Back in February at the preview event for the Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations exhibition mounted by the Met Museum with the help of Conde Nast and Amazon, I did say that I was intrigued enough by how the physical conversation part of the exhibition would take place, to catch the exhibition in New York and see it for myself. I kept to my word for once! I'm still currently in New York and managed to catch it on Friday, as it closes today (early bird New York readers can still go and see it today if they're reading this post as it goes live).
A thorough look at Met's museum website will already give you all the video footage of the Baz Luhrman-directed films, featuring the conversations between Miuccia Prada and Elsa Schiaparelli, played by the actress Judy Davis. "Schiap"s dialogue is constructed from her autobiography, Shocking Life (her signature shade of pink is termed as shocking today) with some creative license in gestures, ad-libbing, relying on Miuccia reacting to this interpretation of Schiap. It's seeing these videos in context of the exhibition that really brings them to life. You're eavesdropping on these fantastical and yet almost-plausible conversations that don't seem forced at all whilst looking at their work, analysing their similarity and differences in approach. It's interesting to see so much of Miuccia all at once, as she comes across as candid, warm and off-guard in these videos,as interviews with her are rare and her post-show soundbites, often cryptic. Davis did a marvellous job of portraying Schiaparelli, being the more openly boisterous of the two, chiding and joking with Miuccia and ultimately convincing us that such a conversation could have actually taken place if the two designers were contemporaries of one another.
Whilst the exhibition is arranged in literal pairings of Schiaparelli and Prada pieces through various themes, it is these conversations and the running stream of quotations from both designers that really underline the complexity and nuances of this most genius and unpreceded pairing of two designers in one exhibition.
We begin with the Waist Up/Waist Down portion of the exhibition which demonstrates a very marked difference between Prada and Schiarelli's work. Schiaparelli lived in a society where sitting down at a cafe and looking your best from the waist up was important and so the shoulders are accentuated and lavish embroidery covers the jackets. Prada prefers to place emphasis on skirts, allowing her to be experimental and playful with this ultimate symbol of sartorial female identity.
Schiaparelli: [When I began my career, I] did not know anything about dressmaking. [My] ignorance in this matter was supreme. Therefore my courage was without limit and blind. [My] designs [became] more and more daring. Up with the shoulders! Bring the bust back into its own, pad the shoulders and stop the ugly slouch! Raise the waist to its forgotten original place!
Prada: The skirt has always been one of my primary focuses. Everyone knows that you have to be very beautiful from the waist up, and less sophisticated from the waist down. But to me the waist up is more spiritual, more intellectual, while the waist down is more basic, more grounded. It’s about sex. It’s about making love. It’s about life. It’s about giving birth.
Elsa Schiaparelli Evening Jacket, winter 1938–39 Black silk velvet embroidered with mirrors, beads and metallic thread and sequins with black plastic cameo buttons // Miuccia Prada Skirt, spring/summer 1999 Grey silk organza embroidered with mirrors and leather tabs.
Elsa Schiaparelli Evening Jacket, winter 1936–37 Black wool embroidered with images of palm trees in gold paillettes and gold metal thread // Miuccia Prada Shorts, spring/summer 2010 Grey silk duchesse satin printed with palm trees
Elsa Schiaparelli Evening Jacket, 1937–38 Green silk velvet embroidered with metallic thread and red and pink rhinestones with half dome-shaped plastic buttons inset with flowers // Miuccia Prada Skirt, spring/summer 2008 Light green organza printed with illustrations by James Jean
This separation of body zones continues with Neck Up /Knees Down. For Schiaparelli, placing an often surreal and strange object on the head was shocking and revolutionary in her day. Prada finds the notion too ridiculous for the 20th/21st century and so channels all her whimsical desires into a shoe.
Schiaparelli: Dalí was a constant caller. We devised together ... the black hat in the form of a shoe with a Shocking velvet heel standing up like a small column. ... There was another hat resembling a lamb cutlet with a white frill on the bone, and this, more than anything else, contributed to [my] fame for eccentricity.
Prada: I’m more known for my shoes. For me, shoes are where I can express my fantasy, my imagination. I think you have much more freedom to be outrageous with shoes.
