Milan's 18th-century Palazzo Reale was the perfect setting to launch an exhibition celebrating two Italian women whose intellects and ideas have made an extraordinary contribution to fashion. Milan's commissioner of culture, Stefano Boeri, hosted a preview there last Friday of Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations, which opens in May at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The show will explore the ways in which free thinkers Miuccia Prada and the late Elsa Schiaparelli have moved fashion forward by challenging conventional tastes and attitudes. Boeri describes the pair as ''two great personalities of Italian culture, two extraordinary women who connect fashion with beauty, with art and with politics''.
Mannequins adorned with Prada and Schiaparelli designs, including a dress Schiaparelli created in 1937 for Wallis Simpson, gave guests at the lavish three-course lunch a preview of the 80 looks that will be showcased at the Metropolitan Museum.
The museum's Costume Institute curators Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton say the show came about after the Metropolitan received a delivery of Schiaparelli garments worn by socialites including Millicent Rogers and Pauline de Rothschild. After the museum's 2011 Alexander McQueen show, Savage Beauty, which attracted a record-breaking 661,509 visitors, the curators believed it was time to focus on female designers.
''We felt it was important to look at women fashion designers,'' Koda says. ''We wanted to honour the achievements of women in a field that's about clothing for women.''
The structure of the exhibition is idiosyncratic: it is based on Vanity Fair magazine's Impossible Interviews of the 1930s, which featured fictional exchanges between pairs of famous figures who had never met.
The show will blend words and commentary from Schiaparelli and Prada into an ''impossible conversation'' between the pair, curated around topics such as ''Ugly Chic'' and ''The Exotic Body''. The theme ''Waist Up/Waist Down'' will also be explored, with Schiaparelli focusing on embellishing the torso due to socialising in her time comprising sit-down restaurant dining, while Prada gravitates towards skirts in line with an interest in the ideas of sex, birth and the earth.
But Bolton says Prada could never be pinned down. He jokes that she turned the tables on that theory at the Prada show the evening before, which scattered torsos with ''elaborate and emphatic embroideries in the tradition of Schiaparelli''.
An Australian connection comes in the form of film director Baz Luhrmann, who is making three short films for the exhibition as the show's creative consultant.
Schiaparelli came to the fore in the 1930s with eveningwear, sportswear and accessories that often had a surrealist touch, such as hats made from upturned shoes. The designer had friendships with artists including Jean Cocteau and Salvador Dali, while Chanel dismissed her rival as ''that Italian artist who made dresses''.
Prada shares a passion for contemporary art and is creating an art museum in Milan with her husband Patrizio Bertelli.
The exhibition will also focus on the duo's relationship with the art world: Schiaparelli believed fashion was art but Prada does not. While both designers use fashion to provoke, Schiaparelli was famously reserved outside her inner circle, as is Prada, making the exhibition a rare opportunity to engage in a ''conversation'' with them.
''By all accounts, Schiaparelli was quite reserved as a person … but happily that reserve fell away when she was talking about issues of taste,'' Koda says. He recounts an anecdote about Schiaparelli admonishing Hubert de Givenchy for mocking her mismatched shoes when they went to the opera by saying: ''You wouldn't know chic if it hit you on the head!''
American Vogue editor Anna Wintour and Prada were among the guests at the event during Milan Fashion Week.