Exhibitions


‘Alternative Fashion Strategies’

by Mae Colburn


Indigo dyeing workshop at the Arnold and Sheila Aronson Gallery. Photo: Chris Hyun Cho

‘Alternative Fashion Strategies: Design Incubator with Green Eileen’ (March 30-April 5, 2015) in the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center at The New School’s Parsons School of Design was a little like a game of Twister. Students, designers, farmers, and members of the public maneuvered around a portable loom, a knitting machine, an industrial sewing machine, and various other hand-crafting implements stationed throughout the gallery to examine the interplay between industrial manufacturing and local production, testing areas of contact and overlap. Throughout the week, design samples accumulated on walls, tables, drying racks, and even on the radiators, whether de- and re- constructed sweaters, needle-felted fleece, or indigo dyed garments. Some were made in advance of the exhibition and others at workshops held throughout the week on topics ranging from fiber processing to bengala dying to machine knitting. A sense of purpose coursed through the exhibition, and so did a sense of excitement, the kind that emerges when people and materials meet. Laura Sansone, first interviewed on Fashion Projects in 2013, curated the exhibition. Our conversation shuttled between the work she does with fiber farmers in the Hudson Valley and with designers in New York City, tracing what she envisions can become a tight-knit local supply chain.

Mae Colburn: Let’s start with some of the broader ideas at work. What motivated you to put on the exhibition?

Laura Sansone: Well, I’m interested in this interplay between industrial manufacturing and local production, specifically agrarian businesses, and specifically how those things can work together […] I think it can really help to create economic diversity and grow these smaller enterprises. That’s what motivated me to do this project and what motivates me in my own work as well. […] It’s not always appropriate for them to work together, but I think that it’s a way to start to see a shift, those moments when these two entities can come together – it can shift the economic power and be a good way to rethink how things are structured.

MC: And the idea to shape this into the ‘Design Incubator’?

LS: This started off as a partnership between Eileen Fisher and the students here at Parsons. The Green Eileen program is an initiative with Eileen Fisher where they take back clothing from their consumers, so they have people send back clothing and they resell it in green Eileen stores but the secondhand clothing that they can’t resell they call ‘third life’ and they ask designers to repurpose it. So I had been working on that, and in my quest to repurpose her clothing, I was mixing it with materials from the Hudson valley, from Upstate New York, […] so I started using those materials in combination with the repurposed secondhand clothing, and that became the parameter for the course I teach at Parsons, and also for this partnership. That’s really where this all began.

Eileen Fisher sweaters dyed with indigo and unraveled to be re-woven. Photo: Chris Hyun Choi
MC: So, there were prototypes on display and workshops. There was also a printed material on the walls. How did all of this come together?

LS: The prototypes were from students, and then we added to them during the exhibition. We had lots of workshops going on, and as we generated work we would hang it – so it was kind of an incubator where things were growing. The printed matter came from someone that I had met at the Textile Society of America conference in 2014, Helen Trejo, who is a PhD student at Cornell University and is writing her dissertation about the feasibility of a Fiber Shed in New York State. So we’ve been exchanging information over the past year and I asked her for permission to display some of her research and so a lot of the diagrams that were included in the exhibition were from her. She had some really great maps that showed where the mills and fiber farms are in New York, so that sort of located those for people who came into the gallery to see the work.

MC: What was a highlight of the exhibition for you?

LS: One highlight for me during this exhibition was having people from the farming community come and actually speak to the students about their experiences as farmers and fabric producers. We were talking about the supply chain and one of the farmers who came actually said, ‘I’m going to start right at the beginning of it, and I’m going to tell you what I feed my sheep,’ and I thought that was so incredible to have fashion and design students sitting there and listening to this and making that connection, that it starts with the fiber that comes from the animal, that it starts with the diet, and how that effects the quality of the fiber and the form – I think that’s a great lesson.

MC: To encourage designers to consider other variables beyond say, color and drape?

LS: That’s right. So for me, waste is essential. It’s something that I’ve always cared about and wanted to consider as a designer. Like, where do my cutoffs go? If I’m generating product, what kind of impact does it have? And with the natural dyes as well, we use the waste from farms, we use the carrot tops and concord grapes that you can’t sell – there’s this link to the origin of where things come from, and how that can be integrated into the design process. […] So [at the workshops] a lot of students were deconstructing sweaters and we were re-knitting them and I thought that was really exciting. I also have students who are working deconstructed sweaters into felted pieces, which is really great – mixing the fleece with the Eileen Fisher’s mohair and merino and cashmere materials.

