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Inside the Met's Impossible Schiaparelli and Prada Exhibit

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Imagine for a moment that you work for The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and you've just put on the Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty exhibit, the biggest, most successful fashion exhibition in history. Where do you go from there?

Met Costume Institute curators Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton decided to follow with a smaller show, but one with a unique concept. They chose to film a conversation between two influential, Italian, female designers, Miuccia Prada and Elsa Schiaparelli, and then use that as the basis for a comparison of the two's work. There was only one complication: Elsa Schiaparelli has been dead for several decades.

The Met dealt with this minor obstacle by having director Baz Luhrmann film a My Dinner With Andre-like conversation between the very-much-alive Prada and actress Judy Davis, who played the late Schiaparelli using lines from her Shocking Life biography. The curators then set up an exhibit of clothing by the two designers and projected those conversations, which focused on art and fashion, onto the gallery walls. While the final results probably won't inspire quite the same crowd that descended on the McQueen show, those who love fashion will be entirely satisfied.

The exhibit begins with the Waist Up/Waist down section. Schiaparelli's pieces here include tops, gowns, and hats, all of which put the focus above a woman's waist, since in her Café Society days, women often spent their time being seated. Whereas the section's Prada pieces include clothing and shoes with elaborate design elements that call attention to the body's lower regions. In many cases, the two designers' tops and bottoms are paired together with surprisingly simpatico results.

The Waist up/Waist down section is followed by our favorite area of the exhibition, two rooms organized along a range of themes: Classical Body, Exotic Body, Surreal Body, Hard Chic, Ugly Chic and Naif Chic. In each grouping, Prada's designs are shown with compatible ones by Schiaparelli, which allows the viewer to play a guessing game: Whose work is whose? In some places, the answer is quite obvious due to the period detailing. For others, the answers are more surprising. This is particularly true in the Ugly Chic section, where Prada's woolen suits look somewhat vintage whereas Schiaparelli's knits strike a more modern chord.

The final room of the exhibit involves a series of glass cases, each containing a Prada design paired with either a thematically similar Schiaparelli piece, or a photograph of one. While a few of the pairings struck us as a bit of a stretch, some of the combinations look like they could have been created by the same designer. This is intriguing, particularly considering that Schiaparelli worked with Salvador Dali and said she would have liked to be a sculptor, whereas Prada is quoted in the exhibit as saying "I've never wanted to be an artist. I never wanted to be called an artist."

Whether you consider it art or fashion, the show is definitely worth seeing. It opens this Thursday, May 10 and runs through August 19th.
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