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Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations

Curator Harold Koda discusses the exhibition.

Harold Koda: This spring we're interested in investigating the correlations that can be drawn between a contemporary designer, Miuccia Prada, and Elsa Schiaparelli, a woman whose career spanned decades beginning with the first collections in the late 1920s through the last collections as an haute couturier in the 1950s.

Both of them are Italian, both of them are feminists. Both of them have had careers which tended to expand on the notions of good taste, refinement, injecting a strategy of provocation into their collections in a way that we thought was interesting.

One of the facts that we were aware of before we put this pairing together was that Prada really never looked to Schiaparelli for inspiration. It's only after we began investigating correlations between the two designers that we found extraordinary affinities in terms of their approaches, sometimes even very explicit relationships between individual designs through their careers.

With Miuccia Prada some of these developments are independent and not really responsive to the historical precedent that was set by Schiaparelli. What we'd like to do is reinforce the notion that by examining really provocative, exciting, interesting design, in the context of the career and work of someone who is historical, that surprising relevance and affinities can be drawn to the past, that the past can be vivified by its relationship to the present, and the present can be given a deeper, richer context by alluding to an earlier design strategy.

The exhibition itself, the idea of Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada: Impossible Conversations, is the result of a parody that used to appear in Vanity Fair in the 1930s. It was a feature that brought together very unlikely personalities in provocative conversational engagement.

The most famous of that period was one that was set up between Greta Garbo and Calvin Coolidge, two personalities of the day who were notorious for being extremely taciturn and laconic. And so, that particular conversation went:

Greta Garbo: You're here?
Forty-five minutes pass.
Calvin Coolidge: And you?

And when we look at a series of these, and including one that juxtaposed Elsa Schiaparelli with Josef Stalin, we thought, wouldn't it be fun to not simply juxtapose two personalities and engage them in a chronological fashion, but actually do so in an anachronistic way? And that's how we came up with the first idea of picking someone who would be a historical figure as well as a contemporary design figure.

What moved us in the direction of selecting Miuccia Prada and Schiaparelli was that we had—in a partnership with the Brooklyn Museum, the transfer of their extraordinary collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century costume—a huge body of Schiaparelli material that was very rarely seen. And we decided this was an opportunity to foreground that collection, that transferred material. Once we came up with the idea of Schiaparelli—Andrew Bolton and myself—that why don’t we keep to a kind of parallelism in terms of the two designers who are engaged so that they would both be women and, if possible, both be Italian. And that is the rationalization for putting them together.

It wasn't with any kind of preconception that there was any relationship between them. If anything, it was because their biography shared certain details.

When a curator is working with material that is not historically related, but juxtaposed in a way that presents a relationship, there's a kind of playfulness that is inevitable in those kinds of comparisons or contrasts. And with Prada and Schiaparelli, there is the danger that people will leave thinking, "Oh, Prada saw that Schiaparelli." Because some of the relationships are so close.

Miuccia Prada has mentioned to us that she designs for a certain kind of woman, but she intends in her collections to expand the vocabulary of that woman's comfort level. And so, we have in many instances dresses that play very deliberately with the contemporary notion of bad taste. What is the most unappealing color or pattern is then presented in a way that suddenly seems very chic. Schiaparelli herself did similar things by playing with Surrealist prints, imagery that was playful, whimsical, ironic, and sometimes on a scale that was, to the contemporary eye, a little bit alarming. And so we're going to juxtapose those kinds of prints and dresses with Miuccia Prada's own examples of provocative bad taste as good taste.

There are a series of things that are done by Schiaparelli that focus on the upper torso of her clients. She was very much interested in "restaurant dressing," which is that which appears above the table when you're sitting down, having your meal in a restaurant. So all of the focus is on the shoulders, the bust, down to the waist, whereas Prada is very much more interested in what happens below the waist. She says explicitly that for her, above the waist is about concept, spirituality, but below the waist is very much about something that is tied to the earth, it's about giving birth, it's about sexuality, it's about being grounded. So for her to embellish the skirt, to play with proportions of the skirt, is as important as the jacket, the bodice was to Schiaparelli.

So we're going to have a whole zone where we're playing with above the waist, which is going to be Schiaparelli, and below the waist, which is Miuccia Prada, but with imagery that correlates to each designer, back and forth. So for example, there is one extraordinary biomorphic embroidery on an evening jacket that Schiaparelli does, that relates very much to an Art Nouveau print, also biomorphic, that Miuccia Prada does on a skirt. So here, they're focused on their different zones of interest, and yet have a relationship visually in terms of expressing the ornamentation of that zone.

One of the things that was really surprising, as we did more and more research into the work of both, is that Schiaparelli actually encouraged very direct collaborations with contemporary artists—for example, several of her designs, her most iconic designs, were directly inspired from sketches done by Salvador Dalí or Jean Cocteau. The shoe hat, for example, was by Dalí. Cocteau did elaborate drawings of faces that ended up as Lesage embroideries on evening jackets and coats done by Schiaparelli.

On the other hand, Miuccia Prada, who is renowned as a collector of important contemporary art, has stated explicitly that she finds such direct collaborations a bit facile, and so she's avoided it. Instead, what we're finding is that, as a collector, she has assimilated many of the artistic strategies of the different people that she has collected. And so, much of her manifestation of the contemporary art world is in her actual process of designing, as opposed to Schiaparelli's, which is a much more direct citing of contemporary artists' work.

In the exhibition, we're going to be juxtaposing accurate quotations from Schiaparelli, historical quotations, with quotations from Miuccia Prada. In this way, we're hoping to construct the kind of impossible conversation that first appeared in the Vanity Fairs in the 1930s.

This is Harold Koda, curator in charge of The Costume Institute. I am curating Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations with Andrew Bolton, curator of The Costume Institute. The exhibition will run from May 10 to August 19, 2012.

The exhibition is made possible by Amazon, with additional support provided by Condé Nast.

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