It’s not often that the opening act for an exhibition doubles as the most glamorous red carpet event of the year. And yet, that’s precisely what happened when The Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute gala unleashed its fashion-forward attendees into its current juxtaposition of Italian luminaries Miuccia Prada (who donned a pantsuit for the affair) and the late Elsa Schiaparelli. Open to the public on May 10, Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations compares and contrasts the two designers by constructing imagined discussions between them. Their dialogue, though fictive, is as captivatingly beautiful as each designers’ craft, representing fashion at its best. Both Prada and Schiaparelli had complex ideas that raise the presentation from beautiful to meaty.
A 1930s Vanity Fair column by Miguel Covarrubias (featuring fictional interviews between names like Greta Garbo and Calivin Coolidge) inspired the approach, which includes a Baz Luhrmann-directed short film of simulated conversations that frame the investigation of both designers’ legacies. Australian actress Judy Davis plays Schiaparelli, while Prada plays herself. Viewers get to eavesdrop on the exchange, where both women confess their fears, outline their goals, and debate the notion of fashion-as-art (unlike Prada, Schiaparelli believed fashion should be judged against objects in a museum). Both are staunch feminists who aspire to express beauty in innovative ways, and refused to follow trends or traditions. Curators Andrew Bolton and Harold Koda opted to divide Prada and Schiaparelli’s designs by theme after Bolton spent months interviewing Prada in Milan, studying Schiaparelli’s autobiography, and poring over both designers’ archives.
Even the fashion unconscious are likely familiar with Prada, the ubiquitous fashion heir who’s known for the “ugly aesthetic” she established in the 1990s, while Schiaparelli is less commonly known but hardly insignificant. The legendary designer had her heyday in the 1930s and passed away in 1973, leaving a legacy of Dada and Surrealist-inspired designs behind. She was Coco Chanel’s biggest rival (the French designer famously called her the “Italian artist who makes clothes”), dominated fashion between two World Wars, and collaborated with Salvador Dali and Alberto Giacometti. Schiaparelli introduced graphic knitwear to the fashion world and printed food, animals, and body parts onto her textiles. She wasn’t afraid of color, which she splashed on zippers that stitched up everything from evening dresses to sportswear, and incorporated quirky buttons, embroidered shirts, turbans, pom-pom-rimmed hats, and wedge shoes into her stylings. Her most iconic work, the black felt “Shoe” hat, is on view at the exhibition alongside a silk crepe de chine dress printed with matchsticks and an ebony cape embroidered with the image of Apollo.
Prada steadfastly holds that fashion is not art, and was initially surprised at the comparison of Schiaparelli and herself. The exhibition attempts to show viewers their similarities and how both designers fuse their conceptual approach with practicality—though we’re not sure if we, or Prada, are convinced.