After yesterday’s press preview of the Met Costume Institute’s new exhibit, “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations,” we got our own private tour with Andrew Bolton, who co-curated the show with Harold Koda. He wasn’t coy about some of the exhibit’s hairier aspects, admitting that “initially Miuccia was rather baffled by the pairing of Schiaparelli and herself.” To write the scripts for the fictional “conversations” between the two designers, Bolton spent months combing through Schiaparelli’s autobiography, interviewing Miuccia Prada in Milan, and sifting through both designers’ archives. He told us all about the process of putting the show together and how it differs from last year’s record-breaking McQueen exhibit; you can also see a video tour of the galleries.
So, when was this actually finished?
We literally put the last dress in this morning at half past 7 o’clock. So it was very eleventh-hour stuff.
It’s very different from McQueen. Was it tough to follow such a successful show?
I wanted the experience to be very different from McQueen. McQueen really took a life of its own. We never realized it would be quite so popular, and people responded to it on a very intense, really deeply emotional level. We knew we couldn’t repeat that, and nor did we want to. We deliberately wanted to do something more high-concept and more intellectual than an emotional experience. We also wanted to focus on designers who are able to marry their conceptualism with practicality. [McQueen was] really pure theater and pure sculpture on the runway, and it’s often hard to translate that into everyday life. What’s extraordinary about Schiaparelli and Prada is that their fashions really express their ideas and concepts, but in a way that is still wearable.
What made you start the show with Prada’s flame shoes and Schiaparelli’s shoe hat?
The shoe hat is, in a way, one of Schiaparelli’s most out-there designs. It’s a deeply surrealistic expression as an accessory. And then below we have Miuccia’s shoes. Again, deeply surrealistic. Both reflect this sort of playfulness in their work. Even though Miuccia and Schiaparelli were very deeply intellectual, there’s a playfulness that goes through the exhibition. And I think that’s what we wanted to highlight, was both the intellect and also the playfulness.
Can you explain how this exhibit is laid out, with the combination of videos and clothing and accessories?
When you first walk into the exhibition, you’re confronted with a very large screen of Schiaparelli and Prada having a conversation. The videos are directed by Baz Luhrman, the actress Judy Davis plays Schiaparelli, and Prada plays herself. Their first discussion is primarily about how they got into fashion, which for both of them was accidental. Neither one set out to be a designer. Then you walk into the next space, which is “Waist Up/Waist Down.” This is one of the areas that focuses on the primary disagreements of the two women. The rest of the exhibition is focused on discussions around the idea of chic and the body, and in every gallery there is a video component, and the conversation that you hear between Schiaparelli and Prada relates to that particular theme.
What do you think the videos bring to the exhibit?
Because it is quite a high concept exhibition, I think the videos make the ideas more accessible. You have these two women talking about fashion, or themes that relate to the dresses you see in front of you, but in a way it’s all about fashion but nothing about fashion. They’re two strong-willed, independent-minded women talking [about] much deeper ideas of gender and politics and culture.
Some of these quotes are funny, because Miuccia says she “hates” many of the designs that are featured here. Especially the ones she thinks are “too beautiful.”
Absolutely. She dislikes it when the influences are too literal. I think Miuccia has a very nonlinear approach to her fashion. Her ideas are very abstract. So I think when she sees designs that don’t work that way, she hates them. She feels as if it’s not a true representation of her approach to fashion. And there you will see differences in the exhibition between Schiaparelli and Prada. For example, Schiaparelli’s citations of exotic dress from Asia are often quite literal and a bit more linear. And Prada often tries to reject that. When Prada looks through history and other cultures for inspiration, what she sees is a vehicle to express an idea. That’s why Miuccia dislikes some of the pieces we’ve selected in the exhibition.
Prada says, “I hope that my clothes made their lives a little easier, that they made them feel happier. Not more beautiful necessarily, just more of a person.” Do you really think that Prada’s clothes don’t make women look more beautiful?
It’s funny. I don’t think she’s against the idea of a beautiful dress on a beautiful woman. I think she’s against the idea of the cliché of that. So what she tries to do is break down clichés. If the idea of being beautiful is wearing a long dress in the evening, she finds that too bourgeois. So she likes to see eveningwear in the daytime, or daytime in the evening. So it’s always about challenging the conventions of fashion in a way. She’s done that consistently, really, from the mid-nineties onwards.
Who made the masks on the mannequins?
