Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations

Special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through August 19.

After the showstopping tragic-rock-star flash of the Alexander McQueen exhibit last summer, the Met’s Costume Institute seems to have swung all the way in the opposite direction. This summer’s exhibit is a cerebral, fashion-nerd pairing of the work of two designers, Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada, with relatively little in common—so little, in fact, that the combination is inscrutable at first. The two women are several generations apart (Schiaparelli was born in 1890, Prada in 1949), with such different attitudes toward and approaches to fashion that the comparisons and contrasts drawn between their work often feel cute but shallow: Schiaparelli emphasized a woman’s head and torso, while Prada focuses attention on legs and feet! Okay, then. So?

It turns out the “So?” is where the exhibit comes to life. Inspired, apparently, by a series of “Imaginary Interviews” that ran in Vanity Fair in the 1930s, the curators truly have imagined what a conversation between Schiaparelli (who died in 1973) and today’s Prada might sound like. They highlight writings and interviews with the designers, of course, but then, in their most audacious choice, they invited director Baz Luhrmann to create videos in which “Schiaparelli” (a heavily made-up Judy Davis) and Prada converse over a long dining table. And as whimsically bizarre as those videos are, they’re not frivolous. They engage with the designers’ ideas and philosophies and inspirations—riffing on Schiaparelli’s documented thoughts and a probing interview of Prada—and in that, they’re fascinating.

As it turns out, Schiaparelli concentrated on the head and torso because, at the time, society women were usually seen sitting—at restaurants, salons, wherever—and the top of the body was what was most on display. Prada, on the other hand, came of age in the 1960s, and considers the “waist down” more “grounded” (“It’s about sex, it’s about making love, it’s about life, it’s about giving birth”). In other words, their different approaches are, to a great degree, products of their different eras. I suppose one could use the exhibit to argue that Prada has drawn inspiration from her predecessor Schiaparelli, but to me, the more interesting implication is that they’re responding to many of the same things (womanhood, the nature of beauty, the relationship between design and art) from dramatically different cultural vantage points; sometimes they arrive at similar ends, and sometimes they diverge, and both results are intriguing, given the different starts.

Once you get past the sheer weirdness of watching a recognizable real person argue animatedly with a recognizable actor playing a third real person, the “impossible conversations” add tremendously to the exhibit, providing context and angles of approach to the often idiosyncratic work. Schiaparelli, for example, famously collaborated with Salvador Dalí and other artists of the era, and the exhibit includes some of those pieces, including a hat meant to look like a high-heeled shoe precariously perched on the head. Amusingly enough, shoes (albeit shoes for the feet) also tend to inspire Prada’s goofiest flights of fancy; the exhibit includes her racecar heels from a collection just this year.

The curators group the clothing and accessories by theme—”ugly chic,” “hard chic,” “the classical body,” “the surreal body”—and often juxtapose Schiaparelli and Prada pieces that seem to comment on each other, matching the two designers’ takes on military-inspired suit jackets or their use of gold or Schiaparelli’s goddess pleats with Prada’s uncanny pleat print. And all the while you walk past the carefully displaced items and vintage photographs (including one of Wallis Simpson, of all people, wearing Schiaparelli—ugh), the conversation continues on a series of screens.

In one of the most provocative segments, particularly given the setting, the women argue over whether fashion design is an art. Schiaparelli insists she is an artist (after all, she frequently collaborated with artists whose work is on display at the Met itself), and Prada impatiently dismisses the label altogether: she is a businesswoman; she has to worry about merchandising and branding and trends, not art. And Prada makes a strong argument. The thing is, even if she’s right, her work doesn’t look out of place at the Met or alongside Schiaparelli’s self-declared art. And even if their work isn’t as grippingly, passionately dramatic as McQueen’s (what is?), in its own oddly geeky way, it’s just as interesting.