Published  11/06/2012

Schiaparelli & Prada: Impossible Conversations

Italy’s Prima Fashionistas Talk Shop

Schiaparelli & Prada: Impossible Conversations
Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute, New York
10 May–19 August 2012

Reviewed by CINDI Di MARZO

The intellectual content of fashion has, typically, paled before the fantasy, drama and sex appeal of ensembles created by a designer like the late Alexander McQueen, who was featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s blockbuster spring 2011 Costume Institute exhibition. Although McQueen referenced a mélange of historical periods, cultures and art forms, the powerful effect of his work is, primarily, a visceral rather than cerebral experience. For the 2012 show – Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations – curators Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton have resisted an attempt to match the magnitude of 2011. Instead, by choosing to honour subtle wit, irreverence and intelligence in fashion design, they are reminding fashionistas everywhere that courage and a great concept can lift a garment or accessory far beyond the confines of the body.

The premise for the show – a series of staged conversations between Italy’s premier women designers, Elsa Schiaparelli (1890–1973) and Miuccia Prada (b1949) – is itself a great concept, which originated in the 1930s with Mexican American painter and caricaturist Miguel Covarrubias (1904–1957). For Vanity Fair, Covarrubias contrived “Impossible Interviews” between such mismatched figures as mobster Al Capone and US Chief Justice Charles Hughes; comedian Gracie Allen and writer/salon host Gertrude Stein; and stripper Sally Rand and modern dance pioneer Martha Graham. While Covarrubias put words never spoken into the mouths of his subjects, Koda and Bolton paired quotations from Schiaparelli’s 1954 memoir Shocking Life (a delight to read and available in a 2007 edition published by the V&A) with statements made by Prada in interviews, the point being to highlight connections and divergences between Schiaparelli and Prada and raise questions about the greater purpose and potential of fashion design.

As it turns out, Schiaparelli and Prada share some superficial similarities, a few deeper affinities and many differences. Italians both, Schiaparelli, or “Schiap” (pronounced “Scap”) as she was known in her artistic circle, was born in Rome; Prada, in Milan. Both had fathers in academia; both began designing clothing later in life – Schiaparelli did her first collection in 1926 aged 37 and Prada launched her women’s ready-to-wear line in 1989 aged 40; and both took the fashion world by storm with simple but revolutionary ideas.

Schiaparelli’s first, big and unexpected success came in 1927 with a basic sweater sporting a trompe l’oeil shawl collar and bow knit into the design. In the 1980s Prada revitalised her family’s staid leather goods business, founded in 1913, with her well-constructed and pricey nylon backpack. The item became a highly coveted object of desire and catapulted the company into million-dollar sales.

Prada took charge of the business in 1978. A year earlier, she met her future husband, leather goods dealer Patrizio Bertelli. Together – and with more than a little push from him – they have expanded into women’s and men’s ready-to-wear, accessories and perfumes; launched spin-off label Miu Miu (1993); acquired other luxury brands (Helmet Lang, Jil Sander); and hired sought-after architects to build retail outlets in the shopping capitals of the world (Rem Koolhaas in New York; Herzog & de Meuron in Tokyo). Subsequently, Bertelli dropped the company’s acquisitions and refocused its aggressive pursuit of Prada’s command of elite fashion.

Another meeting point for these women – their commitment to fine art – simultaneously proves to be a place where they split. Schiaparelli revelled in the avant-garde, collaborating with many of the Surrealists and stating in her memoir, “Dress designing…is to me not a profession but an art”. Prada and Bertelli collect contemporary art, promoting it through their Milan-based Fondazione Prada. Prada contends: “Dress designing is creative but it is not an art. Art is about pure self-expression untainted by commercial implications”.

The approximately 100 garments and 40 accessories displayed in Impossible Conversations draw out formal and stylistic echoes between Schiaparelli and Prada, particularly in embellishments and patterning; for example, fabrics printed with whimsical images like snails and clowns (Schiaparelli) or cars and fairies (Prada); fur handled playfully; colours, motifs and materials generally considered to be ugly made glamorous; and workday garments given a life on the runway via their creators’ ingenuity. To realise the challenge she presented to the mainstream, one need only consider the apron Schiaparelli made – rubber on one side and crepe on the other – to help women go from day into evening more quickly than Clark Kent changed into Superman. Prada, too, confesses to an admiration for aprons, as well as children’s clothing, and an aversion to classic notions of eveningwear.

But as Prada connects aprons to “women’s sufferance,” Schiaparelli used the apron as a tool for transformation, in effect allowing women to make a cake and eat it, too. And whereas Prada breaks all of the rules of eveningwear by mixing “day” and “evening” fabrics, shapes and styles, Schiaparelli used conventional evening elegance as a canvas for shocking detail or colour (for instance, her signature shocking pink). An iconic example is her 1937 white silk gown with crimson-coloured waistband, a collaboration with Salvador Dalí, worn by Wallis Simpson. Known as the “Lobster Dress”, the gown has the crustacean printed on the front. A Cecil Beaton photograph of Simpson before her marriage to King Edward captures the audacity of the design.

A willful subversion of accepted notions of beauty is another commonality. The exhibition highlights this critical aspect of their work in a section labelled Ugly Chic. Other sections consider the designers’ preoccupation with uniforms and menswear (Hard Chic), innocence (Naïf Chic), antiquity (The Classical Body), Eastern cultures (The Exotic Body), reality and illusion (The Surreal Body) and different focal points in their designs (Waist Up/Waist Down). A subsection devoted to Schiaparelli’s tongue-in-cheek hats and Prada’s heavenly but lethal-looking shoes (Neck Up/Knees Down) is a winner.