Map of New York State Fibershed showing fiber farms and mills. Helen Trejo Fiber Science & Apparel Design, PhD Student, College of Human Ecology, Cornell University.

MC: I thought it was interesting that the word ‘sustainable’ didn’t appear in any of the material related to this exhibition.

LS: I was trying not to because what happens is that if things get overused – language – they become diluted and people start to dismiss it as something that isn’t important. So I think it’s really useful to always be rethinking things and reframing them. I think that’s part of growth in general. […] I was also trying to steer away from this word ‘artisanal’ because I think that’s also becoming diluted, but that it’s actually really important because ‘artisanal’ can talk about a smaller way to produce things, you know. It can talk about localizing things.

MC: But you did use the word ‘fashion’?

LS: Of course, absolutely, because I really want the fashion industry to play a critical role in changing things. I think it’s so important, because they’re responsible for a lot of the waste that we see in the supply chain – where we’re diminishing value where we could be increasing it. So yes, but I also see what I do as being completely cross-disciplinary. It’s dealing with fashion. It’s dealing with interiors. It’s dealing with architecture – we’re starting to think about how wool can be used as insulation, wool that is waste wool.

MC: So how do you envision the project moving forward?

LS: Well, I would like some designers, especially those who are located in New York and who are on this large-scale level, to build ties with some of these local artisans. They’re doing it globally, but I would really like to see it happening here in the U.S. So that’s something that I would like to see, and for me as a professor, I try to get my students to take on the responsibility of educating consumers. I think that trying to encourage them to design ethically and then to sort of take on this role of educating – I think it’s really necessary for designers: to take on this big task of shifting consumer behavior. You know it’s huge; in a capitalist system, it’s a huge thing to take on and designers need to take on that role.

Posted in Designers, Exhibitions, Fashion & Technology, Research/University Programmes, Sustainable Fashion, Textiles, fashion + Sustainability: Lines of Research Series



A Review of the Exhibition “Fashioning the Body”

by Rachel Kinnard


Double panniers with pockets. France, 1775–80. Photographer: Patricia Canino.

“There is no natural body, but rather a culturally-defined body that reflects the social requirements of the period in which it exists,” Curator Denis Bruna notes in the accompanying exhibition texts to “Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette.” The exhibition, at the Bard Graduate Center, tells the history of western fashion through the undergarments that provided its foundation. The collection includes such varied items as 400-year-old “Spanish doublet,” corsets for children, and the contemporary push-up bra. During the curatorial tour for the show, Bruna insisted that the exhibition was about “the body–not fashion.” While the exhibition narrates the history of the western body through shaping undergarments, “Fashioning the Body” brilliantly demonstrates how fashion and the body are inextricable from each other. This is an exhibition about the fashion and the body.

Situated in the Bard Graduate Center Gallery’s six-story townhouse, the exhibition spans three floors connected by a spiral staircase. Considering the prudish nature of the items’ original owners, the intimate gallery setting feels appropriate for examining garments that were never meant for public view. The show traveled to New York City from the Musée des Arts décoratifs in Paris. It was originally shown in 2013 under the title “La Mécanique des dessous,” which translates to “The Mechanics of Underwear.”

Displayed on mannequins hidden under black velvet, these shells from past bodies seem to float in mid-air. The exhibition design is perfect, allowing an unusual intimacy between viewer and object. A whalebone stay is displayed at the particular angle which reveals its internal architecture, the side that was once pressed up against its wearer’s flesh. It’s a rare chance to see the complex skeleton of these bodily casings usually seen only from the exterior.

The ancient underpinnings are brought to life through animated reconstructions placed throughout the galleries. Deliberately displayed on white, full body mannequins to differentiate them from historical garments, the mechanized reconstructions serve as ghostly tour guides wearing self-animated clothing. An articulated panier slowly collapses onto the mannequins hips, demonstrating how a woman would flatten her wide silhouette to pass through a narrow doorway or board a carriage. On another reconstruction, a hoop skirt rises from the floor to encase the frozen mannequin’s lower half.


