It’s inevitable not to compare the new show at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute to last year’s blockbuster, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, however unfair that might be. But it doesn’t matter, because Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations, a pairing of two disparate designers that gives far too much precedence to the latter, falls flat, regardless of what preceded it.
The exhibition opens to a sleek viewing area with glossy plastic benches in front of a projection of Miuccia Prada interviewing actress Judy Davis playing Schiaparelli, reciting lines from her memoir, Shocking Life. The short movies, directed by Baz Luhrman, are sprinkled throughout the exhibition as a backdrop to the perfectly styled mannequins, and while clever, serve more as ambient noise than the eavesdropping they had intended, distracting viewers from the clothes on view.
The first section of the exhibition situates the two designers’ strengths in terms of the parts of women they typically dressed. Schiaparelli’s designs tended to focus on the upper part of the body, most of her more creative constructions being jackets and chapeaux, whereas Prada centers her energies on laboring over skirts, shoes and other adornments for the lower half of the body. The curators juxtapose Schiaparelli’s hats alongside Prada’s shoes, and pair Prada skirts with Schiaparelli jackets. However, nothing matches, not in the strictest sense of styling nor the theoretical sense of curation. There’s an attempt to draw many of the pieces together through visual motifs, whether they clothes have similar geometric patterns, botanical embellishments or insectoid ornamentation (both designers seem to have a propensity for beetles), but the clothes have nearly nothing to do with each other outside of that initial visual cue, especially in terms of fabric, silhouette, color and construction.
The exhibition continues by exploring similar styles they experimented with in their oeuvre before fizzling out into the last gallery, which displays Prada outfits and digital projections of Schiaparelli designs behind them. The only iconic piece of Schiaparelli they can really boast exhibiting is her shoe hat, which is shoved up at the beginning until we’re left with very few (if any) bona fide Schiaparelli designs. Though clearly easier to receive, the numerous, flashy Prada pieces (some of which are from collections so recent I’ve seen them on eBay) overshadowed the small pool of Schiaparelli. It becomes apparent that the curators may have accepted one too many outfits courtesy of Prada, and the effort in combining these two minds gives way to opening a Prada outlet where nothing’s for sale.
The interesting (and unfortunately unexplored) aspect of note in the pairing of Schiaparelli and Prada lies neither within their shared heritage (because, really, their Italian-ness is not enough to glue the two together) nor any juxtaposition in their styles. The shear camp glamour of Schiaparelli’s lobster dress or chest suit neither complements nor challenges Prada’s sleek sturdiness. It’s like curating the works of Salvador Dali and Damien Hirst in one show: provocative at first thought, but ultimately discordant in execution.
No, the truly fascinating thread between the two is their rich, strong connections with the art world. Coco Chanel herself once commented that Schiaparelli was that “artist who makes clothes,” as she spent most of her career commiserating and collaborating with the likes of Dali, Cocteau and Giacometti. Many of her designs skirted the typical mode of female dress in the 1930s and ’40s, incorporating surrealist subject matter in her designs, from tear dresses to lamb cutlet hats. Prada, alternatively, forged herself into a great patron of the arts, collecting works from the YBAs, setting up the contemporary art space Fondazione Prada and aiding artists Elmgreen and Dragset in their permanent interventionist installation Prada Marfa.
Impossible Conversations is the smallest show at the Costume Institute I’ve seen in a long while, and while it’s nice not to have an overload of garments to process, there appeared to be less care and thought put into the small selection. It seems strange to mount another retrospective after Savage Beauty, and a lot of the creative work often seen in the curatorial department was lost. The Met is very good at mounting provocative thematic exhibitions, like Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy, where a large assemblage of high fashion as well as film costumes constructed an interesting and exhilarating show. Since McQueen had recently passed, and his garments had enough impact to stand on their own without much context, it made sense to give him a retrospective. But this show sits somewhere in between “wonderfully thematic” and “impressive retrospective.” It might have been interesting to explore “impossible” conversations angle across a breadth of different designers instead of limiting it to two, but as it is, it’s simply impossible to reckon with.
Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations continues at the Metropolitan Museum (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) until August 19.