Windows covered with provocative signage will tempt passersby to imagine the revelry within: The room pulsing with the wanton pleasure of a bacchanalian subculture, its glam population living for the gleefully debauched moment, dancing, singing, who-knows-what-ing, a girl swishing through the air on a swing, oblivious to the dangerous path of her endless train.
Far away, perhaps a world away, two young girls, obvious innocents, face a bleak reality, alone together in a bizarrely beautiful, post-winter world. Or post-Apocalyptic? Who are they? Sisters, friends facing the barrenness together, or one person, creating a mirror image of herself as a defense against loneliness? Whatever their backstory, they share nothing with the self-indulgent, club revelers behind the enticing door. Except for one thing — their glorious Prada wardrobes.
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The club scene, an installation by the creative team of Michael Wilkinson and Tim Martin, opens tonight at Prada’s store in New York’s SoHo. The scene of artful desolation is a short film by Arianne Phillips, the anchor element of an event set for Feb. 20 at the brand’s London store. Together with an installation designed by Milena Canonero destined for the store on the Rue du Faubourg Saint- Honoré in Paris, they comprise installment three of Miuccia Prada’s collaborative series, The Iconoclasts.
Prada launched the series in 2009 with Alex White, Carine Roitfeld, Katie Grand and Olivier Rizzo; it continued last year with Edward Enninful. While it’s inaccurate to pinpoint a singular difference with this effort — all of the installations have been wildly distinctive — this marks the first time Prada has gone outside the insider fashion world. While her previous Iconoclasts were all fashion stylists, this time they’re costume designers — superstar costume designers of the multiple Oscar nomination variety. (Wilkinson was nominated for his work on the fashion-charged “American Hustle”; he also outfitted next year’s “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.”) For this project, he worked with architect/set designer Tim Martin, his life partner with whom he recently established a creative company for the purpose of developing projects rooted in the fashion-film fusion.
Phillips did the costumes for “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” out this week. She’s received two Oscar nominations, for “Walk the Line” and “W.E.,” directed by Madonna, with whom she’s worked for 17 years, designing stage costumes and styling. Phillips has a thriving parallel career as a fashion editor and editorial stylist.
Canonero, in Prada’s view, is “basically the greatest costume designer.” Her long, brilliant career spans from “A Clockwork Orange” in 1971 to “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” for which she may collect her second Oscar on Feb. 22; she won previously for Marie Antoinette.
To those who don’t wax intellectual about the differences among various fashion-related careers, Prada’s decision to engage costume designers rather than fashion editors may seem like no big deal. Fashion deity and student of the genre that she is, she finds the distinction significant. “Of course, the fashion editors are the ones that know the clothes the best, but costume designers also,” Prada tells WWD. “I thought they were the perfect people to try to do this work. In a way, it’s more complicated because they are used to a different point of view; [in film] they have to interpret the vision. For this, they have to do their vision.”
From the point of view of those she enlisted, the choice is nothing short of profound. Phillips says she’s accustomed to compartmentalizing her two careers; she approached this project as a costume designer. The assignment, she says, was important not just for her, but for the entire profession.
“Costume designers constantly feel alienated from the fashion world. The work that’s done by costume designers is misunderstood,” she says, noting that “worst-case scenario, people think that we’re shoppers.” Later, in a separate exchange, Canonero echoes the “shopper” insult.
Phillips says Prada’s engagement of costume designers has resonance beyond three particular stars of the field. “It elevated the profession,” she says. “I was recently at an event with a lot of costume designers. People are so excited that finally, a fashion company has invited us as costume designers and brought us in.”
Prada says it’s about dialogue, about the film-fashion dialogue, each informing the other. But dialogue is an ongoing theme of her work. Most people in fashion think of Prada as a creator of rare brilliance. Part of that brilliance is that, without ever taking her eye off of the commercial reality, she has encouraged intellectual, artistic conversation about the meaning and role of fashion, specifically its impact on the feminine psyche. She more than encourages the conversation; she forces it.
What these installations will highlight as well is what costume designers do for a living: How clothes are used to define or even create character, to help tell a story, whether in film, on stage or in our own personal lives. Particularly fascinating is the way the same clothes can tell different stories, depending upon what the user, whether major costume designer or one of us, sees in them.
Prada presents no brief or mandate to her collaborators other than that the costume designers “start from the collection” — the collection she bills as a celebration of fabric craft for which she reproduced 30 brocades dating from the 19th century through the Sixties, and shows against the backdrop of huge, bleak purple sand dunes. “And relate it to the movies. I had to push them to do things related to movies.”
She refuses to give specifics, reasoning that it’s not one creative person’s place to take ownership of the artistic motivations of another. “I don’t want to speak for them, because it’s their ideas. I don’t want to [perhaps in error] say what they don’t think, or to [confuse] what is the point. But it’s a general impression that they loved the idea.”
Prada shares her confidence that her collaborators find this project “completely different” from their usual work: “It was beautiful for them, a bigger passage.”
Wilkinson and Martin booked passage back to the hedonistic days of the Seventies. Yet Wilkinson maintains the path wasn’t that direct. “We’re huge fans of the great Italian filmmakers and films like ‘La Dolce Vita,’” he says, “and those wonderful scenarios where it’s three o’clock in the morning, everyone is exhausted and they’re showing their true colors. The mask has slipped.”
