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NEW YORK (Reuters) - They are both women, Italian and innovative fashion designers but Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada worked in different eras and had distinctive views and approaches to their work.
A new exhibition organized by the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art examines the work and affinities of the two luxury designers.
"Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations," which opens on Thursday and runs through August 19, features about 100 designs by Schiaparelli, a fashion fixture from the late 1920s to the early 50s, and Prada, whose work ranges from the late 80s to the present.
"We wanted it to be intellectual. We wanted people to read it and to actually get into the heads of these women," said Harold Koda, the curator in charge of the show.
Koda and his co-curator Andrew Bolton found inspiration for the show in Miguel Covarrubias's satirical "Impossible Interviews," which appeared in Vanity Fair magazine in the 1930s.
The show includes short films by director Baz Luhrmann in which Prada has a conversation at a dining table with Schiaparelli, played by actress Judy Davis who uses paraphrased dialogue from the designer's autobiography "Shocking Life."
The videos of the conversations are played in the seven themed sections of the show, giving it a tight cohesion. Schiaparelli's tailored and embroidered jackets and hats, her response to 1930s cafe society in which women were seen mainly in restaurants from the waist up, are paired with Prada's modern emphasis on skirts and shoes.
Their interpretations of different types of chic -- hard, naive and ugly -- and their thoughts on femininity, age-appropriate dressing and the use of discordant colors and materials is shown in their designs and explained in their own words.
Schiaparelli said she created clothes for women of whatever age who "wear my clothes with the poise of youth," while Prada hated the idea that women shouldn't wear something just because they are a certain age.
"We wanted the audience to understand that the creative processes of these two women are different but they also lead to very similar resolutions, but find out how they are different. You get that in their own words," Koda explained.
Schiaparelli's most riotous collection was based on the circus, evident in a 1938 pink silk bolero jacket embroidered with circus elephants and acrobats.
Prada's self-described most playful designs were inspired by musicals and featured dresses printed with black stripes, cherubs, monkeys, bananas and scrolls.
Schiaparelli as a child thought of ways of beautifying herself, while Prada said if she has done anything, it is to make ugly appealing.
In the final sections of the exhibit, which cleverly uses photographs of Schiaparelli's work alongside Prada's creations, the designers' influences and approaches to the female form are shown in elegant, timeless gowns and dresses inspired by the Greeks, and in exotic creations influenced by the Orient, Far East and Africa in fabrics such as lame and silk jacquard with metallic thread.
Schiaparelli, who collaborated with Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau, incorporated the surreal into her work with hats shaped like a black shoe and another as a pork chop. Both designers used unusual materials and trompe l'oeil.
"You really have to absorb the words because our strategy was to compare and contrast but when you compare things that are similar but then the words are contrasted, that to me is really interesting," Koda said.
"We wanted this to be a brainteaser. We kept calling it that from the beginning. McQueen was emotional, experiential. We wanted this to be intellectual," he said, referring to last year's phenomenally popular exhibition "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty."
The retrospective show of the works of the British designer who killed himself in 2010 at the age of 40, attracted more than 650,000 visitors.
Editing by Paul Casciato