Schiaparelli and Prada at the Met: A Baz Luhrmann joint

For an exhibition, juxtaposing two designers working in different time periods to showcase their resemblances is no major feat. Especially when, on paper, the two designers happen to be independent women with a proclivity for expressing their opinions candidly. So when their opposing intentions, differing philosophies, and social obstacles garner similar results, something beyond a well-placed mannequin in a glorified diorama is needed to explain the uncanny results. Cue Baz Lurhmann.

Mr. Lurhmann was presented with the challenge of making such an exhibition come to life, as it were. Cinema verité was not obviously not an option for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute exhibition “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations.” Rather, the curators, along with the film director (a friend of Miuccia Prada), staged the star-crossed designers in a room that transcended time and reality, to allow for an informal tête-à-tête. The imagined conversation theme is based on a satirical Vanity Fair column from the 1930s that imagined politicos and society notables happening upon each other to discuss current social issues. Cute, cheeky, and very high-low-high brow.

From the start of the exhibition, viewers are greeted by a wall of video screens displaying a dark, almost infinite, dining room with an Italian Baroque dining table centered under a crystal chandelier with place settings at opposite ends. No food, just a glass of champagne, or prosecco—both women being Italian—in front the designers as they agree on the social restrictions of women in society, and the subversive qualities their designs hold.

For Schiaparelli, a woman gained power from the waist up. Café society was the rule en vogue; women were expected to be seated. Therefore the details above the waist should reclaim power for the wearer. Prada on the other hand is naturally attracted to the lower half of the woman’s body for it’s natural, earth like, and sexual qualities. You’re all more than familiar with her ability to reinterpret the skirt season after season. There are further juxtapositions; tromp l’oeile on tops and bottoms for instance. To Prada there is room for witticism and play when making a shoe looking like a car’s fin. For Schiap (as she is affectionately known) the button was king, hats were designed as cornucopias of delight. In each woman’s hand the surreal trumped the utility, though as clothing they functioned effortlessly.

The discussion is split into small vignettes displayed on the walls behind mannequins throughout the exhibit. The dining room setting with Miuccia—her hair unpretentious and parted—and Schiap dolled up, tenderly evoked by Judy Davis’ performance, decode the mystery of their craft for the viewers. On screen, and on the mannequins, similar solutions from disparate approaches are highlighted. Both women speak their minds, tackling their differences in perspective, and however improbable become friends. On celluloid. For a rare moment we’re privy to their creative process and ephemeral bond. Having the viewer suspend their disbelief and embrace the surreal is no small feat. Ask anyone in Hollywood.