Schiaparelli and Prada: The elegant catalogue of the Metropolitan’s blockbuster exhibition

Schiaporelli and PradaLast month, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) launched its much-anticipated summer exhibition Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations, which explores the affinities between Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada, two Italian designers from different eras. For those not able to g0 to New York for the show, the sumptuous book (available now) is a thing of beauty in itself.

Back in March the Yale Books Blog excited fashion journalists across the UK with our preview of the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition catalogue for Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations. We published photos of this gorgeous book after an advance copy arrived at Yale’s London office, and it quickly created a storm of interest across blogs and fashion websites such as Graziadaily.co.uk. Since then the Metropolitan’s exhibition has lanched, and has proved to be an enormous critical success.

Gift Shop Entry Wall

Entry wall to the Metropolitan Museum of Art gift shop, displaying copies of ‘Impossible Conversations’

Although separated by time, Miuccia Prada (b. 1949) and Elsa Schiaparelli (1890–1973) share striking similarities in terms of their design strategies and fashion manifestoes. Inspired by Miguel Covarrubias’s ‘Impossible Interviews’ column for Vanity Fair back in the 1930s (which published imagined conversations between famous celebrities of the day), the exhibition features orchestrated conversations between the iconic designers to suggest new readings of their most innovative work.

Legendary ensembles are innovatively displayed with videos of simulated conversations between Schiaparelli and Prada (directed by Moulin Rouge‘s Baz Luhrmann), focusing on how both women explore similar themes in their work through very different approaches.

Alongside these videos the exhibition showcases approximately one hundred designs and forty accessories by Schiaparelli (from the late 1920s to the early 1950s) and by Prada (from the late 1980s to the present). Drawn from The Costume Institute’s collection and the Prada Archive, as well as other institutions and private collections, signature objects by both designers are arranged in seven themed galleries.

Highlights of these galleries include Ugly Chic, which reveals how both women subvert ideals of beauty and glamour by playing with good and bad taste through color, prints and textiles; Hard Chic, which explores the influence of uniforms and menswear to promote a minimal aesthetic that is intended to both deny and enhance femininity; and The Surreal Body which illustrates how both women affect contemporary images of the female body through Surrealistic practices such as displacement, playing with scale and blurring the boundaries between reality and illusion as well as the natural and the artificial.

The Surreal Body

“The Surreal Body,” in the final gallery.

Taking inspiration from the beautiful works of the designers themselves, the exhibition catalogue Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations is a rather beautiful object too. The cover juxtaposes stylish photography against a tactile design that resembles the blotting of lipstick, making the catalogue stand out from the traditional glossy presentation style of fashion books. Striking photographs and text illustrate the parallels between the two designers, whilst a miniature booklet that is dispersed throughout the book, creates an imaginary ‘conversation’ between them.

The main text of the book features essays that correspond with the sections of the exhibition, illustrating the designers’ preferences for interesting textiles and prints, eccentric colour palettes, and a bold and playful approach to styling and accessories. The miniature ‘conversation’ section offers a playful counterpoint, with snippets from advertisements, magazine articles and quotes from both designers. It even features an original Vanity Fair ‘Impossible Interview’ in which Schiaparelli blithely argues fashion with Stalin.

Schiaparelli and Prada, with juxtaposing essays, photography and a 'conversation' between the two designers.

Schiaparelli and Prada, with juxtaposing essays, photography and a ‘conversation’ between the two designers.

After the success of the best-selling exhibition catalogue Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty last year, hopes were high at the Yale London office for the Met’s follow up. Fashion, art and design fans will be pleased to hear this “gorgeous companion volume” (Sadie Stein, Paris Review) does not disappoint.

Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations is available now from Yale University Press.

The exhibition Impossible Conversations runs from 10 May – 19 August, 2012.

More Met Books from Yale.

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