Bridal corset. United States, ca. 1860–70. Photographer: Patricia Canino.

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Posted in Exhibitions, Fashion & Technology, Museums



A Review of “David Bowie Is”

by Jay Ruttenberg

Striped bodysuit for Aladdin Sane tour, 1973. Photo: Masayoshi Sukita. © Sukita / The David Bowie Archive 2012.

“David Bowie Is,” the museum retrospective of the singer that recently concluded its run at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, featured virtually every artistic medium imaginable. Included works extended to music, film, video, fashion, and, in Bowie’s portraits of his Berlin running buddy Iggy Pop, painting. One display case featured the star’s long-retired cocaine spoon—a redundancy, considering the exhibition’s inclusion of his “Life on Mars?” video.

The show originated at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and made its sole U.S. stop in Chicago, where it was greeted with the crowds and fanfare of a blockbuster. The outpouring of interest seems sensible: Absent from public performance for nearly a decade, Bowie is pop’s missing man. His mark remains everywhere; he is nowhere. “David Bowie Is,” which was produced with the subject’s cooperation, if not curatorship, made a resounding case for his significance. To view the exhibition’s many rooms detailing his work in the 1970s was to peak into the 1980s. The phlegmatic British vocals that would dominate a corner of ’80s pop and the nervous mutability of music and media that would define Madonna (to say nothing of Gaga) have roots here; arguably, so does Michael Jackson’s cheesy white Thriller suit. In one displayed video, 1979’s “Boys Keep Swinging,” Bowie appears as his own backup singers, garbed in the elaborate gowns and wigs of female drag. What seems shocking about the video, however, is the main image of Bowie ostensibly as himself, clad in the dark suit of a prototypical mid-80s yuppie. It’s this look—which, for the record, predates Bret Easton Ellis’s debut by six years—that appears to be the video’s true act of drag.

A museum show about a pop star inevitably runs into limitations. In an exhibition of a painter, visitors directly confront the subject’s primary source: the painting is the ultimate art. Even for a multidisciplinarian such as Bowie, the true art lies in his records and performances; the stuff inside display cases can seem secondary, if not trivial. But the aim of this exhibit, where headphone-clad visitors roamed as an army of enthralled zombies, was immersion. It was presented with high-minded care and, at least when covering the years that matter, the exhaustiveness of a box set. Over 400 items were on hand: photographs, handwritten lyrics, a monstrous set of keys from the musician’s Berlin apartment, even an old pocket map for the West Berlin subway. There were also more than 60 stage costumes, most fetchingly the pear-like black-and-white jumpsuit that Kansai Yamamoto designed for the Aladdin Sane tour. Even all these years on, we discover new sides to the pop star: Meet Ziggy Stardust, the world’s most glamorous hoarder.

But the exhibition’s showstopper was drawn from nobody’s closet. Rather, it was the famous video of Bowie performing “The Man Who Sold the World” on Saturday Night Live, in the waning days of the 1970s. The video deserved greater prominence at the MCA, if not an entire museum to call its own; it also would have benefited from the other two songs recorded for the episode. Nonetheless, the clip could move mountains. Bowie is accompanied by Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias, vanguard figures from the nocturnal club world, both clad in monochromatic Thierry Mugler dresses. The men carry Bowie to his microphone as if he is a children’s toy. Wearing a cardboard tuxedo that was designed by the singer and Mark Ravitz under the spell of 1920s Dada, Bowie sings with the bemused detachment of a Martian. Space alien analogies always fit Bowie—after all, we are talking about the Man Who Fell to Earth—but they seem particularly apt for the SNL appearance. At the taping, he was newly returned from self-imposed exile in West Berlin, introducing irrefutably avant-garde notions to a mainstream arena. (Not for nothing did Kurt Cobain cover this song in Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged set.) The ’80s—which thwarted the world’s rock stars where no drug or label chicanery ever could—were mere days away. Bowie seemed intent on ending his decade of dominance in spectacular style. The appearance is not an act of subversion so much as it is a sterling media performance—pop as art and back again.

Jay Ruttenberg is editor of The Lowbrow Reader and of its book, The Lowbrow Reader Reader. He has written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

Album cover shoot for Aladdin Sane, 1973. Photo: Brian Duffy. © Duffy Archive & The David Bowie Archive.

