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Met showcases two Italian women of design

Portrait of Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973) by George Hoyningen-Huene

Portrait of Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973) by George Hoyningen-Huene was a fashion sensation in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, though her business eventually failed. Credit: Conde Nast/George Hoyningen-Huene/Vogue

It's not easy getting two designers to chat when one is shy and the other is dead -- but the Met pulled it off. And you get to eavesdrop.

"Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations," a new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that opened this month, reveals some 140 pieces from the lines of Elsa Schiaparelli (pronounced skap-uh-RELL-ee), who died in 1973, and Miuccia Prada, Italian designers from different eras whose fashions -- and personalities -- bear striking similarities.

They're both "strong-willed, independent-minded women . . . who used fashion to provoke," says Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton.

Prada talks with Schiaparelli (played by Emmy winner Judy Davis) in videos directed by Baz Luhrmann, who became involved at the personal request of Vogue's Anna Wintour.

"He has to pick up the phone when it's Anna on the line," says curator-in-charge Harold Koda, smiling.

"If Miuccia and Anna are involved, 'no' doesn't come into it," Luhrmann agreed.

He knew the shy Prada would appear stiff performing with an actress, so he shot the women separately -- Prada first, in New York, talking with Luhrmann, who was off-camera. "He wanted it to be very informal, very real," Bolton says.

At times, Luhrmann was so surprised by Prada's remarks he interrupted her, which upped the ante for Davis, who shot her sequences later, using dialogue inspired by Schiaparelli's autobiography -- part improvised, part carefully scripted, so that she interrupts Prada at the exact moment Luhrmann did. The two sides of the conversation were then edited together.

The women share tales from their past, and disagree on whether fashion is art. (Schiap says si; Prada, no.) "I wonder -- if we lived together at the same time . . . would we be friends or foes?" Schiap asks. "I think friends," Prada replies.

'Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations'

WHERE Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Ave. at 82nd Street)

WHEN Through Aug. 19

INFO Call 212-535-7710 or visit metmuseum.org/impossibleconversations

Museum shop

Any good exhibit at the Costume Institute involves shopping, and there are plenty of goodies to go with "Schiaparelli & Prada."

Highlights include a collectible ornament modeled after Prada's famed Flame shoes, $30, and a lipstick print cosmetics case (a motif favored by both designers), $20. Check them out (and a lot more) at the museum's gift shops or go to store.metmuseum.org.

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