Thomaï Serdari on Fine Arts & Luxury
“Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations”

Schiaparelli and Prada at the Met, general view

or “An Impossible conversation with Thomas P. Campbell”

Rather than give another descriptive review of the “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations” exhibit (currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) I will focus on the following quote by the museum’s director, Thomas P. Campbell, to identify the faults in his reasoning:

Given the role Surrealism and other art movements play in the designs of both Schiaparelli and Prada, it seems only fitting that their inventive creations be explored here at the Met. Schiaparelli’s collaborations with Dali and Cocteau as well as Prada’s Fondazione Prada push art and fashion ever closer, in a direct, synergistic, and culturally redefining relationship.”

~~Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Indeed, Surrealism played a major role in Schiaparelli’s work. As we learn at the exhibit, she and Salvador Dalí were close friends and they often collaborated in devising designs. These were usually part of the same context, namely Surrealist art, of which Dalí’s or Schiaparelli’s works were a mere material expression. Would it have been more enlightening to organize an exhibit where fashion is finally treated as another material expression of conceptual ideas? Schiaparelli was working with volume, texture, and scale, elements she identified as properties of sculptural work. But she humbly refused to identify herself as a sculptor focusing instead on the functional role of her creations in daily life. She designed frocks after all. Except that these were not mass marketed or consumed. These were for the very few who could afford them financially and socially. They were meant for those who can endorse fashion as a form of art. Wally Simpson was such a person in Schiaparelli’s time as Daphne Guinness has been for Alexander McQueen and other contemporary designers.

“Other art movements” is not an expression to be uttered by the Director of the Metropolitan Museum. Mr. Campbell is a trained art historian and as such he should know that artificial connections lead to such vagueness. What are the art movements that have influenced Miuccia Prada? One should name them specifically to test that premise and decide whether this is the case or whether Ms. Prada is a designer who is also very capable at pushing the boundaries and subverting popular culture to its most shocking opposite. For example, if Haute Couture aims at elegance and finesse, Prada designs are known for ugliness and shocking distortions. Are graphic arts predominant in popular culture? Then, Prada’s work has been a tool to focus on graphics to such a disproportionate result that in the end the outfit makes the individual disappear. Yet, this is not an artistic gesture according to Prada. It is her way of being ahead of the curve within the fashion industry and of ensuring mass appeal (= profit) for her collections.

I am not sure that the Met is interested in exploring “inventive creations.” This is more fitted to the mission of the Museum of Art and Design, for example, a museum that is doing an extraordinary job at studying these forms of art that usually cross predefined lines, i.e. art and design, or art and crafts. At the Met, what the audience expects is a scholarly treatment of all subjects exhibited and it seems that this exhibit remains superficial, primarily because its own thesis is artificial. One cannot have a dialog between two persons when one is dead. These quotes that were chosen to create this staged exchange between Schiaparelli and Prada were taken out of context and therefore have been manipulated to conform primarily to the narrative set forth by Miuccia Prada, since this is the narrative that was created for the purpose of the show. It is one extracted from an actual interview with the designer, whereas Schiaparelli’s responses, even though apparently on subject, were in fact her quotes from a variety of interviews, each one rejoining a completely different set of questions.

Prada’s Fondazione Prada is a deliberate and calculated strategy to associate the Prada brand with contemporary art and to in fact embrace the critics of consumerist culture on which the brand thrives. Financing art is not equal to creating art. This should be clear in the Director’s mind, as clear as it is for the layperson who regularly visits the Metropolitan Museum. The audience of the museum is used to examining exhibits that incorporate art in a variety of forms (i.e. painting, sculpture, drawing, metalwork etc.) along with items of material culture that exemplify the spread of a particular movement, style, or culture either as a trickle down or trickle up effect. The examples and exhibits throughout the years have been numerous. There is no point then in asking whether fashion is art or whether art can take the form of fashion but to actually study these very examples that highlight how these creative expressions materialize within our culture and at different times. We hope that one is not trying to “culturally redefine” the relationship between art and fashion now and only on the event of that exhibit. After all, one can think of several artists who thought of clothing as an extension of their artistic means: Gustav Klimt, Henry van de Velde, Sonia Delaunay, and Bauhaus artists, just to name a few.

Yet, the exhibit can prove extremely fruitful to students of costume. The items on view are quirky, powerful, and intelligent. The installation, laid out in themes, treats the objects in a clean and modern way. I do prefer the second part of the exhibit where one gains full-view of the garments (rather than frontal, which is almost the norm in fashion exhibits) but I wish the audio volume of the imagined conversation had been turned off.

© Thomaï Serdari