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Schiaparelli & Prada: Impossible Conversations

Following this week's annual gala, the talked-about Met Museum exhibit opens to the public

Thursday saw the opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's latest Costume Institute exhibit: 'Schiaparelli and Prada - Impossible Conversations'. The exhibition, inspired by Miguel Covarrubia's "Impossible Interviews" from 1930's Vanity Fair, compares the innovative and often subversively groundbreaking work of the late Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada in themed installations.

Each, in her own time, tethered the line between art and fashion, satire and sex appeal with incredible intelligence and very different techniques. They discuss these themes in several choreographed video conversations throughout the exhibition, directed by Baz Luhrmann, and presented in sections with titles like "Hard Chic" and "The Surreal Body." Dazed Digital spoke with curator Harold Koda about putting the exhibit together – and what it was like to work with these incredible women.

Dazed Digital: How or when did the idea for the exhibit first come to you?
Harold Koda:
Andrew [Bolton] and I had been thinking about an exhibition that was a conversation between two designers past and present for about ten years, so that idea was really floating around for a while. There's this other aspect that contributed to what the show became, and that was about four years ago when the Brooklyn Museum collection, which is the oldest collection of costume on the east coast, was transferred to us [at the Met]. In that transfer was a body of work that had belonged to Millicent Rogers, Schiaparelli that she had purchased in the 1930's that was so extraordinary we were thinking about some way in which we could present those pieces.

Once we had opened Alexander McQueen, Andrew and I said we should really do a show about women designers. Schiaparelli came right up as one of the people we'd want to highlight because of that collection and we thought, if she's in conversation with someone, who would it be in terms of contemporary culture? Prada was the first person that came to mind. I don't know if she came to mind because of superficial similarities, because we didn't see any real association of their work, but she was the first person we thought of. Whatever precipitated that thought, there were so many similarities: they were both women; they were both from Italy; they were both actively engaged in their contemporary art scenes, Schiaparelli with surrealists and a little bit with the dadaists and Prada as a very active patron of the contemporary arts scene of today. There was this one thing, which we thought would be very rich to mine, which is both of the women, in their work, tend to expand the ideals of beauty and glamour. They upend certain kinds of conventions that pre-exist and assert a new aesthetic. We thought that was really fascinating to study.

DD: What was it like working with Miuccia Prada?
Harold Koda:
Primarily we work with historical material, and recently we've done so many contemporary shows because our own collections are closed while we're redoing our storage and gallery space. One of the things that's very fulfilling about working on a contemporary show, in the same way that is must be for a contemporary arts curator or gallerist, is that you're actually having conversations with the creator. It's an opportunity to set your own ideas against the reality of the intentions of the designer. In this case, with Miuccia, when we first met her and saying what we were going to do, all I can say is that she was incredibly warm. You're immediately aware of her intellect; she's an extraordinary conversationalist and engaged in all kinds of different ideas: high and low culture, architecture and design etc. A few nights ago we had a cocktail celebration with her for our support group; she spoke and said "This is very difficult for me because I'm used to controlling my work." I think that's true of every great artist or designer. To have a very strong point of view, you don't allow others to erode on that point of view. From our perspective she was incredibly easy to work with because despite the fact that we knew some of our approaches were challenging to her, she was courageous enough or trusting enough that she let us do it.

After the fact, she came through to check on our accessorizing of the pieces and most of it was okay, but there was one fascinating moment in her collection with monkeys and bananas. We had four ensembles from that collection that we compared to the Schiaparelli circus collection, and she looked at one of the pieces and said "I wouldn't use those shoes, I would present them with the men's brogues with the multicolor platforms." When she said that you realized it made complete sense, because when you looked at the way we styled the mannequin it was very "fashion," and you could see a woman of style purchasing those high heel espadrille inspired shoes to coordinate with this tropical looking ensemble. In a strange way it was almost over coordinated. We went upstairs and got the printouts of the runway and there it was, coordinated completely correctly to what the mannequin was wearing. When we showed it to Miuccia she laughed and said "Isn't it fascinating; for me that isn't Prada, but that is fashion." What she had done was allowed the pieces to go out as a totality that would be understandable to her public but she herself, as the designer, saw it in a very different way. Just by changing the shoes, that would add a component to make it more personally her. Those are the kinds of insights you don't have when you don't have the designer to work with.

DD: What pieces are you particularly excited about having acquired or included in the show?
Harold Koda:
The ones that I really like are the things that seem to be at once most personal but also most expressive of the fact that these are two women who upend conventions of aesthetics. There is a lynx fur coat with a lynx head hat that Schiaparelli made, that actually Hamish Bowles found at the Marche aux Puces St-Ouen de Cligancourt in Paris. He called me and said "I can't afford to buy this, but it really belongs in your collection," and it's a really incredible piece. On the one hand it's this luxurious presentation of an exotic fur, but by having the animal head on your own head theres a real attraction/compulsion component that goes into the pairing that I think is very pure Schiaparelli.

With the Prada, in the "Classical Body" area, there are two gladiator dresses. What I love about those is that if you see them almost everybody calls them gladiator dresses but when we spoke to Miuccia that's not what they are at all. I thought it had to do with costume dramas from the 1950's, all that kind of stuff. Instead, Miuccia said "No no, that collection of dresses came out of this idea of rusticity. I was imagining what it would be like to be a young girl, but living in the country and you get to go out one night and go to a club… what do you wear?" and this is what she came up with. It's that kind of intuitive, non-linear thinking that I think is so interesting about Miuccia; that what we see is not necessarily what is intended. I love that discrepancy, that discordance.

Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until August 19th, 2012