FASHION & STYLE
From left: John Phillips//Time Life Pictures, via Getty Images, Michael Birt/Getty Images
A new show called, “Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada: Impossible Conversations,” looks at the two designers who certainly wouldn’t argue.
Published: April 12, 2012
ACCORDING to Hamish Bowles, the international editor-at-large of Vogue and a collector of couture, Madeleine Vionnet was especially fond of her South American clients. The genius behind the bias-cut dress liked this stylish group because, as she put it, “leurs fesses ondoyantes comme des carnivores.” She thought her dresses looked marvelous spilling over strong, undulating buttocks.
“I always felt she was in love with the key clients she had,” Mr. Bowles mused. That’s a possibility, of course. But a male designer, wanting the same physical type to display his designs, would have said that love had nothing to do with it. Great fashion is in a sense gender blind. And, as Mr. Bowles said, Vionnet tested the most basic assumption about female designers: that they understand women’s bodies in a different way. Yet she was not the model for her sublime creations. She didn’t have the body for them.
Vionnet was one of the pillars of modern fashion, along with Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli – and, yes, a few of the boys – that were set down in the early years of the 20th century, mainly in the ’20s. Next month, two women take over the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with the opening of “Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada: Impossible Conversations.”
“After the McQueen show, we really wanted to do an exhibit of women designers,” said Harold Koda, the Met’s chief costume curator, who, with the curator Andrew Bolton, planned the show as an imaginary chat between Schiaparelli and Ms. Prada, who was born in Milan, in 1949, almost 60 years after her compatriot.
To flesh out the concept, taken from a Vanity Fair column in the ’30s, called “Impossible Interviews,” the director Baz Luhrmann made seven short films with Ms. Prada and an actress playing Schiap, as she was called. Schiaparelli’s words are from her memoir, “Shocking Life.”
“We really wanted it to be a brain teaser, a more whimsical interpretation of fashion,” Mr. Koda said.
Well, they certainly picked two of the brainiest. In their separate ways (though, as the writer Judith Thurman recently pointed out, “Ms. Prada has obviously studied Schiaparelli closely”), the two women thrive on a mixture of intuition and daring, and, in Schiaparelli’s case, maybe a salt-sting of anger, as well.
Many things drove the formidable Schiaparelli to become, in a few years, “the most discussed fashion designer in the world,” as the writer Palmer White noted by 1934, when she was on the cover of Time. Yet surely her early poverty and failed marriage were important factors. Her designs are animated by energy and a rebellious spirit – she is responsible for so many of the innovations we take for granted today – but at the heart of her crisp personality was an extraordinary sense of detachment.
This inner life is interesting. What does it mean, specifically, to female designers? And is it a terrain that uniquely informs their fashion and gives them an edge over their male counterparts?
Could it be that women, despite being outnumbered by male stars, are better designers than men?
Certainly in the ’20s and ’30s, women ruled. “The interwar period was the golden age of the couturière,” the historian Valerie Steele said. A new age brought new attitudes. Couturiers were no longer seen as subservient craftspeople. The horrific losses of World War I had upended the security of married life for women, Mr. Bowles noted. Aristocratic British ladies became dressmakers. Paris was flooded with enterprising Russian émigrés. One, Valentina Nicholaevna Sanina, later turned up New York as the great couturière Valentina.
“Women were really seen as being much more equipped to dress the new woman, because of their sensibility,” Ms. Steele said, adding, “Jean Patou actually complained, ‘You know, men can also design women’s clothes.’ “
Many designs created by women were freed of corsets and padding – anything that imposed a shape – and they used fabrics that were both chic and wearable. This was especially the goal of American sportswear designers, notably Claire McCardell.
But practicality is something of a commonplace; it feels a bit too aligned with the dreary expression “a woman’s work.” What’s more, many male designers, from Balenciaga to Alber Elbaz, have been able to relate to the practical concerns of women. One thing that Ms. Prada and Schiaparelli have in common is that they both use fashion to push against the status quo. And in both cases, they do it far more often, and daringly, than their contemporaries.
Schiap’s method of attack was her sheer orneriness, as if to say to society, “Don’t fence me in with your rules.” (Perhaps, not surprisingly, she did most of her designing in her head, often while driving or walking; according to White, “she did not think well between walls.”) Among her innovations were a spree of synthetics, including tree-bark rayon crepe and a glassy material called Rhodophane; couture garments that combined lace and suede, and even latex; and extreme tailoring, described as “hard chic.” She also incorporated aprons and wraparound skirts into her prewar silhouette, as if anticipating thousands of bicycling Frenchwomen.
Ms. Prada didn’t invent the concept of “ugly chic,” but as Ms. Thurman and other writers have noted of her use of uniforms, cheap materials and strange colors, she has made it cool.
After Christian Dior’s New Look, in 1947, the men took over, and it’s never really been the same for female designers since. To be sure, there are exceptions, like Sonia Rykiel, Donna Karan, Liz Claiborne, Vivienne Westwood and the extraordinary Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons. In more recent times, Stella McCartney, Phoebe Philo of Céline, and Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen have emerged strong, original voices.
“In the early ’90s, I was talking about a return to gender equity,” Ms. Steele said, “but it has never really made it. Most of the big names have been male, despite the Pradas and the Philos.” And that may be the explanation: big brands now dominate.
“We’re obviously so connected to the personality creating the clothes,” said Mr. Bowles, referring to editors, “but I think there’s a huge customer base that’s not preoccupied with the figurehead designer. They’re responding to product.” And the bulk of those products are globally generic accessories.
Ms. McCartney, for one, senses the problem, and that’s why her company looks for ways to connect to women, mainly through designs and clear ethics. “We are women-friendly, and not all brands are,” she said. “There’s a great energy to that.”