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Skirting the border between art, fashion

`Waist Down,' an exhibit of 100 skirts by Miuccia Prada, provides food for thought -- and for partying as well.

July 15, 2006|Valli Herman | Times Staff Writer

The grand architectural experiment that is the Prada Epicenter on Rodeo Drive is exploring its potential as something more than a clothing store.

On Friday, "Waist Down: Skirts by Miuccia Prada," an exhibit of 100 of the Italian designer's skirts, went on display in the 24,000-square-foot technological marvel designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren. With the addition of the unusual skirt exhibit, the store, built in 2004 as a conceptual merger of art, fashion and commerce, becomes a gallery space where one can ponder: Is a skirt art?

The exhibit, which ranges from Prada's first women's collection in 1988 to the present, was conceived and designed by the think-tank arm of Koolhaas' Office for Metropolitan Architecture to illustrate the ideas and craftsmanship of Prada's skirt designs.

Prada fans might have been happier with a display of purses, which in Prada's hands revolutionized the focus of luxury goods companies, status-conscious consumers and knockoff artists the world over. Skirts, however, were simply more interesting.

"There is a cultural context that you can play with," says Kayoko Ota, the exhibit curator from the think tank.

"Waist Down" also makes viewers consider how the body below the waist is a zone of political, social and artistic conflict. The precipitous ups and downs of hemlines over the 18 years of fashion presented here illustrate the skirt's role as a social barometer. As such an object of femininity, the skirt seduces, flirts and labels. Each of those qualities is cleverly illustrated, sometimes with an adapted windshield wiper.

Los Angeles is the fourth stop for "Waist Down," which has toured the Peace Hotel in Shanghai and the two other architecturally ambitious stores, also called epicenters, in Tokyo and New York. The curators were challenged by the unique layouts of each space, but Los Angeles provides perhaps the most intimate interaction with the items, which beg to be touched.

Much as Prada herself designs -- by distorting, by sensing a moment, by turning the ordinary into the extraordinary -- the exhibit changes the context of fashion from a commercial enterprise to something else. Whether that something is art may be a thread-thin distinction that will one day vanish. At the very least, these skirts make for interesting viewing.

Looking at the relationship between the store's nontraditional display areas (the men's floor riffs on airport security) and the hanger-level digital screens that scroll updated news or hypnotic images of the digitized skirts, another question comes to the fore. Is a store a gallery? Sometimes, says Ota. "We hope to change in general the idea of a shopping space and make it a venue of experiments."

For the Thursday-night opening party, the rectangular facade of the store was turned into an oversized video screen showing the catwalk and floating skirts. As passers-by encounter the window-less, nameless, door-less expanse where mannequins float in submerged display cones beneath street level, they'll see four skirts spinning near the entrance, like some kind of hyper-speed jewelry box ballerina. If they venture close enough, they can read descriptive museum-like labels and look through magnifying lenses to study hair-thin embroidery.

It's not your usual day at Macy's.

On Thursday, as workers unpacked cartons marked "glowing mannequin legs" and basted skirts flush with panels of matching fabric, an odd tension between the idea of art and fashion emerged. Along the central staircase, photos of runway models pictured from the waist down (hence the show title) are flattened into mirror-backed, knee-high cutouts. The reflections capture glimpses of the other skirts, creating a child's-eye view of a city street, a very well-dressed one. The interaction of the reflections was more interesting than the skirts.

Other skirts have been vacuum-packed like some boil-in-bag meal and hung along translucent walls. With technology borrowed from futon packing, they're squashed to look more like a sea anemone or pressed flower than a garment.

"It kind of freezes the composition of the skirt," Ota says. "Sometimes in a still moment, you get a better understanding of movement."

Other skirts are lighted from within, via those glowing mannequin legs, and become something like lampshades. They illuminate otherwise hidden intricacies in seams and fabrics and also reveal apertures that function as erogenous zones. Another display animates the skirts with tentacle-like tubing that reshapes them into hats, insects or simply fabric tossed by the wind.

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