Agenda: Impossible Conversations with Prada and Schaiparelli

Skeptical is the best word to describe how I felt when the Met announced the 2012 Costume Institute Exhibition: Impossible Conversations: Schaiparelli and Prada.

So you are going to create an entire exhibition comparing two designers?  Groundbreaking.  Isn’t that what we do every season when a “new” trend is introduced?  Everything old is new again?  And Baz Luhrmann is going to direct the “conversation” between a living Prada and an actress (Judy Davis) playing Schiaparelli?  Am I going to a fashion exhibit or a film viewing?

Nevertheless, my Mom makes an annual trip to NYC specifically to see the Institute’s Exhibition, so we were going.  I steeled myself to not judge before viewing and to evaluate the exhibit on its merits.

A tribute to the genius team of Harold Koda, the Curator in Charge, and Andrew Bolton, Curator of the Costume Institute, the exhibition was amazing.

I found the exhibit to be less a comparison of similarities and more a demonstration of contrasts while working with a common concept.

Before you stop reading because you can’t make it to NYC and don’t want to feel left out – don’t worry!  The Met considerably improved the online presence for this exhibit – images and videos are here.  And, I found the exhibition catalog to be extremely well researched, providing additional background and images of Schiaparelli and Prada works.

The six galleries were organized by similar themes in the designers work – the hard chic gallery conveying military/utilitarian while the ugly chic displayed the use of non-conventional patterns and colors.  Each gallery showed how the designers utilized similar techniques and materials to create wildly different pieces that conveyed a common message.

That said, the motivation for creating the message was usually contradictory.  In fact, the two repeatedly stressed the differences in their motivation, which was fascinating to watch.

A great example of the contradiction was shown the Waist Up/Waist Down gallery.    Schiaparelli focused on detail and ornamentation on jackets and hats, creating strong silhouettes for women who were often seen or photographed sitting.  Prada has always focused below the waist.  One of my favorite moments of the show was watching Schaiparelli bitterly scowl as Prada argues against Schaiparelli’s points.

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The two women agreed on a couple points.  The first was that a woman should express her whole self without sacrificing any part of her personality, strength or desire.

Miuccia Prada: But women mainly need to have the power stuff, not the power, the will, the consciousness of themselves. I want to be old-fashioned and powerful.

Elsa Schiaparelli: To achieve that combination of strength and tenderness.

Miuccia Prada: I want to be a woman. I want to be weak. I want to be a servant. I want to be everything, but also I want to be powerful. As I don’t know which is the right choice, I prefer to keep them all.

Elsa Schiaparelli: Yes, well you should keep them all. Keep them all.

My favorite moment was the discussion (and disagreement) about whether fashion equates to art – an argument I quietly have with myself on a weekly basis.  Schiap collaborated with Dali, while Prada eschews collaborations as contrived.  This wonderful debate is captured in the video below.
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If you are able to make it to NYC prior to the exhibit closing in September, I highly recommend you block a couple hours and go study these women and the galleries.  If you are unable to make it to NYC, I suggest you buy a copy of the exhibition catalog.  The catalog includes the full transcript of the conversation and additional images.

I was encouraged by the exhibit to forge my own path.  I felt as inspired, as if I had viewed great art.  Although I am not sure that Prada would agree that her exhibit qualifies as such.  Schaiparelli, on the other hand, would applaud.


all images and blockquotes via the Met