The Met Hails Miuccia Prada and Elsa Schiaparelli
by laurie brookins
styling by Amanda Weiner
Baz Luhrmann is stuck in Sydney, unable to leave as he completes The Great Gatsby, but this fact doesn’t seem to worry Harold Koda. “We’re a little delayed on everything, but it will all come together,” he says in early March. “Baz will likely get someone from his circle of friends there to play the part.”
Knowing Luhrmann’s circle of friends extends to the likes of Nicole Kidman and Carey Mulligan (who joins him on that Gatsby set) conjures up tantalizing notions about his participation in the Costume Institute’s newest exhibit. Luhrmann serves as creative consultant for “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations,” which opens May 10 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (its high-wattage annual gala, the largest fundraising source for the Costume Institute, takes place on May 7). Among the aspects bearing Luhrmann’s signature will be a series of films tracing a fictional dialogue between two fashion legends: Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada. “We can film Miuccia, but we need an actress to play Schiaparelli,” explains Koda, the curator in charge of the Costume Institute since 2000. “Hearing these two women speak to each other, bringing to life these fictive conversations, will not only feel whimsical and playful, but also will advance the [public’s] assessment of them both.”
“Mrs. Prada,” as she is known in fashion circles, may feel more accessible to a mainstream audience that knows her for crafting highly coveted bags and shoes. But it was the inclusion of what Koda deems “a wonderful body of Schiaparelli material” in a transfer of the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s costume collection to the Costume Institute three years ago that created the impetus for this year’s exhibit. “We had been talking for some time about doing an exhibition that paired two designers, and we wanted to focus on women designers particularly,” Koda says, noting that the last female designer-driven Costume Institute exhibit was 2005’s Chanel exhibition. “Then this body of Schiaparelli’s work arrived. It’s a wonderful cluster of objects, but we wondered: Who should we pair her with? We wanted it to be a brainteaser, a more whimsical concept. So we thought, Why don’t we violate chronology and have the past address the present, and the present address the past? Miuccia was our first choice.”
“Impossible Conversations” follows on the heels of last year’s “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,” which at 661,509 attendees ranks as the most visited exhibit at the Costume Institute since it joined the Met in 1946, and the eighth most popular at the Met in its 141-year history. Schiaparelli’s contributions should be no less celebrated, Koda says. “You see two lines of influence: One is technical; her tailoring introduced the notion of the broader shoulder line, for example, [which] introduced a powerful silhouette onto a woman’s body,” Koda says. “In a more conceptual contribution, she saw her work as having an artistic intention; she saw her own métier as art.”
Inspired by illustrator Miguel Covarrubias’ “Impossible Interviews,” a popular Vanity Fair feature in the 1930s, the exhibit examines both the parallels and contradictions between Schiaparelli and Prada, both of whom not only share an Italian heritage, but also are very much engaged in the art scenes of their respective eras. “Each also creates collections that provoke a very strong response from her audience,” Koda points out. Roughly 120 pieces will be viewed in seven themed galleries that delve into similarities and contrasts, such as “Waist Up/Waist Down,” which showcases Schiaparelli’s love of decoration and detail high on the body, an idea juxtaposed with Prada’s affinity for skirts and footwear, and “The Surreal Body,” a look at how both women experiment with use of scale, displacement, and other Surrealist ideas.
Schiaparelli, who died in 1973, embraced an intimate relationship between fashion and modern art throughout the 1920s and ’30s, counting Salvador Dalí, Jean Cocteau, and Man Ray among her inner circle; in 1937 Dalí provided her with the sketch of a hat shaped like an inverted shoe, ultimately among her most famous pieces. Prada, meanwhile, is a celebrated art collector through her eponymous foundation, yet has eschewed the notion of fashion as art, even as she employs techniques and elements considered highly artful, including the Art Nouveau feeling of the flower shoes in her Spring 2008 collection and, most recently, the ’50s-inspired cars that adorn several prints in her Spring 2012 collection. “Transforming something that is popular culture, that’s very Jeff Koons,” Koda says of the latter. “Mrs. Prada definitely displaces and subverts hierarchies, pushing you to accept something that, a minute before you see it, you might not think would be attractive. She resists describing her work as art, but she has absorbed art-making strategies. Schiaparelli, on the other hand, loved collaborating with artists.”
While the designers represent different points of view, Koda believes the resulting conversations— both among the exhibition’s viewers and in those fictive films Luhrmann at press time was still producing— will enrich the seemingly endless debate around one central question: Is fashion art? “I’ve always noticed that when I go through other shows in this museum, the galleries are hushed; there’s a certain attitude about attentiveness to different art forms, be it sculpture, painting, or photography,” he says. “But when you come into the Costume Institute galleries, people are very open about making commentary. That’s because fashion is the thing to which everyone can relate. We also love it when the past is seen as informing the present, and the present reanimates the past. In this conversation, that very much happens.”
photography by john midgley; Prop styling by Brian Labrecque, BrianLabrecque.com; Hair and hairpieces by Alberto Guzman for Cutler/Redken @ RayBrownPro.com; Makeup by Janeiro for Dior @ BeautyWingNY.com; Manicure by Tracylee for Tim Howard Management using Dior Vernis; Model: Jana Wirth at Women Direct New York; Photography assistance by Paul Collins and Austin Kennedy; Prop styling assistance by Meghan Gifford and Mark Donovan; Special thanks to The Space Studios
Mannequins, courtesy of Ralph pucci International. bureau, abc home, 888 and 881 broadway, 212-473-3000; abchome.com. Sofa, courtesy of Props for Today. 330 W. 34th St., 212-244-9600; propsfortoday.com. Birdcage, co urtesy of Props for Today. 330 W. 34th St., 212-244-9600; propsfortoday .com
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