Posted in Exhibitions, Film, Museums, Performance



A Review of “Silks and Prints from the Abraham Archive – Couture in Colour” at MOMU

by Philip Warkander


Hubert de Givenchy, Winter 1971/72. Photo: Gian Paolo Barbieri. Gazar Brodé Chenille, Winter 1971/72. Silk and entamine, shantung appliqué. Abraham Archive.

In1982, sociologist Howard S. Becker published the book Art Worlds, in which he argued that art is not the production of single individuals – artists – but rather the result of a number of interactions among people and materials, together constituting the contexts in which art works can be defined as such. According to Becker, art is not the result of one person’s work, but is a value constructed according to specific settings, or art worlds. This perspective has become hugely influential in art theory while also having an impact in fashion studies, most notably through sociologist Yunyia Kawamura’s Fashion-ology: An introduction to Fashion Studies (2004). Explaining how fashion comes into being, Kawamura aligns herself with Becker by claiming that fashion should not be understood as the product of designers working in creative isolation in their studios, but instead as the effect of an entire system of interactions, based on the negotiations between designers, stylists, magazine editors, PR consultants, retailers as well as a number of other actors.

Currently on view at the Fashion Museum in Antwerp is an exhibition exploring the effects of this theoretical perspective on the textiles, prints and fabrics manufactured by the Swiss company Abraham Ltd. The exhibition was originally produced by the Swiss National Museum in Zurich, but the Antwerp version (in the museum’s own words) “recaptures and expands” the original version. Placing the materiality of the fabrics and the print designs at the center of the exhibition, the process of producing prints is explained in detail, not only making for a pedagogical but also for an aesthetically advanced display. For example, the exhibition shows how a rose pattern, which was one of the company’s trademark prints, required nine stencils to print nine colors in nine separate print runs. The fabrics produced by Abraham Ltd. were so intricate that they became – due to the high cost of production – often reserved for haute couture, thus establishing intimate interconnections between the Swiss company and French couture houses such as Dior, Balenciaga, Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent. As a result, Abraham Ltd. became one of the key players in the high fashion industry of the twentieth century, their patterns and textiles shaping much of what is otherwise generally assumed to have been designed within the couture houses.


Installation with 20 Abraham scrapbooks, 2010. Abraham Archive

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Posted in Designers, Exhibitions, Fashion & Technology, Museums, Textiles



Review of Fetishism in Fashion, MOBA 2013

by Philip Warkander

“We are born in bondage, a cord wrapped around our baby body”, curator Lidewij Edelkoort stated in her introductory speech to this year’s Mode Biënnale in Arnhem, Fetishism in Fashion, open June 9 through July 21. During an interview, she tells me that the starting point of the exhibition is the trauma a child experiences after birth when it is separated from its mother through the cutting of the umbilical cord, resulting in a lifelong search after new unities to be part of. According to Edelkoort, this feeling of lack explains the charm bracelets around our wrists and crucifixes around our necks; magical substitutes for the physical connection between mother and child that was lost at birth. For the biënnale, Edelkoort has chosen 13 different perspectives on the theme of fetishes, presented in separate rooms along long corridors, ranging from patriotism to sado-masochism, the common denominator defined as attempts to reconnect and retrace what was lost at birth, to find meaning in matter.

Philosopher Sara Danius has claimed that when fashion evolved into a modern industry in the nineteenth century, fashion objects took the place of religious artifacts and became the new fetishes of the emerging consumer society. At the Arnhem biënnale, this is made especially evident in the rooms devoted to spirituality and shamanism, but also in the room devoted to high-speed consumption, labeled “consumerism”. Designers such as Written Afterwards (Japan), Luke Brooks (UK) and Kosuke Tsumura (Japan) have integrated a critique of fast fashion into their design, creating outfits out of worn-out shoes, plastic flowers and disposable waste products. On the theme of “infantilism”, designer objects are mixed with large plastic pacifiers and milk bottles found through online fetish sites, creating interesting hybrid expressions of fashion, innocence and pornography, in pastel colors but with a dark edge. According to a text in this room, this demonstrates how “the choice of baby clothes, diapers and coddling textiles expresses a need for being cared for and a wish to never grow up [...]”.