Provocatively, both women have turned the tables on their own concepts; Prada designed an entire collection (2008) around lace because she had a long-standing dislike of it. Schiaparelli, who believed that fashion was a medium for art, frequently did an about-face, creating outfits made of serviceable materials enhanced with mundane objects (eg, a plain weave cotton dress appliquéd with seed packets circa 1940).

The strongest link between Schiaparelli and Prada is their rebellious and fiercely independent natures. Schiaparelli escaped the expectations of her traditional, well-to-do Catholic family and later joined the social circle of avant-garde and Surrealist artists in Paris and New York City, and Prada earned a PhD in political science at a time when wealthy young Italians considered it their duty to be radical and did not feel a conflict between their lifestyles and their politics. Prada joined the revolution wearing, on occasion, haute couture. After university, she studied mime at the Teatro Piccolo in Milan. Perhaps as a young woman she embraced performance in a void, not having decided what to do with her life. Whatever the impulse, the years she spent expressing emotion through body language is evident in her collections.

In the catalogue, Koda and Bolton provide the backstory for this year’s theme and choice of subjects. Schiaparelli was a natural because in 2010 the Brooklyn Museum transferred to the Met a large collection of her garments and accessories. (See Studio International’s coverage of the transfer: The Often Serendipitous Nature of Museum Collecting) Schiaparelli’s involvement with the major Surrealists of her day (Dalí, Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, etc.) also figured into the choice; the concept of imaginary dialogues is, after all, surreal.

With the closing of her house in 1954, just as main rival Chanel reopened after a nearly 15-year hiatus, Schiaparelli’s unique vision was overshadowed by trends at extreme ends of the spectrum: comfort and convenience on the one hand, sartorial splendour on the other. The woman who raised eyebrows with her “Lamb Chop” hat (created with Dalí and worn by Singer sewing machine heiress Daisy Fellowes), and whose fetish for buttons and other fastenings resulted in charming novelties, had lost her relevance. It is telling that Chanel’s star rose again just when Schiaparelli’s descended; Chanel was one of the 20th-century’s least conceptual designers. Then, in 2003, the Philadelphia Museum organised a Schiaparelli retrospective – Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli – sparking new interest in her work.1 Subsequently, shows at the Costume Institute, the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum at FIT and the Museum of the City of New York have rekindled interest in “Schiap” and her always surprising take on haute couture.

As for Prada, although outspoken in interviews and no-nonsense in appearance, she remains an enigma. Her personality is so atypical for a fashion designer – she claims to have been uneasy in the role for much of her career – her grand success begs for explication. She tends to dominate the exhibition, as visitors will note when they watch the series of filmed interactions produced by Australian film director Baz Luhrmann and designed by Catherine Martin. (Judy Davis plays “Schiap”.)

The fanfare that always attends a Costume Institute exhibition and its annual Benefit gala requires one to let the dust settle before attempting fair judgement.2 And the crowds at nearly every hour, from the museum’s opening until closing time, make satisfactory viewing dicey. Happily the catalogue is just as brilliantly conceived as the show and visitors who do purchase a copy will be well-rewarded when they consider these women’s words without being elbowed by fellow museum-goers. The cover is decorated with pink and grey textured cloth printed with lips, a motif favoured by both designers, and inset photos of Schiaparelli wearing a lip-accented suit and her “Shoe Hat” (front) and a model wearing a Prada lip-accented ensemble (back).3

Throughout the volume, Koda and Bolton have juxtaposed designs separated by decades to suggest that Prada has studied, amplified and appropriated Schiaparelli’s aesthetic, materially and philosophically. For those not convinced, they offer Yves Saint Laurent as a tangible bridge, historically, between them. Yet, the dialogues presented – designed as four-page inserts measuring about a quarter of the size of text pages – read like comments rather than conversation. The genuine dialogue occurs with readers. Similarly, the exhibition will stimulate an intellectual consideration of fashion: Is it art? (Schiaparelli has said so; Prada has said, “No.”) Is it a forum for social, cultural, political and personal concerns? (Here, they agree.) Can it be daring and make an impact on society? One can assume from the material presented at the Met that Schiaparelli and Prada would not have begun to design clothing if such were not the case.

Referring to a collection she calls “a study in gold”, Prada states: “I love being able to express my ideas – in this case, to make gold look interesting and challenging – to the world. It is what I like most about working in fashion.”

Speaking about her 1935 “Stop, Look and Listen” collection, Schiaparelli said she “sought only an absolute freedom of expression, and a daredevil approach, with no fear”.

Their commitment to “ideas” and “expression” have earned Schiaparelli and Prada their reputations as Italy’s prima fashionistas, while the Met’s attempt to simulate a bit of shop talk between them has earned the Costume Institute another round of loud applause. May we suggest an encore: Perhaps a collegial chat between Schiaparelli and Stephen Jones on the art of millinery, or a heated debate between Prada and Charles James on the proper way to dress a lady for evening?


1. An excellent catalogue compiled by curator Dilys E. Blum and published by Yale University Press accompanied Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli, an exhibition held in 2003 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

2. Prada co-chaired, with actor Carey Mulligan and Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, the Costume Institute’s Benefit gala (7 May), which was attended by the usual rich and famous. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, whose company largely funded the exhibition, joined them. The big names secured for the exhibition design include English Hollywood designer Nathan Crowley, who did the display of garments and accessories, and hair stylist Guido Palau, who did the sculptural head treatments and masks.

3. Schiaparelli & Prada: Impossible Conversations by Andrew Bolton and Harold Koda, with an introduction by Judith Thurman (Yale University Press, 2012). The 324-page volume has 124 full-colour and 82 duo-tone illustrations and retails for US $45/UK £30.

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