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Close Encounters


by Linda Yablonsky
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Miuccia Prada and Elsa Schiaparelli never met, nor were the two designers cut from the same philosophical cloth. Yet in “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conservations,” the splashy follow-up to last year’s blockbuster Alexander McQueen survey by the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, these two art-smart fashion titans have much to say to one another, both in words and through their clothes.

The show, opening to the public on May 10, 2012, presents the two designers in a kind of punch-and-parry match that is both inspired and disorienting. To curators Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton’s credit, it does not attempt to scale the theatrical heights of “Savage Beauty,” the McQueen show, nor is it as big or as fixated on the grotesque or, of course, on a single sensibility. As befits a show devoted to two fashion provocateurs, past and present, it is as reliant on dazzle as it is insistent on irreverence.

“Prada and Schiaparelli” begins with vintage photographs of a glammed-up Schiaparelli and a plain-as-day Prada, who is shown as a nail-biter, her fingers to her mouth. That 1999 image, by Guido Harari, suggests either that this willful, self-possessed woman is either a nervous Nellie or that she’s playing coy, which is more likely.

Prada has been at the top of the fashion heap since taking over her Milanese family’s leather goods company in 1985, when her name became synonymous with high-priced, wildly popular and ultra-chic nylon backpacks with leather trim. Today her company is worth billions and the fashion world takes notice of everything she does, whether she is dressing men or women or providing them with shoes, belts and sunglasses as well as bags of all shapes and sizes. Yet she is widely thought of as the most anti-fashion of all designers, as well as one of the more potent advocates for contemporary art since, well, Schiaparelli.

To oversee the installation, the curators brought in Nathan Crowley, the man who gave Hollywood fantasies like The Dark Knight and Batman Begins their eyeball-expanding look. That’s not the only reason the show feels like a movie set. Short videos by filmmaker Baz Luhrmann that background each of the show’s seven thematic sections put Schiaparelli, played by a gesticulating Judy Davis, across a table from the no-nonsense Prada. Davis speaks lines from Schiaparelli’s autobiography, Shocking Life. Prada responds to questions actually put to her by an off-camera Bolton.

The resulting dialogues -- on beauty, fashion, exotica, shock value, aprons and age -- don’t just animate each section. They make it possible to walk through the show unmolested by distracting audio guide-bearing tourists, free to experience the clothes first-hand. “I have nothing against being beautiful or sexy,” Prada says in one video. “But I like when it’s a choice.” I feel the same about audio guides. Clothes, too.

Like the overall conceit of the show, the videos are based on Impossible Interviews, satiric set-tos that Vanity Fair published in the 1930s. (The series paired well-known figures of the period in fictional conversations, and included one between Schiaparelli and Josef Stalin, an odd couple if ever one was.)

Schiaparelli was not afraid to take chances and neither is Prada. If Schiaparelli flouted some social conventions, Prada simply disregards them. Her clothes never conform to standard ideas of style or beauty. Even she says they’re ugly, though they’re ugly in the way that “bad painting” looks bad while actually expressing a sublime contempt for virtuosity. Prada goes after a woman’s sense of vanity.

Schiaparelli claims that she never intended to be designer, while Prada has said repeatedly that she doesn’t think fashion is art, nor does she consider herself an artist. For her, the very word is démodé. “What I love about fashion is its accessibility and democracy,” she says. “Everyone wears it, and everyone relates to it.”

She’s right about that. It’s one reason more than 600,000 people lined up to see “Savage Beauty.” Prada also says that the worst thing that can happen to a woman is to become a prisoner of fashion. If Schiaparelli doesn’t disagree, she didn’t exactly mind it either. What the two women have in common is mainly their nationality, gender, eccentricity and their engagement with the art of their time.

Schiaparelli collaborated with artists, chiefly Salvador Dalí, with whom she developed the upside-down felt “shoe hat” included in the Costume Institute’s permanent collection (displayed without any credit to Dali, as it happens). Prada says fashion doesn’t need art to prop it up. She never collaborates. Instead, she commissions and collects art by others for the foundation she established in 1993 with Patrizio Bertelli, her husband and the CEO of her company. (Recently, she bought the whole of Nathalie Djurberg’s The Parade, 2011, now on view at the New Museum.)

Schiaparelli, who died in 1973, was a couturier to café society of the 1930s through the ‘50s. She is famous for introducing the color shocking pink to high fashion, though there is only one example of this, an appliquéd jacket, in the show. Prada, born in 1949, excels in ready-to-wear fashions that have been sold to everybody. She says that it’s no longer possible to shock, and that such tactics are by now overdone. Instead she perversely mixes contrasting patterns and fabrics that make hay of good taste, using colors (like brown) that, like hot pink, aren’t usually considered to be particularly flattering.

Yet a brown, geometric-patterned coat-and-pant ensemble by Prada looks as if it came from the same hand as a 1938 Schiaparelli suit with plastic beetles for buttons. Likewise, a Prada skirt printed with red lips dovetails with a Schiaparelli suit with lip pockets. And in “The Surreal Body,” the show’s whiz-bang finale, angled mirrors and glass cases housing masked manikins turn the whole room into a kaleidoscope of flying feathers, fur and ricocheting ideas about what makes a woman feel like a goddess.

The best part of this section, other than its spectacular clothes, is that spectators can see them front and back. Past Costume Institute shows have limited views to one or the other, as is the case in all the other sections here. But because Prada emphasizes the back the way Schiaparelli concentrated on the front, it’s great to see the whole.

Schiaparelli took pains to ornament the upper body. Prada thinks that “putting too much stuff near the face” detracts from it. “In a shoe,” she declared, “you can exaggerate.” Two introductory sections, “Waist Up/Waist Down” and “Neck Up/Neck Down,” are proof for the pudding. In the latter, an array of Schiaparelli hats and Prada footwear are mounted in parallel rows on a cherry-red wall. Every single piece looks comic, and they are all the more fantastic for being entirely wearable.

More lunatic is eveningwear by Prada, in the “Classical Body” section, that is actually underwear dressed up as a sexy kind of hospital gown. A dress in the surreal section is allover pressed bottle caps. It’s fabulous. Prada’s furs are fake, and meant to appeal to a woman’s “wild and primitive urges.” She also likes feathers and aligns her palette with the plumage of birds -- possibly one reason she went for Djurberg’s installation, which includes a flock of 80 large, hand-sewn bird sculptures.

Schiaparelli was interested in a woman’s je-ne-sais-quoi allure, with a touch of madness. On a dress for the Duchess of Windsor, she appliquéd a Dalí lobster that descends from crotch level to the hem. She made ice-cream-cone hats and, in one circus-themed collection, employed luxe fabrics printed with elephants and clowns. “I didn’t lose a single customer,” she says. Prada’s banana prints with monkeys against bright orange stripes should have been a disaster. But, she says, “people were more ready to accept craziness than anyone thought.”

In fact, the exhibition is really a living Prada show. It doesn’t need the underpinning of Schiaparelli’s designs, but they deepen the experience by constructing a lineage for the current romance between art and fashion, which reaches its apogee each year at the Costume Institute’s celebrity-infested spring gala, organized by Anna Wintour, the imperious editor of Vogue.

Ever mindful of her brand, Prada has re-editioned nine handbags dating from 1991 to 2005, on display in the gift shop at the end of the show, each priced at less than $2,000. Shades of Murakami! What most of us are likely to take home, however, is not the idea that art has become commerce, but that fashion is giving art a run for its money.

“Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations,” May 10-Aug. 19, 2012, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028.

LINDA YABLONSKY is an art critic who writes for, the Art Newspaper, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, W and other publications.