Talk of the gown

Fashion exhibitions aim to become conversation points but for two major new shows the idea of conversation itself provides the framework. Louis Vuitton-Marc Jacobs, which opened at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris on Friday, and Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations, opening May 10 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, both take the form of a dialogue.

Or least a loose, conceptual interpretation of a dialogue. Louis Vuitton-Marc Jacobs is a parallel presentation of designs by Vuitton, who founded the luxury leather goods house in 1854, and Jacobs, its current creative director.

The Costume Institute at the Met will take this idea one step further. Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations juxtaposes work by the surrealist designer Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973) and Miuccia Prada, to create a fictional dialogue between the two and explore their affinities.

The fact that both museums chose to mount their shows this way is notable, since fashion history has more often been told through retrospectives focusing on one designer, era or style, or a group of designers. Les Arts Décoratifs has staged retrospectives of Vionnet, Schiaparelli and Yamamoto, among others.

“Les Arts Décoratifs tries to bring a different perspective to a typical retrospective,” says Pamela Golbin, chief curator of fashion and textiles at the museum. However, the idea of addressing two parallel subjects is not entirely new for the institution.

For the Louis Vuitton-Marc Jacobs show, there is a floor each dedicated to Vuitton and Jacobs, intended to demonstrate what they brought to their respective periods of industrialisation and globalisation. “The idea isn’t to say that Louis did it like this and Marc did it like this,” says Golbin. “It is more contextual. Vuitton and Jacobs are more similar in spirit than in style.”

Nineteenth-century Vuitton trunks are displayed alongside pieces of the same era from the museum’s own collection, while the Jacobs floor includes pieces from his various collaborations, such as those with the artists Richard Prince and Takashi Murakami. Jacobs’ designs reflect his words in the exhibition catalogue: “I think you have to have a healthy respect and a healthy disrespect for an institution. You need to be respectful in order to preserve, but you also have to be disrespectful in order to evolve.”

Prada, spring/summer 2011

In New York, the Met will present simulated conversations between Schiaparelli and Prada in the form of videos by film director Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rouge) and feature some 90 designs and 30 accessories by the two. The show is divided into seven themes, including Waist Up/Waist Down and Ugly Chic. The latter gallery demonstrates how the two designers have subverted conventional ideals of beauty, playing with good and bad taste through colour, prints and textiles. Waist Up/Waist Down features Schiaparelli’s innovation of decorative dinner jackets worn over body-conscious gowns, together with what Harold Koda, curator of the Costume Institute, describes as a “fascination with hats, as a zone above the waist that held a primary interest for her”.

He explains: “It was café society’s ‘restaurant dressing’, where what you saw of a woman was above the table.” With Prada, the emphasis will be on her interest in coats and shoes.

Koda says that the idea for the exhibition came about because the museum “wanted to address the work of significant women designers and to present them ‘in conversation’”. Furthermore, the museum had recently acquired a remarkable array of pre-second world war designs by Schiaparelli. “The notion of an impossible conversation involving a separation of time had us considering contemporary designers. Prada seemed almost inevitable,” he says.

“It is through the conversations that their differences can be conveyed,” Koda adds. “In a sense, their words subvert the apparent relationship of their work. If they are similar, it is in the most general sense: no matter how challenging a design might be, they are both always conscious of its function as fashion.”

It gives us something to talk about, anyway.

‘Louis Vuitton-Marc Jacobs’, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, until September 16;

‘Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations’, Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 10-August 19;

From next week the FT takes inspiration from these exhibitions with a series of conversations between designers and their collaborators and friends

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