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  • Elsa Schiaparelli, Impossible Conversations
Elsa Schiaparelli, Vogue June 1. 1937. Photo of Wallis Simpson by Cecil Beaton

    Prada┬┤s & Sciaparelli┬┤s - IMPOSSIBLE CONVERSATIONS

    31 May 2012

    by Katja Schmolka

    What do you get when two of the most innovative fashion designers meet for a tête-à-tête in New York City?  A spirited conversation about style, fashion, and life itself

    Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations is a continuing exhibition by the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there to be marveled at from May 10 to August 19. The exhibition emphasizes the strengths of the two Italian fashion icons: Miuccia Prada, one of the most successful designers of our time, and Elsa Schiaparelli, with her penchant for the out-of-the-ordinary. Although Schiaparelli is already dead, her creations look more contemporary than ever.  Famous for her audacious inventions in the 20s and 30s, such as shoulder pads, animal prints, and shocking pink, Schiaparelli remains an inspiration to the world of fashion today. She was a rebel heart and soul, who brought the zipper into haute couture and invented the strapless „Diana“ decolletage. In the 80s, Therry  Mugler made Schiaparelli´s shoulder pads his own, and promoted them as the signature look of his designs. In the 90s, Helmut Lang sent his models down the catwalk in clothes with stark outlines and asymmetric decolletages.


     Schiaparelli was a woman who was game for everything. Bold, with a love for experimentation, the Italian-French designer lived according to her own ideas. Schiaparelli’s breakthrough onto the Parisian fashion scene in the 1920s was a black sweater she knit herself with stitched-on white chiffon scalloping. She was also considered the number-one set decorator for film at the time. Actresses such as Joan Crawford and Audrey Hepburn, who with Schiaparelli’s stylistic counsel created their own breakthroughs, and Marlene Dietrich were put into the most chic gowns by the spirited designer for their film roles. In 1936, the pilot Amy Johnson was wearing an outfit by Schiaparelli when she became the first woman to fly to Cape Town.


     „Women should stop dressing to be tantalizing. The more provocative the gown, the sexier the woman.“ At least so says Miuccia Prada, born as Maria Bianchi in Milan and granddaughter of the company’s founder, Mario Prada, who earned a name in the Italian fashion capitol with the production of luxury leather goods. For Miuccia this was reason enough for her to change her name to that of her grandfather. She studied political science, and trained in acting and pantomime for five years with Giorgio Strehler at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan. This period of her life so inspired Prada that it is also reflected later in her collections,  in the comfortable fit, the good feel, and the challenges of her creations. A mixture of glamour and simple chic that brings the wearer into her own with one-of-a-kind elegance. Distinctive faces are of extreme importance to Miuccia Prada . A face should be seen, not overshadowed by details.  Thus Prada glamour plays itself out mostly beneath the waist, in the legendary skirts studded with mirrors, embroidery, and feathers. The top is usually a simple T-shirt, which completes the look. For Prada, „Waist Down“ means joy, sexuality, and fertility. With her richly adorned dresses and skirts, she’s celebrating Italian culture and lust for life.


     Elsa Schiaparelli, however, lived during the peak of cafe society, when the fashionable set would gather together regularly for chit-chat and gossip. Since most of the women were sitting, Schiaparelli focused on the upper body, as very often this was all that was seen.  Borders, feathers, mirrors, and blossoms would pop up on the most unusual fabrics, most of them woven out of heavy wool and lined with the finest silk. Elsa Schiaparelli had a decided preference for these eccentric, heavy fabrics since she couldn’t experiment as much with finer materials, and she really wanted to experiment. Influenced by artists such as Picasso, Jean Cocteau, und Dali, who often were numbered among her dearest friends, the designer celebrated Surrealism and Dadaism in her patterns. Her artist friends themselves drew up designs for Schiaparelli’s collections, such as the famous „Lobster Dress.“   Miuccia Prada similarly sees herself as an ambassadress for art, and founded the Prada Foundation in Milan in order to bring fashion and art closer together.


     Elements that were once considered as naturally belonging together are reunited again in this magnificent show. The creative consultant for the exhibit is the Australian director , screenwriter, and producer  Baz Luhrmann. He’s responsible for films such as Romeo and Juliet (Leonardo Di Caprio and Claire Danes),  Moulin Rouge, and Australia (Nicole Kidman).  In an enacted conversation between the two designers, he sheds light on similar themes in their work that manifested themselves in quite different ways. Baz Luhrmann was inspired by Miguel Covarrubias´s `Impossible Interviews`for Vanity Fair in the 1930s.


    The exhibit show 80 designs and 30 accessories by Elsa Schiaparelli from the late 20s to the early 50s. Miuccia Prada´s collections range from the late 80s to today. They’re arranged in nine different thematic sections throughout the exhibit:  Waist UP/ Waist Down, Neck Up/ Knees Down, Ugly Chic, Hard Chic, Naif Chic, The Classic Body, The Pagan Body,The Exotic Body, and The Surreal Body. Visitors to the exhibit experience a journey through refined cut, materials, and a diverse mix of fabrics, through different countries and times. A true feast for the senses, full of historical elegance and femininity, realized by two women who made beauty and aesthetics their mantra.

    The exhibition IMPOSSIBLE CONVERSATIONS is on view from May 10th until August 19. 2012 at The Metropolitan Museum Of Art.

    Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton curated  Ìmpossible Conversations. The exhibit was made possible by Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos and, at Condé Nast, by Anna Wintour.

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