“Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations,” the new Costume Institute exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, opened with a red carpet parade of feather bedecked socialites, fashion editors adorned with surrealist lips, Hollywood starlets slithering around in silk trains and ballskirts voluminous enough to part a crowd and a host of tuxedoes gentlemen—some famous, others not, all dashing—serving as their walkers.
It was the annual gala, once dubbed the “party of the year” and now labeled the “Oscars of the East,” by those trying to offer the uninitiated some point of reference for a fashion extravaganza that funds the Costume Institute and that brings together the likes of the Rolling Stones’ Ron Wood, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, actress Gwyneth Paltrow and a herd of gazelle-like models. It was impossible to count the numbers of men and women dressed in full Prada regalia or at least carrying one of her handbags or teetering in a pair of her shoes. The evening’s host Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour was dressed in a linen Prada gown with lobster motif embroidery; co-host Carey Mulliegan sparkled in gold and silver Prada paillettes and Linda Evangelista – fresh from settling her custody battle with billionaire Francois-Henri Pinault was elegant in a black cap-sleeve Prada dress with a peplum.
Emma Stone chose a short, cherry-red Lanvin party dress. Kanye West wore Givenchy as did award-winning singer-turned-award-winning journalist Beyonce, who was dressed in a flowing black lace gown and, as usual, was accessorized with a bodyguard.
After dinner—veal chop, fingerling potatoes and salad greens—in the Temple of Dendur, the evening’s headliner was Bruno Mars. Dressed in a Prada tuxedo he played a mix of “Roxanne” and “Dirty Diana,” before serenading Miuccia Prada with his own “Just the Way You Are:” “Miuccia, Miuccia, Miuccia you’re amazing, just the way you are!”
Mars might have gotten a bit carried away by his fashion moment, but indeed, the most captivating aspect of the exhibition, is the dialogue between Prada and her counterpart, Schiaparelli—not the clothes.
This is no small feat, as the body of work created by each woman is beautiful, startling, and influential. It’s fashion at its best.
But what elevates the work from admirable to thought-provoking are the complicated musings of the two women. They are feminists, eccentrics, and provocateurs.
Curators Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton were inspired by a series of fictional interviews between the likes of Greta Garbo and Calvin Coolidge, Sigmund Freud and Jean Harlow that appeared in Vanity Fair magazine in the 1930s. The curators use an incisively imagined conversation between Miuccia Prada and Elsa Schiaparelli as the framework for examining the legacy of two women celebrated within the fashion industry for their subversive expression of beauty and their stubborn unwillingness to kow-tow to traditions.
Director Baz Luhrmann was enlisted to craft a short film in which the two women converse across time. Schiaparelli, whose heyday was the early half of the 20th century, died in 1973. She is reincarnated in the daunting form of actress Judy Davis, who paraphrases excerpts from Schiaparelli’s autobiography Shocking Life. Prada, 62, who launched her first women’s ready-to-wear collection in 1988, speaks extemporaneously and thoughtfully.
Theirs is a delicious conversation—academic, intimate, professional—on which to eavesdrop. They admit their ambivalence about fashion and their personal insecurities and aspirations. They debate whether fashion can be described as art—and on this question they disagree. Schiaparelli was inspired by the surrealists and collaborated with Salvador Dalí. She adamantly believes that fashion should be evaluated alongside sculpture and painting. Indeed, she notes that had she not become a designer, she might have been a sculptor. Prada, who makes use of unorthodox materials such as industrial nylon and inexpensive plastic, believes fashion is akin to a creative craft. For her, clothing design provides entrée to the world of sculptors and filmmakers; it allows her to be a patron of the arts. But it is not the equivalent of a fine painting.
That fundamental disagreement—as well as their somewhat politicized similarities—gives their imagined conversation an electrical charge. Their embrace of feminism left both of them struggling to balance the superficiality of fashion with a woman’s sense of control, authority, and independence. Schiaparelli, for instance, says that men respect strong women, but don’t usually love them. Prada declares her desire to maintain certain feminine traditions without giving up her power.
Both women fought against the classical definition of beauty. Schiaparelli tells us why: in her youth she was often described as ugly. She spent a lifetime crafting ways in which her unattractiveness could be reimagined as something desirable. Prada gives no indication that she was assaulted with such harsh words as a young woman, but, as a young feminist pulled into the family business, her overarching goal has been to subvert the clichés of femininity. Indeed, anything that even suggests that perhaps she has slipped into a classical depiction of female beauty upsets her.
Consider a gold sari-like dress from Prada’s spring 2004 collection that is on display. It’s a lovely cocktail dress. Prada’s brutal assessment: ”It was actually inspired by ’50s haute couture. I look at it now though and I hate it.” Rare is the designer who so publicly launches such an assault on her own work.
For the visitor, the challenge will be to see these clothes in the context of history—even if that history is only a few years old. When the work of highly influential designers is exhibited, it often fails to impress the lay person. That’s because the designers’ greatest achievements have seeped into the contemporary vernacular—a process that happens faster and faster these days. The clothes are too familiar. It is hard, for example, to look at a simple black dress in the context of a Chanel show and be moved by its cultural significance. Deconstruction is common. Surrealism might as well be Renaissance art.
This is one of the hurdles for Schiaparelli and Prada. The once-eccentric color combinations, the startling references to uniforms, the curiosity of using industrial nylon have all become part of fashion’s daily vocabulary. The designs might make a viewer yearn to consume, to expand her wardrobe, but they do not conjure up a fantasy.
And while the installation, designed by Nathan Crowley, serves as an elegant modernist backdrop to the clothes, in the dimly lit galleries those sets disappointingly recede into the background without adding to one’s understanding of how these two women excelled.
In some ways, it’s the sponsor of the exhibition, Amazon.com, that signals to a mass audience the stature of the two women and their breadth of influence. The online shopping behemoth, which has recently begun an invasion of the high-end fashion world through sites such as MyHabit.com and Shopbop.com, wraps itself in the reflected glow of these rarified designers who have dazzled fashion insiders and, in the case of Prada, can also brag of commercial success to the tune of a $2 billion initial public offering last year.
In the academic confines of museums, such talk of marketing and the bottom line qualifies as gauche. But the exhibition and its attendant opening-night party—fashion’s most perfectly curated tableau vivant organized by Vogue’s Anna Wintour—now have the capacity to bestow prestige far beyond a once-insular industry.
For the first time, the red-carpet arrivals will be live-streamed, further embedding it into the broader popular consciousness.
Schiaparelli and Prada created unique and challenging clothes that changed how women dress. But even a coat trimmed in orange plastic fringe tucked into a simple glass box cannot compete with half the well-groomed population of Hollywood preening on a red carpet.
Luckily, however, the intelligent commentary of two thoughtful and self-aware women can.