by Lisa Santandrea
Valerie Steele returns emails with superhero speed—a hallmark of life’s true enthusiasts, so determined to avoid being bogged down by the little things—and signs off as “Val.” The first time this appeared in my Inbox, it felt as if Rei Kawakubo had invited me over for pie. The director and chief curator of New York’s Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Steele has authored more than 20 books (including The Corset: A Cultural History and Fetish: Fashion, Sex & Power) and launched fashion’s first scholarly journal, Fashion Theory. She is the mastermind behind many of the most important costume exhibits since the 1990s, including “Paris Fashion,” “Gothic: Dark Glamour,” and the recent “Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe.” Slight and elegant in black, she exudes a clarity and intellectual enthusiasm that explain her success and her lack of pretense. She has been described as “the Freud of fashion” and “a chick wonk with a hearty laugh.” Both are eminently true.
We met at F.I.T.’s Chelsea campus inside Steele’s office, a simple, book-lined room that has played host to some truly grand ideas.
Fashion Projects: When you were a Ph.D. student at Yale, you were studying fashion when basically nobody else was doing so. What did you imagine you would be doing at this stage of your career?
Valerie Steele: Most people in graduate school then assumed that they would become professors. I was convinced that fashion was a valid topic, so I just sort of plunged ahead. And I was somewhat surprised to realize it just wasn’t possible to get a real teaching job with this kind of specialization.
FP: But you ended up at F.I.T.
VS: I was an adjunct here for 11 years. I was also an adjunct at Columbia and N.Y.U. and Parsons and Cornell. You name it.
FP: Had you done any curation when you started at the museum?
VS: I had done a little bit because I worked on a show about Barbie and fashion. And of course, I’d been teaching in what was then the Museum Studies, Costume and Textiles Department.
FP: So you knew your history, but what about the process of curation?
VS: Well, in some respects, the process of curation is like the same work you do for a book. You do research, you come up with a hypothesis, you test it. On the other hand, you’re telling a story with objects rather than with words and arguments. Although you’ll certainly have text—labels and wall text and probably a catalog—you really have to tell the story with objects, assuming that people are not going to read the text.
FP: Is there a trick to that?
VS: The organization of the objects is obviously important. The way you get them to speak to each other so that people looking at a group of objects begin to get a sense of what’s going on. The choice of objects and the arrangement of objects is the way you tell a story. It’s not a book on a wall. You’re conveying the message in another way.
FP: Through arrangement?
VS: Through choice and arrangement. I learned a lot from Fred Dennis about arranging and presenting objects. I also learned by looking at the work of other curators, particularly Judith Clark. Her “Malign Muses” show was a real epiphany for me; it was a new paradigm in presenting clothes. She studied architecture and had a very creative and novel approach to organization and presentation. It helped me create a much more theatrical ambiance. It had a real impact, for example, on “Gothic Dark Glamour.” I started seeing even more clearly the importance of creating a mise en scène, of actually having little vignettes that will help tell the story.
FP: You’ve said that “Gothic” is one of your favorite exhibitions. Why?
VS: It was a turning point. I wanted to explore how both [designers and goths] were responding to a whole history of literature, art, and music. For example, there was an open coffin with a vampire-like Thierry Mugler outfit and costumes from the film about Dracula—so you could get that vampirism was something that lead into this imagery of the gothic.
How do you build large sets and have them create a sort of feeling of claustrophobia, of paranoia? Of things about to disintegrate? I worked with a really good art director, Simon Costin, who worked a lot with Alexander McQueen. I’d say [to him], “Well I want you to try to present the ‘psychology in stone,’”—but, as it were, in cardboard. I definitely want a ruined castle. He came up with this idea of huge, disproportionate walls at angles that dwarfed the figures and then had the mannequins looking away from each other, so no one was relating. That was important. I told him I wanted a laboratory. He did this laboratory with rubber walls and faces pushing in through the walls like hallucinations. I said, “Can we do a graveyard?” And he came up with this fenced-in area where we had mannequins inside the fences, again to get the sense of despair, decay, paranoia, and claustrophobia.
FP: Recently, you have done a couple of shows featuring individual collections, specifically those of Daphne Guinness and Susanne Bartsch. What problems can arise when you work on this type of exhibition?
VS: The same ones as when you do a show about a living designer, who may have his or her own vision of how he or she wants to be seen.
Daphne was just pure heaven to work with. I was the one who pitched it to her and she was very modest and said, “Oh, no, no, I can’t have a show.” And then she came to see a show [at F.I.T.] and she turned to me and asked, “Are you serious about doing a show?” I said, “Yes. Look around. There are 80 dresses. You have 80 dresses don’t you, Sweetie?” She opened her closets here and in London.
Susanne pitched the show to me. Normally we don’t take outside shows, but schedules had changed and I needed something I could do quickly. I went to the Chelsea Hotel and she started pulling things out of boxes and out from under the bed. The more stuff she pulled out, the more excited I got.
She had a very clear vision of what she wanted in the show—for one thing, she wanted more. This is always a problem when you’re working with designers. Susanne was still smuggling stuff into the show the morning it was opening! She put accessories in paper bags and tried to smuggle them in. With Daphne, it was really easy—all I had to do when accessorizing was say, “No real diamonds!”
FP: Fashion has become a hot topic for exhibitions. What do you think about this emerging popularity?
VS: It’s great that people feel like they’re capable of understanding and appreciating fashion in a way that they sometimes feel intimidated by historical art, contemporary art, or even history shows. Everybody from toddlers to teenagers to old ladies—everybody feels like they can understand it.
On the downside, almost every curator feels like he or she is capable of doing a fashion show, regardless of how much or how little they know about fashion. I remember one person was doing a fashion exhibition and I said to her assistant, “What makes her feel that she can do this show?” Her assistant said, “Well…she wears fashion.” I said, “Well I go to contemporary art galleries, but I wouldn’t say that I could curate a contemporary art show.” And these shows can sometimes be sort of an array of pretty dresses. Literally, there was one [called] “50 Fabulous Frocks.” I’m thinking, Really, this is a show? This seems so idiotic.
FP: What impresses you about the world of fashion curation today?
VS: There are so many people who want to be curators. I remember a colleague of mine saying that one of her students wanted “to be Valerie Steele.” She just laughed and said, “That position is taken.” But people shouldn’t just wait and hope for a job at a museum.
All those years that I was an adjunct I had this little cartoon from The New Yorker that showed a guy escaping from a bank with a bag full of money. He stops to talk to a passerby and says, “I’m only doing this to support my writing.” For a lot of the adjunct work, I was saying, “Well I’m writing my books.”
Nowadays, you can create shows online. Judith Clark rented a teeny little space inside an office and started putting on amazing fashion exhibitions [in London]. Through that people started hiring her to do shows and organize museum collections. So you have to put yourself out there, you have to show what you can do.
FP: I’d imagine it’s very different today from when you started.
VS: Well, Mrs. Vreeland was doing theatrical things in the ’70s. They weren’t historically accurate, but they did move things away from a sort of antiquarian specialist interest into something that people could relate to as fashion.
Lisa Santandrea is a writer and fashion historian who teaches at Parsons School of Design. She currently runs the public workshop program at the Soho retail headquarters of The RealReal, the luxury consignment website.