The Met's Schiaparelli and Prada Exhibition Explores the Common Ground of Two Very Different Designers

"Surreal Body" Gallery View
(Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

NEW YORK — It is indeed an imaginary happening — Miuccia Prada sits at one end of an ornate black lacquer Baroque dining table, while the late Elsa Schiaparelli, played by actress Judy Davis, sits on the other. Crystal decanters stand at the center and a water goblet and champagne flute are in place in front of each woman. A crystal chandelier hangs above them and immaculately-framed artworks serve as the backdrop.

“You know, Miuccia, I hate talking to designers,” says Schiaparelli. “It’s the worst, so this impossible conversation is like an exception.”

The fantastical Baz Luhrmann-directed scene of banter between the two designers covers an entire wall at the entrance of “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations,” which opens at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute on May 10. Inspired by the 1981 movie “My Dinner With Andre,” this Prada and Schiaparelli dialogue is the first in eight short films that serve as the backbone for the exhibition. Instead of theater, which was the main topic of conversation in “My Dinner With Andre,” Prada and Schiaparelli talk about the thread that connects them — fashion.

The conversations were culled from excerpts of Schiaparelli’s 1954 autobiography “Shocking Life” and from Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton’s interviews with Prada. Each talk acts as a centerpiece for a corresponding section of the exhibition, highlighting the topics the two agree on and disagree on, from women’s bodies to their views on the relationship between art and fashion.

“I try to make the men more human and the women more powerful,” Prada tells Schiaparelli.

“Men respect a strong woman,” Schiaparelli responds.

In the section “Waist Up/Waist Down,” a winter 1938-39 Schiaparelli black silk velvet cape embroidered with an image of Apollo made from sequins beads and yellow rhinestones is paired with a fall/winter 2007 Prada orange skirt of plastic fringe, feathers, silk twill, and black wool felt. The mannequin’s faces are covered with lucha libre-like masks designed by Guido Palau, whose pieces adorn all the mannequins in the show.

In another part, Schiaparelli’s hats and necklaces are matched with Prada’s shoes, like Schiaparelli’s winter 1937-38 Dalí-inspired shoe headpiece and Prada’s spring 2012 red, black, and white patent leather flamed wedges. A circa 1938 Schiaparelli red silk velvet and gold bow necklace hangs atop a chunky-heeled purple and yellow suede shoe with a black leather ankle strap from Prada’s spring/summer 2008 collection.

In the final section, Prada ensembles are displayed with old photographs of starlets wearing Schiaparelli, each pair enclosed in a Plexiglas box. The final film features the two bickering about whether art is fashion. “Fashion is art,” says Schiaparelli. For Prada, there is no sense in calling a fashion designer an artist. “I think you have to do your job,” she tells Schiaparelli. “Who cares about the title.”

The conversation ends in an agreement. “If we lived together at the same time would we be friends?” asks Schiaparelli. The two come to the consensus that yes, they would.

“Prada’s work modernizes Schiaparelli’s and enlivens it and Schiaparelli’s provides a context for Prada, so I think it’s that synergy between that approach, which in a way, enlivens both the work of the two women,” Bolton told ARTINFO.

Click on the slide show to see highlights from “Schiaparelli and Prada: Imaginary Conversations,” on view at the Met’s Costume Institute from May 10 to August 19.