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Posted in Designers, Exhibitions, Interviews



A Review of “Punk: Chaos to Couture”

by Jay Ruttenberg

Gallery View, D.I.Y.: Hardware

Punk fashion, in its purest form, is a gawky Jew from Queens, resplendent in old jeans, snug shirt, long hair, and a chintzy black leather jacket that, depending on the viewer’s perspective, either masks or accentuates the wearer’s geekiness. Anything beyond this uniform—the safety pins, studs, or those storied Mohawks—has always seemed an affront to the music’s minimalism. Worse, it is cheesy.

Or maybe not. Whereas in New York, punk was a witty music and art movement, in London, it quickly became a deathly serious fashion and media one. The Ramones gave their first concerts at a 23rd Street loft and a not-yet-famous Bowery dive bar; the Sex Pistols began their stage life at Central Saint Martins College, the London fashion hub. Hence, despite existing in the city that both birthed and perfected punk, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Punk: Chaos to Couture” exhibition feels much more a piece of London than of New York. This is probably for the best: London punk never offered a rival to Joey Ramone’s pop persona or Tom Verlaine’s musicality—but then, New York did not produce image svengalis in league with Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood.

Refreshingly, the Costume Institute’s exhibition, curated by Andrew Bolton, devotes itself almost wholeheartedly to the fashion inspired by punk, predominantly womenswear made in the music’s wake. It never attempts comprehensiveness and avoids Hard Rock Café-isms. (Best to ignore the show’s biggest misstep: a dead-on-arrival, by-now-obligatory recreation of CBGB’s bathroom.) Excepting a room devoted to Westwood’s work—the sloganeering t-shirts of old circling the fancier items that followed—most pieces are from designers not typically associated with punk rock: Karl Lagerfeld, Miuccia Prada, Martin Margiela, Alexander McQueen…. Those punk aesthetes kvetching that the mere existence of this show somehow contradicts the music’s mission are missing the point (or, more likely, confusing the exhibition with Anna Wintour’s tone-deaf party). “Chaos to Couture” seeks to celebrate, not dabble in, cultural tourism. It is not about punk, but about fashion’s belated response to punk.


Gallery View, D.I.Y.: Graffiti & Agitprop

Rooms are divided by influence and material. “D.I.Y.: Hardware” represents the sordid mark of S&M, with gratuitous zippers, ominous padlocks, and other metals—bondage gear for the wealthy, basically. A snippet of the New York Dolls’s “Trash” spins in “D.I.Y.: Bricolage,” a room devoted to customization and recycled materials (i.e., a Margiela ensemble featuring foil and metal staples). The exhibition concludes with “D.I.Y.: Graffiti and Agitpop,” with the Clash as muse, and “D.I.Y.: Destroy,” which is inspired by Johnny Rotten and his awing collection of shredded grandma sweaters. For a viewer such as myself, far more schooled in songs than in garments, exploring how the genre eventually trickled into high fashion is eye-opening. In music, the best punk-influenced bands have always been those that channel elements of the genre into unexpected sounds (say, Beat Happening) rather than those producing mere facsimile. Ditto the more interesting clothing: McQueen’s skull and crossbones or a hokey Elvira get-up from Versace seem rote compared to, say, Moschino’s skirt of white plastic shopping bags, whose playfulness might have been appreciated by X-Ray Spex. A series of puffy cream Comme des Garçons dresses, at the show’s finale, reference the layers favored by punk kids only upon a second or third glance. The effect is striking.

As exemplified by that CB’s bathroom—and will some brave soul please take the Met’s bait and use the toilet?—the exhibition stumbles as it gets cute and veers away from fashion. The museum’s decision to identify famed designers laboring under multinational corporations as “D.I.Y.” is laughable. At times, the exhibition tries too hard to create a punkish aura—the “Graffiti and Agitpop” room resembles the menacing punk rock of a Hollywood backlot. And while it is impossible to be discontent while hearing “Blank Generation,” particularly along Fifth Avenue, the inclusion of background music diminishes the clothing it sets out to contextualize.

How this exhibition is received by New Yorkers remains to be seen. The show has yet to open, and already it has given us the cringe-worthy spectacle of insecure celebrities struggling to add hints of leather or metal to their wardrobes in order to qualify as “punk” for the Costume Gala. Perhaps such behavior flies in London; in New York…yeesh! It’s embarrassing just to think about it. For Chrissake, a punk wears what a punk wears.