Nevertheless, a Saturday afternoon visit to the floor they’ve overtaken at the Prada headquarters on West 51st Street hustles pretty overtly, flaunting a Seventies party mode in all its decadent, exuberant glory. Along with Wilkinson, Martin, a woman at a sewing machine and a handful of Prada staffers, the space is populated by 51 white fiberglass mannequins in various states of maquillage and undress, arranged in party clusters — here, a pair of “Whispering Girls” (read: gossips), there, a trio in HotPants, their left arms extended in stage-worthy drama. Though topless and wigless, by tonight the trio, dubbed “The Pointer Sisters,” will be fully decked in furs and costume jewelry and wigs — one each a brunette, blonde, redhead. (Charles LaPointe has created 35 wild wigs for the event.) On one platform, an “Italian actress” lounges, lessening the weight of her 60-pound chain dress.
As far as the beauty look, the eyes have it, all glitter and late-night disco sparkle. Wilkinson and Martin eschew the traditional materials in favor of just about anything else: broken metal, mirror shards, Swarovski crystals. Those materials are repeated in mannequin body art, an endless train for the girl who will swing from the rafters.
While the designing duo starts with Prada’s current collection, they use extra fabrics to create some of their own designs, also drawing from the Prada archives. The effect should be that of a real party during the age of parties (as real as a party gets when the most dished-about guests are static and glass-eyed). “We’re embracing that spirit of Studio 54, a wonderful juxtaposition,” says Wilkinson. “You have these incredibly wealthy, elite people wearing incredibly luxurious clothes. Then the kid from downtown wearing shorts and roller skates.”
The long stretch of wall that’s given over to changing seasonal motifs will support fanciful wallpaper developed in conjunction with the 2 x 4 design consultancy, and people will be “walking and sliding on the mirrored tile. We just gave into it and said, ‘let’s do it,’” Martin says. One touch that will work its way through — lots of purple, very much of that Seventies moment, according to Wilkinson.
That color is the only creative connection to Phillips’ project, centering on a five-minute film to which she adds a faint purple haze, inspired by Prada’s mountain of sand at her spring runway show. “The first thing that occurred to me was, I need to create a film. It was an organic inspiration that came to me quickly,” Phillips says. A two-word phrase from the designer, “elusive beauty,” stuck with her, and Phillips wrote “a nonlinear narrative” for her film. Quite organically, she draws on her circle of Los Angeles-based friends, so the finished product reflects the work of several highly talented film veterans.
Phillips’ concept revolves around continuous projection of the film at the Feb. 20 event, while the surrounding environment is “a total experience, a living, breathing installation. Transforming the store is super exciting.”
Phillips finds a soulful element in Prada’s exquisite yet distressed fabrics, and notes Prada’s observations on “how conflicted the relationship with beauty is.” To capture that, she creates a “post-winter world” with an “almost futuristic feeling,” mesmerizing in its barrenness. “I’m not looking to make a huge statement. It’s more of a poem or a dream.”
A five-minute dream that plays like a mini collaboration between T.S. Eliot and Cocteau. Two distant figures approach each other, traversing the arid plain of somewhere (in fact, a dry lake bed east of Joshua Tree). The camera moves in on two young, wan-looking girls, both blue-eyed redheads, their complexions and clothes almost fading into bland terrain. Whether lost on an island, lone survivors of global devastation or a single girl projecting a mirror image of herself for companionship is unclear. We know only that these two beautiful creatures are together in their solitude.
The surrealist mood comes via the languid pace, eerie music and colorful smoke tornados that swirl in and out of a printed suitcase marked with a triballike insignia taken from the collection. Within the suitcase, the girls find muted color; later, they imagine museumlike dioramas installed with flora-fauna still lifes, and a handbag or two. The coming of spring? Perhaps. “I wanted ambiguity,” Phillips says. She achieved it, exquisitely so.
If Wilkinson, Martin and Phillips focus on people, Canonero looks to the ancient categorizations of the natural elements. She answers questions via e-mail. The concept came to her because “as the four elements of water, earth, fire and air make a whole world, so does Miuccia’s collection. It seemed to me to be a world in itself to be shown through the fifth element: Humanity. Man and Woman.”
In her flamboyant manifestations, “terra” is a sphere formed by two models in an arched interlock; air, a wildly tressed girl, also on a swing, and dressed in ephemeral white. Fire is a winged, stilettoed vampire about to have her way with a sleeping male victim, and water, a pale girl enveloped in what appears to be a cellophane sea.
Asked how closely the store installation will resemble these photos, Canonero gives the common-sense response of a pro. “I hope they’ll be very close,” she writes. “But the installation will not be in an open space like a film set. It is set obviously at the Prada shop on [Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré].”
Canonero notes an irony to Prada’s premise of complete freedom. On one hand, she indicates, such a project is easier than one with specific parameters because of the freedom allowed. Conversely, “when a project leaves a lot of creative and artistic space…the challenge and difficulty is always to find the idea and concept to interpret and visualize any projects.”
In providing others with such freedom, and thus relinquishing her own control, Prada may prove herself the ultimate iconoclast. Obviously, much of the intent is to further the brand’s image as one that’s bold and open to risk. But she also fuels something that today too often gets lost — the fashion conversation.
One would be hard-pressed to find someone who leaves a Prada show with the comment, “that was nice,” and then moves on. Prada invariably gives us something more, fashion fodder for thought, for serious consideration. She creates a dialogue with her professional audience and with her customer. These Iconoclast installations should do the same.
“I never wanted to control [the project],” she says. “We do this kind of collaboration with other people because we’re interested in other people’s visions. I try to stay far away.”
Even while expressing the importance of the project’s creative freedom, she understands the creative inclination to converse. “Don’t forget,” Prada says. “The beauty of collaboration is dialogue.”