Following the legacy one designer bestows upon another can be sport for fashionistas, but the Met’s Costume Institute goes one step further in “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations,” opening Thursday 10. The exhibition weaves together a dialogue between Elsa Schiaparelli, who died in 1973, and current fashion mogul Miuccia Prada. Director Baz Luhrmann created eight short films in which the women—Judy Davis (The Starter Wife) plays Schiaparelli—discuss their provocative designs alongside more than 100 garments and accessories. Cocurator Andrew Bolton talked to us about the connections he and curator-in-charge Harold Koda teased out for the show.
First collection: 1926
Beauty statement: Schiaparelli turned conventions on their head (see below) and incorporated bizarre images, such as a lobster, into evening wear. “[She] upended ideas of beauty, good taste, bad taste and ideas of glamour,” says Bolton.
Art-world cred: Salvador Dalí was Schiaparelli’s most famous collaborator, but the designer worked with other artists of the day (including Jean Cocteau) on many of the dresses that ultimately made her famous.
Body awareness: Schiaparelli’s designs bring attention to the upper half of the body, which would have been visible during an elegant dinner or a night at the opera. “Her usage of decoration from the waist up was a response to restaurant dressing in the 1930s,” explains Bolton. “Schiaparelli lived in the heyday of café society, when women were often seated.”
Definitive accessory: Modern milliners owe a debt to Schiaparelli, whose outrageous designs paved the way for today’s sky-high facinators. Her surreal toppers were built in the shape of ink pots, lamb chops and upside-down high-heel shoes.
First collection: 1988
Beauty statement: Prada has made a career of finding beauty in the mundane. Shades of brown, for example, become desirable hues. “Though the clothing initially seems unattractive, it somehow becomes appealing the following season. She’s always changing the eye of fashion,” says Bolton.
Art-world cred: Among her collaborators, Prada counts animator Vahram Muratyan and architect Rem Koolhaas. But she doesn’t involve artists in her design process. “She feels that fashion doesn’t need art to justify itself,” explains Bolton.
Body awareness: Prada particularly embellishes garments covering the lower half of the figure. “She focuses on the waist down because more things happen there—sex, giving birth, the idea of women being connected to the Earth,” says Bolton.
Definitive accessory: Shoes are where Prada indulges her whimsy. “Think about the current spring collection, where she has shoes [in the shape of] cars and Cadillacs,” says Bolton. “She’s putting a car on her foot, and Schiap’s putting a shoe on her head.”
FASHION FORWARD! “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave at 82nd St (212-535-7710, metmuseum.org). Tue–Thu, Sun 9:30am–5:30pm; Fri–Sat 9:30am–9pm. Suggested donation $25, seniors $17, students $12, members and children under 12 free. Thu 10–Aug 19.