Impossible Conversations Milan Press Event

Harold Koda: We have been asked on many occasions how we get our exhibition ideas, and, generally, there is no real planning. They're spontaneous; they tend to be intuitive. But with this particular exhibition, it really was rather linear in in its development.

We had wantedAndrew Bolton and myselfto do an exhibition focused on women designers. And we thought it was important to see the achievements of women in a field of clothing for women. In the case of Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations, part of the origination of the idea was precipitated by the fact that four years ago we received a collection of Schiaparellis from the Brooklyn Museum that was transferred to our own collections. Among the pieces was the major fashion icon, American fashion icon, Millicent Rogers, a Standard Oil heiress who had endless means and was able to buy quite remarkable Schiaparellis, including one piece that is brought here to Milan.

Schiaparelli still had a voice, in the sense that her autobiography, Shocking Life, documented not only her relationship with the artistic milieu of her day, but also her attitudes about fashion and style.

What remained the bigger challenge was to find someone of equal stature and of equal influence to Schiaparelli, clearly one of the great designers of the twentieth century. And I think you would all agree, everyone in this room, that inevitably, it came to Miuccia Prada. The idea of someone who was also engaged by the contemporary art scene of her day, someone who also pushed the boundaries of what constituted conventional taste to its extreme and marginal limits. We thought that this pairing would result in an interesting interplay between these two women.

We used as the format for our inspiration a Vanity Fair feature from the 1930s, illustrated by Miguel Covarrubias, who would put together impossible interviews between two very, very strong personalities in a dynamic exchange. To some extent, Prada has the advantage. And when I said this to Marisa Berenson, Schiaparelli's granddaughter, she says, "Of course! She's alive!"

By many accounts, Schiaparelli was quite reserved as a person, despite the provocative nature of her designs. Happily for us, that reserve fell away when she was commenting on issues of taste. I remember Monsieur de Givenchy telling me—he had worked for her at one point—telling me he escorted Schiaparelli to the opera one night and he noticed that her shoes didn't match. So at the intermission he mentions this to her and she looks at him and she says, "Would you know chic if it hit you in the head?" So clearly she had a strong sense not only of creating designs and effects that would elicit attention and pushing the boundaries of what would be considered tasteful, she was also willing to talk about it.

Our challenge then, is for us and for Baz Luhrmann, the movie director, who is finishing his shoot of The Great Gatsby, to somehow capture these strong personalities and strong individual approaches of these two women. As we slowly put together these conversations—this interplay between Schiaparelli's imaginings of her time in the past and Prada's very vivacious responses to those ideas—we think that the imaginary exchange ends up with a conveyance of a fact that two women of very equal stature, of very strong sensibilities are meeting in a space which otherwise would not happen.

Now Andrew Bolton is going to be describing the different criteria for the selection of objects and the organization of the exhibition.

Andrew Bolton: The pairing of Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada originally emerged out of rather superficial similarities, such as their gender, their Italian heritage, and their feminist posturings. Over the course of organizing the exhibition, however, more fundamental similarities emerged. For both Schiaparelli and Prada, fashion is a means to express rather complex ideas, ideas that not only reflect but also respond to the prevailing artistic, cultural, and political attitudes of their respective eras. At the same time, both designers use fashion as a vehicle to provoke, to confront normative conventions of taste, beauty, glamour, and femininity.

Presented as a series of videos directed by Baz Luhrmann, the viewer is placed in the role of voyeur, illicitly observing and eavesdropping on the private thoughts of the two women. These fictional conversations are based around two concepts that are central to the understanding and appreciation of fashion, namely that of chic and that of the body.

Chic is generally associated with a consensus of fashionability. Schiaparelli and Prada, however, challenge this consensus through subversive, countercultural associations. Three ideas of chic, as articulated by the two designers, are presented in the exhibition. The first is "Hard Chic," comprising designs that reference menswear, military and service uniforms, and industrial materials and fastenings applied with deliberate severity and sobriety. The second is "Ugly Chic," and focuses on materials with colors and patterns in discordant combinations that both Schiaparelli and Prada exploit for their unappealing associations. And the third is "Naïf Chic," which takes the sugary sweetness of children's wear and transposes it somewhat disconcertingly to the "not so young."

In terms of the body, the expressive possibilities are limitless, but, again, Harold and I chose three ideas that emerge directly from the fertile imaginations of the two designers. The first, the "Classical Body," alludes to Schiaparelli and Prada's engagement with antiquity, especially the opposition of the Dionysian and Apollonian ideals; that is to say wild, visceral, and ornate on the one hand, and cerebral, restrained, and classicist on the other. The second, the "Exotic Body," cites the two women's attraction to traditions outside the European fashion system, specifically, references to the styles of Asia and Africa. And the third, the "Surreal Body,"examines how both designers circumvent conventional meanings of dress to assert sexual and psychological connotations through trompe l'oeil illusions and unexpected juxtapositions of materials and imagery.

