Miuccia Prada and Elsa Schiaparelli: In a league of their own

From trash couture to sincere chic, Miuccia Prada's pioneering take on women's fashion has changed the way we dress, says Susannah Frankel. A new exhibition explores her relationship with Elsa Schiaparelli

"We have a thing in Italy about women and cars," Miuccia Prada said backstage after the showing of her current collection.

It features ultra-feminine shapes – think circle skirts, pencil skirts, halter-necks and blouses – as well as more than a nod to the latter Italianate obsession: cartoonish engines bursting here and there into flames, which playfully undercut an otherwise decidedly womanly appeal. "Sweetness is a taboo in fashion and I wanted to combine sweetness, which is possibly the greatest feminine quality, with cars," the designer said.

It is true that of all the things we might expect from fashion – and of the formidable first lady of fashion, for that matter – sweetness is, on the face of it, the least likely. But Prada has spoken and, call it unfathomable designer intuition or just the obvious antidote to winter's more dark and androgynous looks, but everyone from Louis Vuitton in Paris to Christopher Kane in London appears to be in line with her way of thinking. Despite such elevated company, Prada pulls it off with a lighter touch than most.

The secret of her ongoing fascination with a stereotypical mid-20th century bourgeois silhouette is, invariably, to tweak and edit it and, of course, treat it with the hefty dose of irony it is due. That is by now as much one of her signatures as a nylon rucksack or fine leather bowling bag. From the designer's so-called "sincere chic" spring/summer 2000 collection forward, an exploration of the clichés of the woman's wardrobe – lip prints and roses, leather and lace – have both surprised and, at times, confused not least because wearing them in a less-than-knowing manner might bring out the frump in even the most dapper dresser. It's no coincidence that Prada herself, who has wit, intelligence and elegance in spades, is the finest poster girl for her own designs

In particular, this designer is in love with the skirt. She has said in the past that although trousers might reduce her apparent weight by a good kilo or more she prefers the more ladylike staple. Making fashion simply to flatter is, by her reckoning, banal. Prada loves skirts so much – be they dirndl, straight, car-wash pleat, long or so short they barely qualify – that, in 2006, she devoted an entire exhibition to them. Entitled "Waist Down", it showcased everything from Prada skirts finished with crushed bottle tops (she called this "trash couture") to more printed with designs inspired by vintage-Formica worktops, and from tufted alpaca skirts – which the designer herself described merrily as "fattening" – to "porno chic" designs, skin-tight, split-to-the-thigh garments that whispered of the work of Allen Jones.

Is Prada obsessed by skirts – which feature in almost every look of her current offering – because she is a woman? Certainly, a consciousness that she is a considered and clever female working at the heart of an industry that is often viewed as anything but is a tension that is central to her output. "You know, I had to have a lot of courage to do fashion," she said when we first met more than a decade ago. "In theory it is the least feminist work possible and at that time, in the late Seventies, that was very complicated for me."

As a young woman, Prada, who has a degree in political science and then studied mime with the Piccolo Teatro in Milan, was a signed-up member of the Communist Party and a reluctant inheritor of her grandfather's leather goods and glass company. She finally took the helm there in 1978.

"Italian society was becoming obsessed with consumerism, but my big dreams were of justice, equality and moral regeneration," she said. "I was a Communist but being left wing was fashionable then. I was no different from thousands of middle-class kids."

But in the 21st century it is fortuitous that Prada's exploration of sweetness is among the standout collections of the season. Next month an exhibition of her work opens at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The output of this vibrant fashion entity – Prada is among the great success stories of the past 25 years and its eponymous designer is influential to a degree that is unprecedented – will be displayed alongside that of the couturier, Elsa Schiaparelli, famed for her collaborations with the Surrealist art movement and with Salvador Dali in particular.

Like Prada herself, Schiaparelli was an inveterate risk taker and also born in Italy. The show, "Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations" (the name comes from the Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias' column, "Impossible Interviews", in Vanity Fair in the 1930s) aims to explore "the striking affinities between these two Italian designers from different eras".

"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 at the Met," Thomas P Campbell, that museum's director, says. "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."

In fact, while Schiaparelli actually created garments with fine artists – the 1937 white evening gown painted with a lobster by Dali is the most famous example – Prada tends to keep her position as patron and collector separate. She is taken seriously enough in that role to have introduced last year's Turner Prize, but actually employing an artist's work in the creation of a dress, say, is not on her agenda. More significantly, Prada's work, like Schiaparelli's – or Schiap, as she was always known – is far from mainstream or people- pleasing.

So different is the output of both creators from that of their contemporaries that it has in its time been branded "ugly" (as in belle laide); Schiaparelli's "hard chic", no-frills tailoring meanwhile could arguably be seen as a precursor to Prada's obsession with uniform, from her runway debut in 1988 and throughout the early 1990s. She was married to Prada CEO Patrizio Bertelli in 1987, wearing a less-than-conventionally pretty military-grey cotton dress and a man's overcoat.

In the end, Schiaparelli and Prada share a desire to break rules and question our notions of beauty. And that is the hallmark of visionary designers, male and female.

'Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations' is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 10 May to 19 August 2012; metmuseum.org

Suggested Topics
Sport
sportSo, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Arts and Entertainment
Dennis speaks to his French teacher
tvThe Boy in the Dress, TV review
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the 300 US cinemas screening
filmTim Walker settles down to watch the controversial gross-out satire
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Life and Style
Mark's crab tarts are just the right size
food + drinkMark Hix cooks up some snacks that pack a punch
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

    £40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

    £40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

    Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

    £70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

    Day In a Page

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all