman’s upper body, as way of making beautiful what a simple face wouldn’t do. Thus she was an amazing milliner – making hats from the form of a high-heeled shoe – loved jackets with padded shoulders (which everyone in Hollywood copied afterwards), and also created a lot of neckpieces, not precisely jewelry, but bold necklaces made of random metals and materials.
Prada, herself, would never turn the attention to the upper body, intentionally. She prefers skirts, bottom pieces, and shoes – crazy shoes.
It is only logical that the curators of the exhibition decided to showcase Prada’s shoes along with Schiaparelli’s hats and necklaces, and the contemporary designer’s embellished skirts, along with Schiap’s one of a kind jackets.
Later on, the audience gets to see specific themes of their work that relate, and simultaneously, oppose to each other. These were separated into “white space boxes,” each one with their own name, quotes to be read, and dialog to be seen and heard. Basically it is an all senses exhibition, with an almost simplistic and intellectual approach. The white spaces were named “Hard Chic,” “The Exotic Body,” “Naïf Chic,” “The Classical Body,” and maybe the most important of them all: “Ugly Chic” for what Prada is most famous for. Prada’s collections always carry an element of something that people would take as ugly, but she always deconstructs it into very appealing garments. With “Ugly Chic” Prada could also discus the main ideas around luxury fashion, using synthetics fibers as much as silk and wool, and uniform-like clothes as the latest expression of feminine modernity.
Schiaparelli’s work was more thematic as Prada, but she also shocked people by her choices of color – fuchsia was named by her perfume – and by changing the ideas of what women should or not use. Her trousers-skirts were revolutionary and controversial, as were her appliqués of plastic bug-shapes beadings to her clothes or the use of anything but buttons as buttons.
The last gallery named “The Surreal Body” compared specific garments of each designer with each other, or photographs in the case of Schiaparelli. This gallery discusses the idea of fashion as art, and designers as artists. Schiaparelli gained much of her fame from collaborating with Salvador Dali, and creating lobster hats and lobster printed dresses. At the same time, Prada, who is an avid art ambassador, has been inspired by art – especially surrealism – as a way of exploring the woman’s body, its shape limits, and analogies to animals with the use of unexpected materials like feathers, crinkled ombré wools, or mini kitchen as beadings.
In the end, both women were proving how fashion has the ability to shape identity. And how their work is not only for the sake of clothes … it is the way the live/lived.