YADA, YADA, PRADA

If this summer plays out anything like last year’s, the biggest blockbuster might not be coming to a theater near you but instead to The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Taking a hint from 2011’s wildly successful retrospective on the late British fashion designer Alexander McQueen, The Met’s Costume Institute will host “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations” (May 10-Aug. 19), once again warmly inviting fashion into the art world. And what better designers to showcase in this art-meets-couture context than the late Elsa Schiaparelli and the contemporary Miuccia Prada?

Instantly, similarities come to mind when comparing these two “Thoroughbreds” – both Italian-born women with well-to-do Catholic schoolgirl backgrounds that presumably later played into each of their politically rebellious spirits and Surrealistic fashion sensibilities.

Prada, who was born in Milan in 1949, was at first reluctant to join the family fashion business. So she got a degree in political science and joined the Communist Party. (Did she carry her Communist card in a Prada leather wallet?) Schiaparelli, who was born in Rome in 1890, was involved in the Dada movement from its early (World War I) days and was a constant collaborator with Surrealist bad boy Salvador Dalí. Though separated by decades, both fought the convention that women belonged at home and kept an eclectic mix of comrades and inspirational figures. But ironically, neither discovered a passion for fashion early on, and both presented their first collections in their late 30s.

Yet the time these designers took to become politically and artistically informed might have ultimately led them to a similar conclusion, which each translated differently.

Out of the past

Fueling “Impossible Conversations” is futurist Schiaparelli and postmodern Prada’s impressive, shared delicate mastery of “hard chic” and “ugly chic,” the breakdown of beauty in the name of personality – and a bit of humor.

Expect to see a challenge of convention and a sense that “new beauty” must be bolder and harder, while less obvious. For instance, Prada uses the color brown, because she hates it. She uses cheap cotton in the style of hospital scrubs, because it’s strange. She has used Teflon wool, broken glass and parachute nylon to make her point, and yet Prada can also design a killer pleated Empire-waist dress, pencil skirt, peekaboo transparent vinyl raincoat and crocodile handbag.

And from “the great Schiap,” you can expect to see extreme visual stimulation, from her tear dress with battle-wound graphics to hats shaped like shoes and vaginas, insect necklaces and lip-shaped belt buckles, in addition to garments that we accept today but were quite revolutionary between 1927 and 1940. (Think wraparound dresses, the jumpsuit, overalls, broad-shouldered suits, mix-and-match separates, camouflage prints and Plexiglass accessories).

“It’s exciting because I think that a lot of people don’t remember Schiaparelli and know what Schiaparelli really brought to fashion,” said Ken Downing, fashion director of Neiman Marcus.

“It’s interesting to see also all the pink that’s on the runway for this spring season and a lot of the shocking pink has already begun to emerge,” he said of the signature Schiaparelli color.

“And even as we went into the fall season at Lanvin,  there was jewelry that was very Elsa Schiaparelli – the Victorian hands, the eyes, the lips, the belts.”

“Fashion ideas have to come from somewhere. This spring there’s also a lot of artisan ideas from the ’20s. There was a lot of excitement around (Woody Allen’s) ‘Midnight in Paris’ and now the remake of ‘The Great Gatsby’ and there was a great exhibit of art in Paris (and currently at The Met) of all the collected work of Gertrude Stein and her brothers Leo and Michael,” he said, expecting the ’20s trend to continue.

Downing also said the Surrealist influence comes through in ready-to-wear graphics:

“When we were in New York for Diane Von Furstenberg’s show – and Diane always sort of uses hearts and lips as her logos – but she really kind of amplified the whole idea of that kind of Surrealism that Schiaparelli was really known for.”

Costume Institute curator in charge Harold Koda has said that juxtaposing the designers’ collections opens up the dialogue on “how the past enlightens the present and how the present enlivens the past.”

Downing was in Milan at the launch party for the exhibit, thrown by Anna Wintour, Vogue’s editor-in-chief, who is serving as the May 7 exhibit gala’s co-chair along with Miuccia Prada and actress Carey Mulligan.

“We were all there and Harold Koda spoke,” Downing said, “and it’s interesting that he makes that commentary, because I always say that we love a nod to the past as we redefine the future, because we are very obsessed with nostalgia in fashion at this time and place. We are always influenced by something from the past.”

Soul sisters?

Schiaparelli’ s partnership with Dalí and Jean Cocteau and Prada’s ongoing Fondazione Prada, which exhibits artists’ works, exemplify the symbiosis that can occur between  art and fashion and that The Met hopes translates into mass appeal.

Who knows if Schiaparelli and Prada, with their equally strong personalities, would have hit it off had they met, despite their similarities. But co-curators Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton clearly want to have fun with the setup of their presentation. The exhibit is modeled after “Impossible Interviews,” a 1930s Vanity Fair feature by artist Miguel Covarrubias, in which he staged fake conversations between famous figures of the day like Sigmund Freud and Jean Harlow.

Interspersed with video installations, the Special Exhibition Galleries will display about 80 designs – Schiaparelli’s from the late ’20s to the early ’50s and Prada’s from the late ’80s to the present.

“You know we saw so many Alexander McQueen references begin to bubble up from other designers consciously and subconsciously from the exhibit that took place last year,” Downing pointed out in anticipation.

“So as we go into the entire cycle of ‘Impossible Conversations,’ we’re going to see a lot of, not only Prada inspirations – and Miuccia is really what I feel, one of the three most inspirational designers in the world – and if people consciously pay attention or if it’s just out there, she’s always pushing the boundaries so we’ll see a lot of that influence. And we’re going to see a lot of Schiaparelli influences as well…. What I think makes designers really brilliant is when they can quietly reference the past and take something that’s really amazing from the moment but not recreate it like a costume….

“And it’s coming at a really good time. Be it movies, be it art, be it a fashion exhibit, people are always looking for ideas and it’s interesting putting the two of them together since they were both very influential in their time.”

“Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations” runs from May 10 to Aug. 19 in the Special Exhibition Galleries, first floor of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. For more information, visit metmuseum.org.

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