Schiaparelli & Prada Face Off In The Met’s Impossible Conversations

After last year’s blockbuster Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibit, the Costume Institute had a dilemma. How could it possibly top such a remarkable show?

The answer, of course, is it couldn’t. So chief curator Harold Koda and his team did the next best thing: they tried something entirely different. And while it doesn’t totally convince, the work on display in Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations is truly remarkable.

When we initially heard about the exhibit, we were skeptical. The concept — a fictitious conversation between Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada — felt contrived. For starters, Prada has never looked to Schiaparelli for inspiration. The fact that they are both insanely talented Italian women seemed superficial, a point acknowledged by curator Andrew Bolton at yesterday’s press preview. But for such a fantastical exhibit, Impossible Conversations came about out of a practical need. Not since 2005’s Coco Chanel show had the Costume Institute focused on a female designer. Despite inheriting a huge collection of Schiaparelli pieces from the Brooklyn Museum, a solo Schiaparelli retrospective was out of the question as the Philadelphia Museum of Art held one in 2003. Enter: Prada, both friend and foil.

While Schiaparelli is dreamy, Prada is obstinate — not so much in terms of their work, but rather in regards to their personalities. You see, the designers’ personalities are on display almost as much their work in the Met’s latest show. Visitors are first greeted by Prada and Schiaparelli (played by actress Judy Davis) sitting at a large table, via a Baz Luhrman-directed video looped on a large screen. The two chat about life and fashion, disagreeing about most things. Other such clips are scattered throughout the exhibit, though they are largely ignorable; the wall texts are almost exclusively quotes from the two women. Dreamy meet obstinate:

Schiaparelli: Dress designing . . . is to me not a profession but an art.

Prada: Dress designing is creative but it is not an art. Fashion designers make clothes and they have to sell them. We have less creative freedom than artists. But to be honest, whether fashion is art or whether even art is art doesn’t really interest me. Maybe nothing is art. Who cares!

The difference between this exhibit and the satirical 1930s Vanity Fair series “Impossible Interviews” that inspired it, is that the source material here is real. Davis paraphrases bits from Schiaparelli’s autobiography Shocking Life, which is also where the wall text quotes are pulled from.

The exhibit is comprised entirely of juxtaposed clothing and accessories — Schiap versus Prada, Prada versus Schiap. The first gallery is divided into two parts: “Waist up/Waist down” (Schiaparelli jackets paired with Prada skirts) and “Neck up/Knees down” (Schiaparelli hats paired with Prada shoes). Some of the connections are quite literal, as in the case of a Schiaparelli jacket with leaf buttons and a Prada skirt adorned with plastic leaves. This first gallery introduces the thesis that the designers’ attention to detail is what makes them so singular. In particular, Schiaparelli’s fastenings (one circus-motif jacket has acrobats for buttons) and Prada’s footwear are astonishing. A Schiaparelli veil with blue beading is another knockout item.

The next gallery is divided into several themes: “Hard Chic,” “Naif Chic”, “Ugly Chic”, “The Classical Body”, and “The Exotic Body”. As in the previous gallery, some pairings are quite clever — Schiaparelli wool suits shown alongside Prada nylon dresses — though at times they feel like examples from a college term paper, tenuous connections that are vague at best.

The last section, “The Surreal Body”, is staged in a disorienting mirrored gallery, with items in glass cases. (Note: clothes never look as good in glass cases.) Prada’s wares are featured on mannequins whose heads are covered in whimsical Guido Palau-designed creations that resemble themed Mexican wrestling masks (one’s a robot, one’s covered in bananas, and so on), while most of Schiaparelli’s are only visible in period photographs on screens set behind the mannequins. It’s here we see the designers’ use of tromp l’eoil and other such techniques in iconic pieces like Schiaparelli’s lobster dress and Prada’s lipstick skirt.

But despite how labored the concept may be, the formidable work of both Schiaparelli and Prada is a delight to see up close  — and the double dose of girl power isn’t too shabby either.

Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations is on view at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 19th.

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