A recovering rock critic, Jay Ruttenberg is editor of The Lowbrow Reader and its book, The Lowbrow Reader Reader. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Spin, and Details.

Posted in Exhibitions, Museums, Performance



Designing the Second Skin: The Work of Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo 1971-1991

by Francesca Granata


Veruschka wearing Giorgio di Sant’Angelo, Vogue 1972, Photo: Richard Avedon

As part of my newish position at Parsons, I taught one of the most interesting and stimulating classes I have ever taught. For a course I developed, called Fashion Curation, graduate students from various programs–Fashion Studies, History of Decorative Arts and Design and MA in Architecture–curated an exhibition of the work of the late Italian-Argentinean designer Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo in the Parsons Gallery at 66 Fifth Avenue, which is due to open December 4th. Focusing on his use of innovative stretch fabric, “Designing the Second Skin” is the first exhibition of the work of Giorgio di Sant’Angelo in New York. A special thanks goes to Martin Price, di Sant’ Angelo’s partner and collaborator, as well as to Tae Smith.

Below is the press release and a sneak preview of some of the garments that will be on view:

On Tuesday, December 4, the opening reception for “Designing the Second Skin: The Work of Giorgio di Sant’Angelo 1971-1991” will be held from 6 to 8 PM at the Aronoson Gallery on 66 Fifth Avenue. The exhibition is curated by graduate students in the MA Fashion Studies, MA in the History of Decorative Arts and Design, and Master of Architecture program at Parsons under the supervision of faculty member Francesca Granata. The exhibit will be on view until Friday, December 14.

Parsons presents the first New York exhibition of the work of designer Giorgio di Sant’Angelo, an innovative Italian-born American designer from the 1960s through 1980s who explored the ways in which garments truly become the wearer’s second skin. Playing with texture, transparency, and newly discovered fabric technology, Sant’Angelo examined the relationship between exposure and concealment. A highlight from the exhibition is a nude sequined jumpsuit worn by Naomi Campbell and featured in an editorial shoot for Harper’s Bazaar in 1991.

The works on view are drawn from the Parsons Fashion Archive—a collection of nearly 10,000 garments, including a number of pieces donated to Parsons by the Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Sant’Angelo works were originally donated to the Met by Parsons faculty member Martin Price, Sant-Angelo’s design assistant and partner, who has been an instrumental force in keeping Sant’Angelo’s spirit alive.
Event Details:

Designing the Second Skin: Giorgio di Sant’Angelo 1971-1991
Dates: Tuesday, December 4 to Friday, December 14
Opening Reception: Tuesday, December 4 from 6 to 8 PM
Gallery Hours: Open daily from 12 to 6 PM, open until 8 PM on Thursday
Location: Parsons The New School for Design, Arnold and Sheila Aronson Galleries, Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, 66 Fifth Avenue
Admission: Free and Open to the Public. Wine and Hors d’oeuvres will be served.

Posted in Designers, Exhibitions, Fashion & Technology, Research/University Programmes, Textiles



Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950

Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 19 May 2012-6 January 2013

Contemporary Ballgowns

by Jeffrey Horsley

‘Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950′ is the first temporary exhibition to be held in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s newly restored Octagon Court, a spacious gallery with a high, domed ceiling, long the home of the Museum’s Fashion Galleries. Curated by Oriole Cullen, Curator of Modern Textiles & Fashion, and Sonnet Stanfill, Curator of Twentieth Century & Contemporary Fashion, the exhibition comprises over 60 outfits by British-based fashion designers from the 1950s to the present day, combining items drawn from the Museum’s holdings alongside loans from designers. The exhibition is staged in two sections; ‘Ballgowns Since 1950’ on the ground floor, ‘Contemporary Ballgowns’ on the mezzanine level. The press release proposes that the sections evoke respectively ‘the excitement of preparing for a ball in a grand country house’ and ‘the glamour of the red carpet or a couture presentation.’

‘Ballgowns Since 1950’ is staged in a low-ceilinged space defined by large, fixed vitrines. Exhibits are organised chromatically, with cases themed to gowns in black and red, black and emerald, acid yellows, fawn and pinks, blues and ivories. This is a particularly effective strategy, exerting a visual harmony across garments from different periods designed for different occasions. Case interiors are painted a sympathetic pastel tone with either a matching carpet or black and white tile-effect flooring. Several vitrines have backgrounds of photographic reproductions of gilded panelling from the Music Room of Norfolk House, London. Many cases present two-dimensional, cut-out images of furniture and fittings evocative of eighteenth century English town house décor, with rear-mounted LEDs casting a glowing aura around each image.

