Impossible Conversations: Farley Chatto on Prada and Schiaparelli

July 5, 2012

By Farley Chatto

Photography courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

A renowned Canadian fashion designer. In New York. Reviewing an exhibition by two Italian fashion icons. Sounds perfectly surreal? Not in our American Issue. FAJO Magazine teams up with Farley Chatto, as he writes about the Prada and Schiaparelli exhibit exclusively for our publication.

Impossible Conversations exhibit catalogue.

“Which way to the Communication Department?” wasn’t the Impossible Conversations I was thinking of having when I arrived at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yet it was the one I was engaged in with the wonderful and perplexed museum staff. Through the lower levels I wander with my pass and thoughts of the upcoming exhibition: what will I experience and what emotion will be had? Remembering last year’s exhibit, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, my emotions are high and I’m keeping an open mind.

Farley’s pass. Staff at the MET used his middle name (Dean) as well.

Past groups of school kids teasing each other, giggles of the nudity just seen and their gripes of hunger, I pass through European Decorative Arts and come to the exhibit. The room is dark, a couple is sitting on a bench and they are watching a video conversation between two women that is projected on the wall. The tête-à-tête is between Muiccia Prada and Elsa Schiaparelli; two elegant women at a large baroque table, discussing life, art and their careers. Like the drama they emulate in their clothing, the setting of the conversation is rich, elegant, dark and full of high dramatic contrast. What else would one expect with Baz Luhrmann behind the video? Here is the beginning of my experience of their Impossible Conversations.

The collection showcases approximately 100 designs and 40 accessories by Schiaparelli from the late 1920s to the early 1950s, and by Prada from the late 1980s to the present. We are going to experience the gap in the decades, the sensibilities of the women they dressed and the differences of aesthetics…or are we? Again, open mind.

Remembering my fashion history classes at Ryerson University, Schiaparelli was born in Italy in 1890, and lived and worked in Paris alongside Chanel, Poiret, Dali, Cocteau and other surrealist artists. Originally studying philosophy, she had published a book of sensual poems that shocked her family. To punish her, they placed her in a convent where she rebelled and went on a hunger strike. Elsa had lived a life of influence, yet she felt this was stifling her creativity. So she removed herself from it by moving to New York, and then back to Paris to combine her love of art and design to become a couturier. Schiaparelli states, “Dress designing…is to me not a profession but an art…had I not by pure chance become a maker of dresses, [I could have become] a sculptor.” These are words that every designer may have uttered at one point in their career. I know I have.

Just a few of the pieces at the exhibit.

Muiccia Prada led a similar yet different life. She too comes from a family of influence, went to school and graduated with a Ph.D. in Political Science. In 1978, she joined her family’s business of manufacturing luxury bags. It is here that we first saw her famous nylon bags and backpacks. Then, in 1989, she introduced the first women’s clothing line, in 1992 the Mui Mui line and in 1995 the men’s line. The rest, as they say, is history. Prada’s take on design is this: “Dress designing is creative but it is not an art. Fashion designers make clothes and they have to sell them. We have less creative freedom than artists. But to be honest, whether fashion is art or whether even art is art doesn’t really interest me. Maybe nothing is art. Who cares! I never wanted to be called an artist. The term is old-fashioned. The term does not relate to modern times. And it’s too confining. What I love about fashion is its accessibility and its democracy. Everyone wears it and everyone relates to it.

Is this what I am going to experience? Am I to have these contradictory feelings? What are the garments and accessories, which will be featured? Again, like the women in the video, I will keep an open mind. I move into the exhibition, which is divided into seven vignettes.

Waist Up/Waist Down: This part looks at Schiaparelli’s love for the decorative designs of the torso as a response to “restaurant dressing” of the 1930s café Society, while Prada focuses on “below the waist” as a symbol of modernity and femininity. Within this gallery, there is a section that focuses on “Neck Up/Knees Down”, which showcases Schiaparelli’s hats and jewelry, and Prada’s shoes.

Ugly Chic: This part of the exhibit explores how both women examine the ideals of beauty and glamour by playing a good and bad card, through interesting mixes of colour, prints and fabrics.

Hard Chic: Here, both designers explore menswear and uniforms that promote the utilitarian and minimal, while forcing the issue of denied and enhanced femininity.

Naïf Chic: In this section, the women challenge the girly subversive expectation of age-appropriate dressing.

The Classical Body: Here, both designers engage in a look back at the “Pagan Body” and the late 18th and early 19th century dressing.

The Exotic Body: Designers look to Eastern Culture and influences on their designs through fabrics (such as lamé) and silhouettes (like saris and sarongs).

The Surreal Body: Here, the designers challenge the aesthetics of the female body with Surrealistic practices of displacement, scale and blurring the boundaries of reality and illusion, as well as natural and artificial.

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Moving from gallery to gallery, exhibit to exhibit, I started to understand their sense of play, their aesthetics and, oddly, the similarity of how these two women are radically different. Designers from different eras, yet seamlessly and effortlessly combined into one. It has always fascinated me that designers are influenced in many similar ways. Our processes are individual and yet, decades apart, we are still the same. The only real difference is some of the materials, but many remain identical after all these years.

An interesting part of this exhibition was the austere minimalism of the settings. Going from groupings to groupings to the final collection all encased in clear plexiglass, the setting was simple and the mannequins stoic. All head treatments and special masks were created by Guido Palau. The constant presence of the video playing in the background kept me grounded that the women were there, discussing their tastes, their motivations and rationale. It was a unique collection of some of their famous pieces: The Shoe Hat, the Apollo Cape and current pieces, like the Flame Shoes and the Lipstick pleated silk skirt.

I take away from this exhibition a new respect and new found love for their creative and extensive work. As someone who was trained in the world of handwork, seeing that it is still very much alive in both works brought happiness to my heart. Their use of the normal in an unusual way was moving, and the unusual in a normal way – refreshing.

The galleries were filled with many who wanted to listen to the conversation, or even join in. I was just happy to be a part of it and contribute to it from time to time.

Farley Chatto. Photo: Kareen Mallon, FAJO Magazine.

Farley Chatto ( is a renowned Canadian fashion designer, with a career that started almost 25 years ago. Trained at Toronto’s Ryerson University, he began his own successful line, “Farley Chatto”, while still a student, and was soon chosen as one of the Top 10 young Canadian designers to watch. He was subsequently given the opportunity to live and work in New York, Paris, Milan and Chicago, collaborating with numerous international top designers. Upon returning to Canada, he refined his Haute Couture skills through an extensive private clientele that has now grown to span the globe.

As his reputation expands, Chatto’s unique talents and expertise are also being sought out in broader circles; from furniture companies to magazine publishers to cutting-edge choreographers, such as Tedd Robinson and Edouard Lock. His celebrity clients have included Andrea Martin, Chris Noth, Duran Duran, Measha Breuggergosman, Eve and Natalie Imbruglia. David Clemmer, a Toronto celebrity stylist, referred to Farley in an interview with the Toronto Star, saying “everyone needs a Farley.”


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