Elsa Schiaparelli Doll Hat, summer 1940 Blue and white striped cotton and grey straw with red cotton carnation and blue silk grosgrain ribbon // Miuccia Prada Shoes, spring/summer 2011 Black leather, natural rope, and blue, white and grey rubber
Elsa Schiaparelli/Jean Clement Necklace, autumn 1938 Clear Rhodoid with painted metal insects // Miuccia Prada Shoes, spring/summer 2010 Clear and pink plastic with silver metal and clear plastic beads
Elsa Schiaparelli Necklace, autumn 1938 Gold metal with orange and green enameled metal leaves // Miuccia Prada Shoes, spring/summer 1997 Cream, brown and red leather appliqued with red leather leaves
Elsa Schiaparelli Necklace, 1938 Enameled metal roses // Miuccia Prada Shoes, spring/summer 2008 Purple, pink and yellow suede appliqued with flowers
The next gallery explores the themes that both Schiaparelli and Prada explore. It's interesting that the exhibition chooses the word "Chic" as the umbrella term for these themes as the definition of the word perhaps contradicts with what both Schiaparelli and Prada sought to present with their work. Or that they successfully overturned our perceptions of what that word means. In Schiaparelli's day, she took considerable risks, causing ripples of sensation in her choice of motifs to shock her customers into accepting her kind of "chic". Prada has and still does constantly make us question our ideas of what constitutes good taste by bucking the status quo, looking ahead to a curve that does not yet exist.
Hard chic explores the two designers' more subdued looks and the fact that both appealed to the "intellectuals" of their day. I'm reminded of the success of Prada's original 1985 nylon backpack, an item that made functional sense and represents Prada's respect for her customer.
Schiaparelli: Curiously enough, in spite of [my] apparent craziness and love of fun and gags, [my] greatest fans were the ultra-smart and conservative women, wives of diplomats and bankers, millionaires and artists, who liked severe suits and plain black dresses.
Prada: I’m told that the women who wear my clothes vary dramatically. Of course, I’d hope that they were clever and interesting. I’d also hope that my clothes made their lives a little easier, that they made them feel happier.
Elsa Schiaparelli Day Suit, summer 1940 Navy wool melton with brass buttons, Elsa Schiaparelli Day Suit, 1938–39 Black wool jersey with brass buttons, Miuccia Prada Ensemble, autumn/winter 1994–95 Black wool knit with metal buttons
Naif Chic is probably my personal favourite section as I'm a firm believer in the designers' motto that fashion shouldn't come with an age limit. Prada and Schiaparelli's flirtations with childrens' clothes and playful motifs are not just mere surface decoration nor are they meant to be taken literally as clothes for childsplay. They both succeed in turning the naive into something more considered and substantial. Look at the success of Prada's S/S 11 baroque collection - who knew monkeys and bananas could resonate with such a wide audience. Schiaparelli's circus collection is eerily similar in its tongue-in-cheek approach.
Prada: Women always try to tame themselves as they get older, but the ones who look best are often a bit wilder. Thinking about age all the time is the biggest prison women can make for themselves.
Schiaparelli: Ninety percent [of women] are afraid of being conspicuous and of what people will say. So they buy a grey suit. They should dare to be different. Although I am very shy ... I have never been shy of appearing in public in the most fantastic and personal get up.
Elsa Schiaparelli Boléro, summer 1938 Pink silk crepe embroidered with circus elephants and acrobats in silk thread, pearls, and mirrors // Elsa Schiaparelli Boléro, summer 1938 Grey silk satin embroidered with circus horses in silk and metallic thread and pearls with gold metallic tassels
Elsa Schiaparelli Jacket, 1938 “Shocking pink” silk satin woven with circus horses in blue silk and gold metallic thread with acrobat-shaped buttons and Elsa Schiaparelli Evening Dress and Veil, summer 1938 Blue silk crepe printed with carousel motifs
Miuccia Prada Ensemble, spring/summer 2011 Top of white cotton canvas embroidered with monkeys, bananas, and baroque scrolls; skirt of pink and black striped cotton canvas and Miuccia Prada Dress, spring/summer 2011 Orange cotton canvas printed with black stripes, cherubs, monkeys, and baroque scrolls
The section Ugly Chic comes a close second as it's a neat summation of what both Prada and Schiaparelli have fought against and embraced. Schiaparelli was told as a child that she was ugly and attempting to plant flowers in her mouth and ears, an act that precedes her later life as someone who embraces all facets of beauty, perceived or not. Prada is of course famed for making the ugly, cool. It's not that either designer rejects beauty at face value but that true beauty isn't just about surface and that it come in different guises be it frumpy sweaters or geometric flares.
Prada: If I have done anything, it is to make ugly appealing. In fact, most of my work is concerned with destroying—or at least deconstructing—conventional ideas of beauty. Fashion fosters clichés of beauty, but I want to tear them apart.
Schiaparelli: A woman friend ... came to see me one day. She ... wore a sweater that though plain was different from any I had yet seen. . . . It was hand-knitted and had . . . a steady look. . . . [It] was definitely ugly in colour and shape, and though it was a bit elastic it did not stretch like other sweaters. [It had been made by] an Armenian peasant who lived with her husband. I went to see them [and asked them to copy a design by my own hand.] The first sweater was not a success. . . . The second sweater was better. The third I thought sensational. ... Anita Loos, at the height of her career with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, was my first private customer, and I was boosted, with her help, to fame.