On the mezzanine level, a floor-plan unencumbered by fixed display cases and circumscribed by an open railing creates a gallery that appears to float beneath the expansive dome of the Octagon Court. Here, ‘Contemporary Ballgowns’ is arranged on three runway-like podia, each set under skeletal metal-framed cupolas clad with white net that echo the architecture of the gallery and hint at the bell-like skirt of the traditional ballgown. Inside each construction hangs an illuminated stylised chandelier, composed of flat, fret-cut panels. The podia are surrounded by strings of giant pearls with slowly revolving mannequins poised on several of the pearls.

Ballgowns Since 1950

Retail-type mannequins, finished in a pale-grey colour, without indication of make-up or hair-style, are used throughout. The mannered poses of the mannequins, often incongruous in exhibitions of more humble attire, appear fitting in the presentation of these extravagant outfits – their affected gestures conveying a sense of artifice that reflects the theatricality of the situations for which the gowns are intended. Notably, a striding mannequin, head held high and arms spread wide spectacularly displays a kaftan-like dress by Yuki, in raspberry-pink silk chiffon from 1972. Two further tableaux (reminiscent of the fashion photography of Tim Walker, who shot the image for the exhibition poster) are particularly effective; a mannequin in strips of red and grey silk chiffon, by Amanda Wakeley straddles a chandelier which has seemingly crashed to the floor; a figure wearing a pink and dark fawn silk satin gown by Hardy Amies languishes over a sofa which is represented as a photographic cut-out, with a pair of similarly rendered greyhounds adding to the chic elegance of the scene.

Ballgowns - Yuki

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Posted in Exhibitions, Museums



Innovative Exhibition Design Strategies for Cristóbal Balenciaga and Comme des Garçons at Musée Galliera

by Ingrid Mida

Balenciaga Cape du soir, 1963 and Collier c.1895

There couldn’t be a more unlikely exhibition venue than Aux Docks – cité de la Mode et du Design in Paris. At the other end of town from Musée Galliera’s permanent home, which is currently under renovation, this temporary venue sits in a gritty industrial part of town overlooking the river Seine.  This contemporary space has exposed  concrete walls, punctuated by industrial pipes and has been the temporary home for the musée Galliera  exhibition of Cristóbal Balenciaga, collectionneur de modes and Comme des Garçons White Drama. Two adjacent long and narrow rooms served as the exhibition space. Bringing fashion into these blank, cold, industrial boxes must have been a curatorial challenge, since there is an apparent lack of temperature and humidity controls as well as absence of hangable wall space. Nevertheless, Olivier Saillard and his team of the Gallieria rose to the challenge with display techniques that are as innovative as they are creative and the result are two tightly curated exhibitions featuring selected works of two notable designers – Cristóbal Balenciaga, collectionneur de modes and Comme des Garçons White Drama.

Balenciaga Installation Shot by Ingrid Mida

In the first room, Cristóbal Balenciaga’s personal archive of historical garments, print material and other artifacts is presented beside selected examples of his work. This personal archive was recently donated to the museum and  includes a range of items from the nineteenth century such as dresses, collars, corsets, shawls, mantles, capes, as well as fashion plates, books and journals. Set alongside Balenciaga’s design work, the reinterpretation of fashion history for design inspiration is made evident. Key to the creation of this link is the innovative display techniques, incorporating modular drawers with clear protective insets, which sit underneath cube-like metal vitrines. The drawers are stacked in fixed position, but open, suggesting links between adjacent pieces. For example, beaded and embroidered black capes and mantalets from the late nineteenth century are shown alongside a Balenciaga cape du soir from 1960, and a 1945 jacquette de soir. The shapes, colours and beading techniques are remarkably similar, and creating links through time and history. Although there is minimal text, none is needed; the objects speak for themselves.

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Posted in Designers, Exhibitions, Museums



Prada and Schiaparelli: Impossible Conversations

by Ingrid Mida

It seemed like it would be an impossible task to match the Costume Institute’s McQueen blockbuster of last summer with an equaling compelling and aesthetically engaging display. Nonetheless, curators Andrew Bolton and Harold Koda achieved the impossible in their latest exhibition called Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations. In this witty and provocative installation, they have set a new bar for curation of fashion by their creative use of technology and their innovative juxtaposition of fashion from the past and the present.

