Prada & Schiaparelli

Impossible Conversations at the Met

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“You know, Miuccia, I hate talking to designers,” says Elsa Schiaparelli in the first of a series of eight short videos in the Met’s exhibit, “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations.” The two Italian designers sit at opposite ends of a long dark rococo table separated by a glass chandelier and champagne flutes. Miuccia Prada’s black sweater, crisp white blouse and simple slicked back hair are in perfect opposition to Schiaparelli’s polished eccentric look — red lipstick, a tailored black blazer on top of a white blouse whose impossibly big bow mimics the finger waves in her coif. When the two designers raise their glasses in salude, they are just out of each other’s reach, an appropriate recurring motif that represents the designers’ individual and overlapping strengths as well as the history that stretches between them.

The script for the videos, written by curator Andrew Bolton, was culled from excerpts from Schiaparelli’s autobiography, Shocking Life, and a series of interviews conducted by Bolton with Prada. Prada comes across as poised, reflective, and private, and I often felt like we were engaged in a game of reluctant secret sharing, especially when she expressed her subtly feminist motivations in the ‘Hard Chic’ section that featured military inspired all black ensembles from both designers. “I tried to make the men more human and the women more powerful,” Prada says quietly. Schiaparelli (impersonated by Australian born Judy Davis) comes across as a parody of herself and her eccentricities are pushed on the audience relentlessly, but eventually the viewer is able to ignore the affected accent and gestures and appreciate the revolutionary nature of her work.

Visually, I did not find the layout of the show particularly different than walking through a boutique in half darkness that paired modern couture with haute vintage, and I kept feeling stupidly glum over not being able to try on the padded black brocade jacket with the cream colored French baroque style trim. But one of the most memorable chapters of the show, “Waist Up/Waist Down,” juxtaposes Prada’s skirts and shoes with Schiaparelli’s hats, jackets, and accessories. “Schiap” (as she called herself) designed clothes for the social needs of a café society, which relegated women to their seats in public and emphasized adorning the upper half of the body. Prada, on the other hand, is fascinated by what goes on below women’s waists: “Sex, giving birth, being attached to the Earth,” and calls it madness to have “all this mess” around one’s head and face. It is these little moments where the designers playfully quibble that allow the viewer to suspend disbelief and wonder about these two talented designers as Schiaparelli did, “If we had lived at the same time, would we be friends…or foes?” Prada says, “I think friends,” and I think so too.

Do check out the exhibition before it closes August 19th, and let us know what you think!

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