Gallery Views of Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations

Gallery views of the special exhibition Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations (on view May 10–August 19, 2012

Narrated by Andrew Bolton, Curator, The Costume Institute

Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations was organized by Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton, The Costume Institute.

The exhibition is made possible by Amazon.
Additional support is provided by Condé Nast.

Andrew Bolton: Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations pairs together designers separated by time—the 1930s and the present day—but who are united by their creative and conceptual similarities. Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada are both known for their deliberate fashion provocations that tend to confront normative conventions of taste, of beauty, of glamour, and of femininity, but at the same time, they never forget the practicalities of fashion.

Impossible Conversations, the exhibition, relies on the actual words of Schiaparelli and Prada to create new readings of both their most adventurous designs.

Elsa Schiaparelli: But eventually, by chance, my salvation was stumbling into fashion.

Miuccia Prada: Yes, of course.

Elsa Schiaparelli: Finding beauty in my own way.

Miuccia Prada: You had a much more difficult life than mine.

Andrew Bolton: The films were directed by Baz Luhrmann. Judy Davis is playing Schiaparelli, Prada is playing herself. And it's a very informal conversation, in which the two women discuss their approaches into fashion, their avenues into fashion across a dinner table, and they, in a way, place the viewer in the role of an eavesdropper secretly observing the private exchange between the two women.

Miuccia Prada: To be a woman, a fashion designer in the sixties and seventies was the worst. But I liked it so much that I did it anyway.

Elsa Schiaparelli: Yes, yes, I think now I realize why we are here.

Andrew Bolton: The second gallery you come into focuses on the primary zones of the body onto which the two designers project their narrative attention: the waist up for Schiaparelli and the waist down for Prada. Schiaparelli's emphasis on the waist up largely stems from the social needs of her day.

Elsa Schiaparelli: Hollywood fell in love with my silhouette: Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford. I made them embroidered jackets.

Miuccia Prada: With a lot of frills here, I would feel uncomfortable.

Elsa Schiaparelli: For yourself, or for women in general?

Miuccia Prada: Yes, personally and in general.

Andrew Bolton: Since women were usually seated in restaurants, decoration from the waist down was essentially redundant, so Schiaparelli devoted her attention primarily to jackets, which were often elaborately embroidered by Maison Lesage. Prada's interest in the waist down is both personal and, in a way, more instinctive. She directs her focus to the dramatic possibilities of skirts. She believes that the waist down is not only more active and dynamic but also more basic and grounded.

Miuccia Prada: While if you put too much stuff near your face, probably, it's strange. Or at least I am like this. Maybe I am just not able.

Andrew Bolton: As an addendum to Waist Up/Waist Down is a section called Neck Up/Knees Down. It extends Schiaparelli's interest in the waist up through hats and also Prada's interest in the waist down through shoes. For both designers, accessories serve as undiluted expressions of their most fantastical impulses.

Elsa Schiaparelli: You can't say that there was anything easy about my hats! Lamb chops on the head! I mean, it's crazy!

Miuccia Prada: But craziness, in a shoe, it's such a weird place, you can have much more freedom. You can exaggerate, and doesn't feel, to me, stupid.

Andrew Bolton: Hard Chic comprises designs that reference menswear, military and service uniforms, and industrial materials and fastenings applied with deliberate severity and sobriety.

Elsa Schiaparelli: When I wore my trouser skirt in London, there was a violent controversy. They wanted to outlaw it. For me, it was strong and feminine. Much more modest, more graceful than a skirt.

Miuccia Prada: Yes, there is a concept that probably I want to say, that I tried to make the men more human and the women more powerful.

Andrew Bolton: Both Prada and Schiaparelli transpose masculine qualities into their fashions.

I think what's interesting about both women is how they utilize the playfulness, the sweetness, the femininity, sometimes, of girls' clothes and transpose it onto women's clothes. A lot of their provocations are in very discreet visual codes, brainteasers for their clients or their customers. Often it reflects the zeitgeist, what's happening in the wider world, whether it's politics or art or culture.

Miuccia Prada: We can't be imprisoned by fashion. That is the worst thing that can happen to a woman.

Elsa Schiaparelli: We shouldn't be afraid of age, but wear our clothes with youth and innocence.

Miuccia Prada: Not real innocence, but as a choice. Innocence as a choice.

Elsa Schiaparelli: Yes, woman shouldn't be frightened of being conspicuous, but should dare to be different.

Andrew Bolton: Ugly Chic focuses on materials, colors, and patterns in discordant combinations, which are exploited for their transgressive, inaesthetic sensibilities, and I think in the case of both Schiaparelli and Prada, one of their lasting legacies is actually subverting what we mean by good taste and bad taste.

Miuccia Prada: I want to really try to understand what is beauty and what is a possible beauty today.

Elsa Schiaparelli: Yes, yes. I have taken from all around me: cellophane, bark, glass—

Miuccia Prada: A possible beauty means something you can wear everywhere that is not ridiculous, that makes sense with the complication—

Elsa Schiaparelli: We must refuse the definition of glamour, without ever being any less glamorous.

Andrew Bolton: Both women would use colors that were considered unappealing. Nowadays, they look incredibly chic because both women have changed our eye in terms of what we mean by beauty and what we mean by aesthetics.

The Exotic Body references both Schiaparelli and Prada's love of regional styles. Schiaparelli again is more literal when it comes to her references of exoticized dress, from Asia, also from Africa. Prada, again, is a little bit more abstract and nonlinear.

Miuccia Prada: You, Schiaparelli did it. Yves Saint Laurent did it in the seventies. And now it's something that is not new anymore.

Elsa Schiaparelli: What's this? No.

Miuccia Prada: You can't take pieces here and there and be modern.

Elsa Schiaparelli: I don't agree.

Miuccia Prada: It's not enough.

Elsa Schiaparelli: But don't you travel? I mean, I remember Peru, Cuba, Russia, Tunisia, Brazil.

Miuccia Prada: But no, Schiap. Things are so different now. Everything is so different from that time.

Elsa Schiaparelli: No, that's not right.

Andrew Bolton: The Classical Body for both Schiaparelli and Prada references their love of antiquity and the opposition of Dionysian and Apollonian ideals: wild and visceral and ornate on one side, and classicist on the other. Schiaparelli was known for her extremely glamorous eveningwear that often would channel classical antiquity, usually through the gaze of the eighteenth century, through the Empire line.

Elsa Schiaparelli: I don't understand why you find designing eveningwear so difficult.

Miuccia Prada: Because the draping was done so well in history, that what do you do with draping? You can't do anything anymore.

Elsa Schiaparelli: Are you against it?

Miuccia Prada: It's not that I'm against, but I think that I was never able to do, probably a single beautiful evening dress in my life.

Andrew Bolton: The Surreal Body circumvents the conventional meanings conveyed by dress, and asserts a more sexual and psychological reading of fashion, often through trompe l'oeil illusions, but also through unexpected juxtapositions of materials and imagery. For Schiaparelli, fashion was an art form, the act of creation was mystical. Schiaparelli was working in the 1930s in the heyday of Surrealism, and I think that the Surrealist strategies of displacement of everyday objects, the idea of playing with scale, was something that very much appealed to Schiaparelli's sense of playfulness and her idea of trying to expand the boundaries of fashion and what we mean by fashion. But what's interesting about Prada is that she very much does use artistic strategies in her work, so even though she may not collaborate directly with Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons, the artists she collects, she does very much have a very postmodern approach to fashion.

Elsa Schiaparelli: For me, if I hadn't been a designer, I would have 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.

Elsa Schiaparelli: 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.

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