Impossible Conversations

- By Leena Sanzgiri -

“These are two women who break the rules, and that’s what’s exciting,” noted Anna Wintour, clad in custom Prada on the red carpet of the 2012 Costume Institute Gala.  If anyone is suited to determine the women who break the rules of fashion, it’s certainly the woman who has long defined those very rules for the rest of us. Wintour was, of course, referring to Miuccia Prada and Elsa Schiaparelli, the iconic female designers juxtaposed in this year’s Costume Institute retrospective entitled “Impossible Conversations”.

There was indeed an undercurrent of rebellion that resonated throughout the exhibit, but it was cleverly positioned as a palpable tension between the two women’s diverging philosophies on design. Upon entrance, the spectator is greeted with a Baz Luhrmann-directed film placing Prada and “Schiaparelli” (played by the actress Judy Davis) opposite one another, seated at an elaborate dining table and engaged in an intense discussion. A series of subsequent vignettes are interspersed throughout the presentation of the pieces, punctuating the visitor’s experience with strikingly vocalized, firsthand opinions from each designer. We learn that while Schiaparelli considered fashion and art to coexist within the same microcosm, Prada has always staunchly believed the two occupy very different spaces, and maintains a much more clinical approach to what the role of “designer” truly means. As a consequence, Schiaparelli identified her inspirations as grand, abstract themes, often in collaboration with the artists of her time (Dalí was a favorite). Prada, on the other hand, famously opts against collaborations, and confides that her inspirations are drawn from clearly defined concepts that are more literally translatable into her work.

Here, “Impossible Conversations” does not merely come to mean a dialogue that these women didn’t have the opportunity to actually conduct—rather, it can be interpreted as a nod to the irony that despite their differing belief systems, both women have created such similarly groundbreaking collections. Highly impressive was the attention co-curators Andrew Bolton and Harold Koda paid to the detailing that united pieces from both designers: a scroll design used by Schiaparelli on Café Society jackets, by Prada throughout the awe-inspiring SS ’11 collection; chandelier-like baubles fashioned to entirely cover a SS ’10 halter dress by Prada, by Schiaparelli to accent an iconic ruched ball gown in 1950; fantastically hand-painted, graphic textiles that have served to cement the most revolutionary pinnacles of both designers’ careers.

As easy as it is to appreciate the depth of research it must have taken to source and build these bridges between past and present, in all honesty, fashion-lovers can just as easily ditch the cerebral and marvel with pleasure at the sheer beauty of the pieces shown. The window display entitled “Neck Up, Knees Down” is the most stunning of all, analogizing Schiaparelli’s inventiveness as a milliner and jeweler with Prada’s imaginative fantasy as a shoe designer. The resulting pairings exude a whimsical charm that seamlessly conveys the heart of both designers while capturing the hearts of fashionistas, then and now (think the timeless Schiaparelli high-heeled shoe hat paired with Prada’s Cadillac wedges). Fittingly, the close of Luhrmann’s film has Prada declaring confidently, “I still think we would have been friends,” to which Schiaparelli concurs and raises her glass. We do the same for these incredible trailblazers.

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Leena Sanzgiri is a Manhattan-based management consultant from Dubai, where she grew up loving fashion, art, music, and theater. She strives to balance writing, traveling, cooking, painting, socializing, and hunting for vintage finds with watching abnormal amounts of reality television. Stay tuned for her forthcoming personal blog and for more posts on oliviapalermo.com/author/leena, or follow her on Twitter: @leenasanzgiri

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