Elsa Schiaparelli Sweater, early 1930s Black wool knit with yellow and white argyle pattern and Elsa Schiaparelli Sweater, early 1930s Green wool knit with black and yellow trompe l’oeil pattern of tie, collar, and cuffs
Miuccia Prada Ensemble, spring/summer 1996 Jacket of white linen and cotton tweed printed in chartreuse trompe l’oeil tweed pattern; top of white wool knit printed in green trompe l’oeil tweed pattern; skirt of white stretch twill printed in green trompe l’oeil tweed pattern and Miuccia Prada Ensemble, spring/summer 1996 Jacket and skirt of white linen and cotton tweed printed in mustard trompe l’oeil tweed pattern; top of white wool knit printed in purple trompe l’oeil tweed pattern
The Exotic Body explores the way both designers looked to other cultures without creating cheesy pastiche or replicas.
Prada: When I reference other cultures, it is usually a vehicle to express or present an idea. In my spring 2002 collection, I used lamé as an experiment in making gold conceptual. I knew that if I used a little it would look bourgeois, but if I used a lot it would look original and provocative.
Schiaparelli: My father [taught] Orientalism at the University of Rome. [But it was my mother’s sister who] awakened the love of eastern things which I have retained throughout my life.
Elsa Schiaparelli Evening Jacket, ca. 1938 Brown silk and linen blend woven with copper metallic thread flowers and latticework and embroidered with copper metallic thread petals and scrollwork with rhinestones and Elsa Schiaparelli Evening Skirt, winter 1936–37 Red silk and gold metallic ribbed weave and gold lame // Miuccia Prada Dress, spring/summer 2002 Blue and gold matelassé lurex and Miuccia Prada Dress, spring/summer 2002 Blue and gold and red and gold matelassé lurex
The Classical Body demonstrates that both designers have an understanding of the fundamentals and advantages of classical beauty and its history. Prada may try to subvert those ideas whereas Schiaparelli adhered to them because of her belief in flattering the body. Ultimately, both are also advocators of craftsmanship, however flighty or fanciful their ideas or themes are.
Schiaparelli: [I try] to make women both slim and elegant. With a reminiscence of great elegance and dignity, I [have often] turned to the Regency.
Prada: My so-called “Sexy” collection included “goddess” dresses. They were made out of draped silk jersey. I hated them. I thought they were too beautiful. It’s not that I dislike beautiful dresses, it’s that I dislike clichés of beauty. A beautiful dress has to be draped or bias-cut, which is why I rarely employ these techniques.
Miuccia Prada Ensemble, autumn/winter 1999–2000 Brown silk organza embroidered with glass, leather leaves and metal grommets and Miuccia Prada Ensemble, autumn/winter 1999–2000 Jacket of brown silk tulle woven with leaves and embroidered with brown beads; skirt of camel wool twill embroidered with leather leaves and metal grommets
Miuccia Prada Ensemble, autumn/winter 2004–5 Dress of ivory ombré silk chiffon embroidered with clear and gold paillettes, rhinestones, and beads; sweater of brown ombré alpaca knit // Elsa Schiaparelli Court Presentation Ensemble, autumn 1938 Dress of ivory silk marquisine and train of ivory silk organza embroidered with leaves and flowers in silver foil, rhinestones, and beads
The final gallery is a more general umbrella housing ensembles that relate to the Surreal Body. For Schiaparelli, this is more apparent and direct link to Surrealism because of her collaborations with artists such as Salvador Dali. For Prada, this is more underhand and often more subtle in the resulting garments. Both use unique choices of materials and motifs as a way of expressing these unexpected and fantastical (but never crossing over to laughable) ideas but the route of thought to get to these outfits are wildly different and this was definitely underlined in the conversation between the two women.
Prada: There’s often an element of fantasy in my work. My fall 2004 collection, for instance, was based on computer-generated representations of women and was partly inspired by the book Digital Beauties, which explores the concept of imaginary beauty taken from the Internet.
Schiaparelli: At [moments] of restriction, fantasy alone [can] lift people above dreariness. Fantasy is a flower that does not flourish on passivity.
Prada: If I am known for anything, it is my use of unusual materials. The origin of thought for many of my collections is materials, such as my fall 2007 collection. Fabrics melded into each other, so one fabric became another, became another, became another. Sometimes, when you have simple shapes and you want to express profound concepts, you have to introduce complexity into your materials.
Schiaparelli: [In respect to materials] I have launched myriads of novelties, even when the launching of them was hazardous—tree bark, cellophane, straw, and even glass.