The headpieces are all created by Guido Palau, who also did the headpieces last year for the McQueen exhibition. The whole idea of a mask is to disguise identity, and what happens here is that the mannequins, they come alive — they gain an identity through the masks. Also, the masks unify the looks in the spaces and create cohesion.
There’s an interesting part of the exhibit where Schiaparelli and Prada disagree about whether fashion is art.
Schiaparelli has always maintained that fashion is art, and Prada has maintained, steadfastly, that fashion is not art. She has collaborated with artists in the field of art, but she never collaborates with artist in the field of fashion. I think, for Prada, she feels as if fashion doesn’t need art to validate itself, but it can stand alone without art to justify itself. And in that sense, I agree with her — sometimes fashion and art collaborations can be banal. But I’m more on Schiaparelli’s side in that I think that fashion is art. To me, art really is about expressing ideas and concepts through one’s medium and challenging preconceived assumptions, whether those are to do with art or fashion. I think what’s extraordinary about fashion is that it’s able to respond to the zeitgeist so quickly. It’s a barometer of our times. And it can discuss ideas of identity, about gender, about feminism, about culture politics. And I think, to me, that’s a very true expression of what we mean by art, which philosophically is really about complex ideas and concepts.
If Prada feels so strongly that fashion is not art, how has she responded to the idea of this exhibit?
It’s been really interesting. I think, initially, Miuccia was rather baffled by the pairing of Schiaparelli and herself, because she really doesn’t look to Schiaparelli for inspiration or influence. But over the course of putting the exhibition together, she’s begun to see more similarities, not particularly in their fashion but in terms of how they approach fashion, which is on a very conceptual level. What both women do extraordinarily well is they’re able to marry being conceptual with being practical. And they share an almost preternatural ability to provoke and challenge our assumptions about fashion.
Did it ever feel like you were forcing similarities between the two designers?
We wanted to focus on the commonalities as a way into focusing on the dissimilarities. So we chose the topics that both women have studied in their fashions, like the idea of the exotic, the idea of the classical, antiquity, the idea of the chic. These are themes that both women have explored, but how they go about that exploration is often very different. So there is an aesthetic overlap, and garments may look similar, but how the designers arrived at them was very different in terms of process. We always wanted the show to hang together visually, so you see these similarities in the objects, but also to show how these affinities can be deceptive because the designers arrived at them in very different ways.
Did it ever seem a little bit bizarre to stage these conversations between Schiaparelli and Prada?
Very much. It was important to us for the dead designer to come with a voice. Schiaparelli wrote an autobiography [Shocking Life, first published in 1954], so we were able to cull most of the quotations there. I read the autobiography many, many times, and picked out quotations that I thought were relevant to what we were trying to explore in the exhibition, which was really about the role of women and fashion in politics, fashion in culture, and fashion in art. So I had these broader categories into which I brought the quotations. Then I interviewed Mrs. Prada over really a period of many months, and that was more about focusing on just her work. I didn’t want it to be contrived.
It must have been quite tricky to fit their quotes together.
The dialogue between the designers is very much fictional. It can’t not be. One’s alive and one is dead, and the idea for the show was always this fictional conversation between these two women. I wanted to be surreal and playful and quixotic. Sometimes the conversations almost miss each other — they’re on the same topic, but just by the very nature of the quotations, they’re on different planes. The idea was inspired by the illustrator Miguel Covarrubias, who did a series of cartoons in Vanity Fair in the 1930s called “Impossible Interviews,” where he would pair people who would never meet in real life, like Sigmund Freud and Jean Harlow, and draw up completely fictitious conversations. These videos in the exhibit are fictitious, but the words are the actual words of the actual designers. So we took a slightly different approach.
How exactly did you go about interviewing Miuccia? What was that process like?
I always conducted them on a one-on-one basis. I would fly to Milan, usually, and interview her. The interviews took place over a period of time, and the most intense part of it was a period of about ten days. I would work on the archive in the morning, and in the afternoon, I would meet with Mrs. Prada and we would go through the collections together, one after the next. As a curator, it was such a privilege to work with the designer and to understand her creative process.
How do you feel about this common belief that female designers make more wearable, flattering clothes for women than male designers?
There’s an element of truth to it, but what’s interesting is to me is that if you think about the most radical designers over the last 30 years, they’re both male and female: Vivienne Westwood, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, John Galliano, Alexander McQueen. I think that wanting to push the boundaries comes from something so personal that it isn’t to do with gender, it’s to do with that particular person.