Visual affinities between the fashions of Schiaparelli and Prada often turn out to be deceptive, as both designers articulate radically different design methodologies. This paradox is played out in the fashions on display here, such as the two "sari dresses" on your right. While they share formal similarities, the source of inspiration is manifestly different. Schiaparelli's orange dress was inspired by the Indian princess Karam of Kapurthala, who enthralled Paris during the 1930s with her striking beauty. Prada's gold dress was inspired by Christian Dior. It was featured in her spring 2004 collection, which was based on the concept of the European traveler who experiences the countries he or she visits from a strictly European perspective, hence Prada's citation of a "sari dress" seen through the eyes of a European designer. Unlike Schiaparelli's exoticism, which tends to be direct and literal, Prada's is more circuitous and conceptual. When she references other cultures, it's usually a vehicle to express a complex idea or to present a personal narrative.

The different influences and intentions of the two designers are not only played out in their designs but also in their embroideries. This is especially evident in Schiaparelli's jacket and Prada's skirt at either side of me, which are embroidered with what look like a galaxy of stars. Schiaparelli's jacket, in fact, references the solar system. It was featured in her "Zodiac" collection, which was partly inspired by her famous uncle, the astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who is best known for his extensive observations of Mars. But Prada's skirt has nothing to do with the solar system. Like so much of her work, it's simply an exercise in technique, a development of the technique known as "transferred embroidery," which as a practice is similar to taking a cut up piece of embroidery from one dress and placing it on another. Whereas Schiaparelli's embroideries tend to be evocative and expressive, Prada's tend to be abstract and elusive.

The influences and intensions of the two designers seem to converge in Schiaparelli's jacket trimmed with a baroque appliqué of white leather and Prada's dress collaged with Baroque imagery of cupids and cherubs on your right. Schiaparelli's historicism, however, is literal, while Prada's is fantastical. Like many of her historical references, Prada's citation of the seventeenth century is an exercise in postmodern sampling or bricolage. The colors, the styling, and the mixing of other motifs, such as monkeys and bananas, evoke the musicals of Carmen Miranda just as much as the cupids and cherubs evoke the exuberant style of the Baroque.

Art Nouveau seems to be the prevailing aesthetic reference in the green jacket by Schiaparelli and the green skirt by Prada on your left. Again, however, Prada's citation of Art Nouveau is cluttered with other citations, including the artistic styles of Aubrey Beardsley, Hieronymus Bosch, and the comic book artist Frank Miller.

Schiaparelli's jacket and Prada's skirt also reflect the different zones of the body onto which the two designers project their narrative focus: the waist up for Schiaparelli and the waist down for Prada. Schiaparelli's interest in the waist up largely stems from the social needs of her day, or, more specifically, the needs of cafe society and the demands of restaurant dressing. Since women were usually seated in restaurants, decoration from the waist down was redundant. Schiaparelli, therefore, devoted her attention to designs on jackets that framed the face of the wearer and enhanced their photographic possibilities. Prada's interest in the waist down is more personal and instinctive. She feels that while the waist up is more spiritual and intellectual, the waist down is more basic and grounded. For her, the waist down is connected to the earth, with sex, and with giving birth. But there are no guarantees in the world of Prada, as evidenced by her womenswear collection last night. Contradicting her personal interest in the waist down, she turned her attention to the waist up with elaborate and emphatic embroideries in the tradition of Schiaparelli.

Prada, on the other hand, has actively refused to collaborate with artists in her fashions, although she does collaborate with them on projects connected to the Prada Foundation. And as perhaps the most significant difference between the two women is Schiaparelli's belief that designing fashion is art and Prada's belief that it is not. In fact, Prada believes that the very definition of art is irrelevant today, and thus obliterates the hierarchy of all creative processes.

It's beliefs such as these that make for interesting and provocative conversations between Schiaparelli and Prada. Despite the natural reserve of the two women, their opinions are forthright and often vociferous. And it's the strength of these opinions that both enliven and illuminate the fashions in the exhibition. In the end, though, what emerges through the conversations is an impression of two strong-minded, independently minded women. In her day, Schiaparelli befriended very few of her fashion contemporaries. Her rivalry with Chanel was legendary. Schiaparelli calls Chanel "that dreary little bourgeois" while Chanel calls Schiaparelli "that Italian artist who makes dresses." One is left wondering that if Schiaparelli was alive today, would she and Prada be friends? Thank you.

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