Waist Up - Waist Down Gallery

Although Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973) and Miuccia Prada (b. 1949) came from different eras, they both challenged cultural norms and expressed their unconventional ideas about beauty and femininity through fashion. Koda and Bolton developed themes that reflected the two women’s shared interests and visual aesthetics, but also identified their different approaches to design by creating imagined conversations between the two designers. It is in this novel approach to animating the exhibition, which reminds us that garments reflect the ideas and attitudes of their creators and are designed for living bodies.

Surreal Body Gallery (Courtesy of the Costume Institute)

Surreal Body Gallery

Taking inspiration from Miguel Covarrubias’s “Impossible Interviews” for Vanity Fair in 1930s, the imagined conversations are presented in the context of a dinner party with Miuccia Prada sitting at one end of the dining table and Elsa Schiaparelli at the other. The script for their conversations was developed from the text from the 1950s autobiography by Schiaparelli and from interviews with Prada that suggest a real-time response. Schiaparelli’s part is played by an actress and Prada responds as herself. Their imagined conversations seem like good-natured arguments between two friends, infusing the installation with whimsy and a cheeky playfulness.

The exhibition has a modernist, clean aesthetic and includes ninety designs and thirty accessories from the two designers. In general, the rooms are dark putting a spotlight on the video presentations, and creating focal points through selective lighting of the outfits on display. Mannequins act as blank canvases for the garments and are organized in thematic groupings of Waist Up/Waist Down, Hard Chic, Ugly Chic, Naif Chic, and aspects of the Dressed Body. There is an aesthetic coherence to the four rooms, providing a unifying element for what could easily have become a chaotic mess without the tight editing and restraint that Koda and Bolton have demonstrated in this visually appealing installation. Although Schiaparelli’s lobster dress and skeleton dress are not on display, the exhibition cleverly makes reference to these iconic garments and conveys the whimsy, irony and unconventional nature of these important designers.

Exotic Gallery View

In another stroke of brilliance, the curators commissioned Guido Palau to make customized masks for the mannequins. These masks, each unique and exquisitely embellished, add an element of surreal fantasy to the display, as well as unifying the presentation. These masks often play off the design elements within the garments themselves. For example the mask accompanying the gown for the Tear Dress, 1938 by Schiaparelli and Dali, includes a Dali moustache.

Naif Chic Gallery View

As a whole, the exhibition gives the viewer cause to consider the nature of fashion and art. At the press preview Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art,  said “Schiaparelli’s collaborations with Dali and Cocteau as well as Prada’s Fondazione Prada push art and fashion ever closer, in a direct, synergistic, and culturally redefining relationship.” There are also direct references to the two designer’s opinions on the topic and it is clear that this is a point of difference between the two. In the Ugly Chic gallery, Schiaparelli said: “Dress designing…is to me not a profession but an art.” To this Prada responded: “Dress designing is creative, but it is not an art…. 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!” The exhibition closes with an animated conversation between Prada and Schiaparelli on the nature of fashion and art, in which the designers conclude by agreeing to disagree. This part of the exhibition caused me to smile. It seemed to provide another connection to my interest in the intersection of fashion and art, and I recalled my conversations with Harold Koda and other curators on this topic. Imagining my own conversation with Miuccia Prada, I would have suggested to her that instead of “Maybe nothing is art”, maybe everything is or could be art. To that, no doubt she would have responded like she did in the installation: “The term [artist] itself seems old-fashioned. It’s a term that 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.” And on that point, we would have agreed.

Prada and Schiaparelli: Impossible Conversations opens to the public at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City on May 10, 2012 and will run until August 19, 2012.

Photo credits: All photos provided courtesy of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and are subject to copyright.

Ingrid Mida is a Toronto-based artist and writer who is interested in the intersections between fashion, art and history. She has a show called “Constructions of Femininity” opening at Loop Gallery in Toronto on May 26, 2012 and will be speaking at Fashion Tales 2012 in Milan in June 2012 on “The Metaphysics of Blogging”.

Posted in Designers, Exhibitions, Fashion & Technology, Museums


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