August 05, 2012

"Schiaparelli and Prada" at The Costume Institute

This year the much anticipated Spring Exhibition of the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute continues its tradition of innovation and surprise in both theme and presentation.  After 2011's blockbuster hit "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" this is a more subdued but far more cerebral presentation that combines historical with present day fashion concepts and concerns.

Inspired by the Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias' 1930s series for Vanity Fair magazine entitled "Impossible Interviews", the Costume Institute has imagined a discussion between two great woman designers of the 20th and 21st Centuries - Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada.  Although both of these women were born in Italy to aristocratic families and both were hugely influential on women's fashions in their time, their approaches could not have been more different.  Through large format video projections of simulated conversations between the two women (Judy Davis plays Schiaparelli), and a clever installation of their designs juxtaposed in vitrines, visitors gain a real appreciation for each one's unique contribution to the world of fashion but also how much they ultimately have in common.

Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973) launched herself into the world of couture fashion in Paris in the 1920s.  Although she never had the name recognition of her arch rival Coco Chanel, "Schiap", as she was called by her friends, created designs that were decades ahead of their time.  She kept company with many of the avant garde artists of the age and was hugely influenced by the work of the Dadaists and Surrealists.  In fact, it was Salvador Dali who inspired and collaborated with her on the iconic "shoe" hat and "tears" dress - both on display in this exhibition.  The House of Schiaparelli struggled during and after World War II and shut its doors in 1954.

After studying to be a mime, Miuccia Prada (b. 1949) took over her family's luxury goods business in 1978 and turned it into one of the foremost fashion houses in the world today.  As well as its eponymous brand, the design house now owns Miu Miu, Fendi, Helmut Lang, Jil Sander and other high-end fashion labels.  Ms Prada continues to reign over this empire and her fashion philosophy of modern, understated designs executed from premium materials is the mantra.

So what exactly are the qualities that bind and separate these two fashion moguls?  The exhibition explores these questions through seven themed galleries displaying 140 garments and accessories culled from The Costume Institute's own collection, the Prada Archive and various international public and private collections.

For me, the first and last galleries were the most convincing illustrations of what each designer contributed to the world of fashion and how each stood out individually.  "Waist Up/Waist Down" was a comment on the women and the times they lived in.  Where Schiaparelli's customers were "café society" ladies who were generally seen seated from the waist up, Prada's followers are contemporary women who tend to be more active and overtly sexual with the focus from the waist down.  This display fuses Schiaparelli's ornately embellished tops, in the forms of jackets, necklaces and hats, with Prada's signature bottoms - pants, skirts and fantastical footwear.

Passing through "Ugly Chic", "Hard Chic", "Naïf Chic", "The Classical Body", "The Exotic Body" we come to the final gallery, "The Surreal Body".  Here, individual mannequins are posed in lucite boxes in a sort of designer "face off".  Occasionally enhanced with black and white photos with surreal effects like blinking eyes, the outfits clearly demonstrated the influence of the Surrealists on Schiaparelli and Schiaparelli's influence on Prada.

In the end, of course, each woman is her own distinct being with a unique look.  But we realize that no one works in a vacuum and even the most original designers owe a nod to their predecessors.  "Sciaparelli and Prada:  Impossible Conversations" is on view until August 19th.

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