Elsa Schiaparelli/Salvador Dali Suit Embroidered with Lips and "Shoe" Hat, winter 1937–38 Photograph by George Saad, L’Officiel, October 1937 // Miuccia Prada Ensemble, spring/summer 2000 Robe of blue silk chiffon and synthetic mesh; skirt of black silk chiffon appliqued with white silk chiffon printed with grey lips and embroidered with metal grommets
Elsa Schiaparelli Evening Dress, summer 1935 Black silk crepe de chine printed with matchsticks// Miuccia Prada Ensemble, spring/summer 2000 Cardigan of purple cashmere and silk; skirt of white silk crepe printed with lipsticks
Miuccia Prada Dress, autumn/winter 2008–9 Orange and black ombré silk ottoman with collar of nude stretch silk // Elsa Schiaparelli/Antoine Wig, ca. 1933 Photograph of Elsa Schiaparelli by Man Ray, ca. 1933
Elsa Schiaparelli/Salvador Dali "Inkpot" Hat, summer 1938 Photograph by Studio Dorvyne, L’Officiel, April 1938 // Miuccia Prada Dress, spring/summer 2007 Black silk satin embroidered with pressed metal "bottle tops"
Miuccia Prada Dress, autumn/winter 2007–8 Brown and orange ombré wool cloquet with orange plastic fringe and feathers // Elsa Schiaparelli Ensemble, ca. 1934 Photograph by Toni von Horn, Harper’s Bazaar, April 1934
Their discussion about whether a designer is an artist creates an amicable rift between the two women. Prada asserts that calling herself an artist feels old-fashioned and that her work is far more accessible than that of an artist. Schiaparelli of course in her day created waves and revolution by collaborating with an artist, which is something that Prada respects but cannot bring herself to do because she feels she doesn't need artists to make her work more appealing.
Schiaparelli: Artists took much more part in the life and development of fashion than they do now.
Prada: Nowadays, fashion no longer needs art to validate itself. Artists have come to realize the power of fashion to respond to current events quickly and critically. Many artists that I know are envious of fashion’s immediacy. They’re also envious of fashion’s ability to shape identity. don’t collaborate with artists in the field of fashion because I want to be successful—both creatively and commercially—on my own. I don’t want, and I don’t need, artists to make my work more appealing.
Schiaparelli: Dress designing . . . is to me not a profession but an art. A dress cannot just hang like a painting on the wall, or like a book remain intact and live a long and sheltered life. A dress has no life of its own unless it is worn, and as soon as this happens another personality takes over from you and animates it, or tries to, glorifies or destroys it, or makes it into a song of beauty.
Prada: I’ve never wanted to be an artist. I’ve never wanted to be called an artist. The term itself seems old-fashioned. It’s a term that does not relate to modern times. And it’s too confining. What I love about fashion is its accessibility and its democracy. Everyone wears it, and everyone relates to it.
It's this particular conversation on film that serves as a perfect ending to the exhibition. Would they have been friends or foes is the ultimate question. Prada has the last word and says perhaps they would have been friends but then asserts that she can never agree with Schiaparelli's stance on designers being artists. "Who cares about the title?" and with they drink to one another's talent, achievement, personal battles and design affinity and sensibility.
Miuccia Prada: I was taught, and I agree, that your collaboration with Dalí and other artists of your time, it was the only real relevant experiment that really was meaningful. It was not a joke, it was a serious moment when serious minds were collaborating.
Elsa Schiaparelli: If I don't say so myself, it was revolutionary. You should try, Miuccia.
Miuccia Prada: Today everything is so contrived and anything you do is under observation. So in a way, there is not even the same freedom to work with artists because immediately you think about what the comments will be. "Ah, yes, art and fashion…" So I avoid that subject completely.
Elsa Schiaparelli: For me, if I hadn't been a designer, I would liked to have been a sculptor. Coco even said of me that I was that designer who wanted to be an artist.
Miuccia Prada: Fashion is art, fashion is not art. But at the end, who cares? All of a sudden, we are put together in such an important exhibition, and so I am obliged to confront with you and I'm really starting… really enjoying it.
Elsa Schiaparelli: Well, I am enjoying it, too. I wonder… If we lived together at the same time, would we be friends or foes?
Miuccia Prada: I think friends.
Elsa Schiaparelli: So, maybe now we can agree that designers are artists.
Miuccia Prada: No, never! Schiap, never! I think that you have to do your job, and who cares about the title.
Elsa Schiaparelli: Salute.
The exhibition's rich imagery of Schiaparelli's archive pieces as well as specially created images by David Sims and Toby MacFarland (styled by Katie Grand) of Prada's contribution are all collated into the accompanying book that is definitely worth buying. All the quotes that I have used are also inserted in through smaller pages that are dotted throughout. The exhibition may be finishing up but the book definitely serves as a brilliant summary of this entirely possible conversation between two designers.