WHO IS AFRAID OF ELSA SCHIAPARELLI?

This is one of the most important exhibitions of the year and from the beginning, it caused controversy. Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations. But how much do these two icons really have in common?

When Harold Koda, curator of the Costume Institute, Matropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced that the museum is preparing an exhibition of Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations, Prada herself decided to comment on the subject. ‘The idea seems too formal. The Institute focuses on similarities carefully comparing one element after another, but it doesn’t realize that we are talking about two different eras. Schiaparelli and me are completely different.’ It’s hard not to agree with Miuccia Prada regarding the fact that the idea for the exhibition is a bit far-fetched. Aside from the same origin, feminist beliefs and great love for art, these ladies actually have very little in common. Schiaparelli, though born in Italy, spent most of her life in Paris. Feminist beliefs didn’t stop her from designing and she treated fashion on par with other arts. Prada, who started in the 60s, believed that a feminist shouldn’t pay too much attention to her outfit as well as that art and fashion should be separated. She and her husband founded the Fundazione Prada.

The most interesting part of the exhibition Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations, are indeed the ‘impossible conversations’. The starting point for building a dialogue between the designers is a book published in 1954: Shocking life. The autobiography of Elsa Schiaparelli. The autobiography of Schap (that’s what her friends called her) is not only a fascinating story about a great designer but also about an exceptional woman. Schap was thoroughly talented. When she was 14 years old her cousin Attilio (son of the famous astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli) helped her publish a book of her poems. She wrote music reviews, was interested in philosophy and theology (her first husband, by origin, was a professor of theology). She was also great at painting and sculpting. Surrounded herself with artists. Paul Poiret was her good friend as well as mentor. She regarded him as the greatest artist of his day and called him ‘Leonardo of fashion’. She was his muse. When she had no money, Poiret gave her his projects as gifts.

The unhappy marriage and the illness of her daughter Gogo taught her how to fight and be patient. Many times she wished she was a man. Designing was a salvation from the unsuccessful relationship and a way to make money. One day she thought that instead of painting and sculpting, she could design clothes. She was a visionary, had an intuition and
a knack for business. She knew that the world of fashion is ruled by the law of the new. While Chanel offered classic knitted blouses and dresses, Schap proposed hand-made sweaters in abstract forms. Parisians fell for them completely and wanted to have them immediately. When others started to copy her projects, she had nothing against that. In her book, she wrote: ‘The moment when people stop to copy means that you are no longer good at what you do and that you have stopped to produce new quality. During my career, I have discovered that people will always enthusiastically follow my ideas and without discussion try the things that I propose.’

She knew everyone from Paris to Hollywood. Her costumes appeared in over 30 movie productions, while her clients included such icons as Katherine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich. Great friendship with painter Salvadore Dali and poet Jean Cocteau is visible in her surreal projects: a shoe-shaped hat and a dress with drawings referring to the famous painting by Dali. She thought that, as the frame adorns the image, clothing as well should adorn a man, give him personality.

Miuccia Prada quickly changed her mind because, as she said, exhibition at MET at the side of one of the most influential designers of the 20th century is a great privilege and honor. The exhibition is divided into 7 themed galleries (Waist Up/Waist Down, Ugly Chic, Hard Chic, Naif Chic, The Classical Body, The Exotic Body and The Surreal Body) to best identify characteristics the chosen projects have in common. So Prada’s doubts and anxiety regarding comparisons are understandable. Because if someone asks about inspirations, the answer is obvious.

 

 FASHION MAGAZINE 40/2012