Thursday, May 28, 2009

"The Model as Muse" and the Challenges of a "Sexy" Exhibition

I'm dying to get up to New York to see a few exhibits, chiefly the Met's Costume Institute exhibit "The Model as Muse." "Model as Muse" was also the theme for the Costume Institute Gala, an enormous celebrity-studded fundraiser that happens every year (this one was headlined by Kate Moss and Marc Jacobs). The topic is very thought-provoking and one that should make for a good exhibition, incorporating photography, art, and fashion design. It also happens to be a "sexy" topic that appeals to our celebrity-crazed popular culture, where supermodels are just as well-known as the fashion designers whose work they wear.

Exhibitions on "sexy" topics present their own set of challenges. While museums frequently struggle for funding and visitors, exhibits on topics relating to pop culture and current fashion often attract big-ticket sponsors and hordes of museumgoers outside the usual demographic. This not only boosts the museum's bottom line, it has the potential to expose visitors who have come to see a single exhibit to the museum's permanent collection, advancing the institution's mission and setting the stage for repeat visits-- all a dream come true for any museum director.

But it gets more complicated than that. Fashion exhibits almost always run the risk of over-emphasizing display, becoming more like retail windows than museum galleries. In any exhibit, the objects must speak for themselves and have appropriate visual context and arrangement, and the best fashion exhibitons remind the viewers that there are more layers to fashion than simply the merchandising and consumption stages.

Secondly, while I am all for the incorporation of multimedia elements (especially interactive ones) into museum exhibits, I hate to attend shows that make me feel like I've just walked into an Abercrombie and Fitch store, with music blaring and videos flashing at me from every side. Multimedia elements should complement and reinforce the exhibit's narrative, not distract from it. This applies, of course, to all exhibits, but it can be particularly enticing for designers of "sexy" exhibits to incorporate multimedia and sound elements more than usual.

There is also the issue of strings attached to exhibit funding, although this is more of a problem with monographic shows being underwritten by living designers or current fashion houses. Conflicts of interest between designer PR and a museum's ethical obligation to be neutral--I think museum text is a type of journalism--can become an issue when the museum is relying on the design house for the resources to create the show. Even if there is no money attached, it never benefits a museum to displease a designer or design house, so negative or critical commentary must always be tempered with a certain level of deference (in some ways, dead artists and defunct houses are far simpler to work with!).

Finally, the curators and exhibit designers must remember the mission of their institution, which, for the Met, is "to collect, preserve, study, exhibit, and stimulate appreciation for and advance knowledge of works of art that collectively represent the broadest spectrum of human achievement at the highest level of quality, all in the service of the public and in accordance with the highest professional standards." That means that exhibits of current fashion can (and should!) be exciting, stimulating, attractive, and "sexy" while also being in-depth, contextualized, well-researched, unbiased, and relevant, reminding the viewer that the pieces exhibited are works of art of "the highest level of quality."

I am excited to see what the Met has done with such a loaded topic, and how they've handled all these challenges! Take a look at the exhibit's website, including a video overview of the gallery (I love the opening vista, a recreation of Richard Avedon's famous photo for Dior, "Dovima with Elephants").

Photo of model Catherine Deneuve by Loomis Dean for Life, 1961.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Chanel's Resort 2010 Collection

Chanel presented their 2010 Cruise/Resort collection on May 14th in Venice, once a favorite beachside haunt of Coco's. Resort collections, now frequently called Cruise collections, fall between Fall/Winter and Spring/Summer seasons and were traditionally aimed at the socialites headed off to spend their winters at a sunny and chic resort town. Lagerfeld's Chanel show was quite an event, taking place on the sand with a boardwalk for a runway. The pieces are a creative blend of traditional Venetian motifs (the cocked hat, the lorgnette sunglasses referencing carnival masks), 30s café society (the wigs, for one thing), and classic Chanel (striped sweaters, simple and elegant evening dresses, etc.). Since Chanel really made a name for herself in the French resort town of Deauville by adapting seaside sportswear for an upscale clientele, this collection (like Lagerfeld's Spring/Summer 09 Couture collection) harkens back to Coco's original visions.

This dress (and its accompanying hat) nod strongly to the nineteen-teens, when Chanel had her first commercial successes, as a milliner as well as a designer.
Here, a 20s-style dress (see one of Coco's originals at the Met here).
This men's look is very 30s Palm Beach with a few Edwardian touches thrown in- the high collar, the hair parted at the side, the close fit of the jacket.

There are many more interesting looks in the collection. What do you think? Are they wearable? Appropriate? True to Chanel? Or is a Cruise collection irrelevant right now?

Speaking of resorts, I'm off to the beach (although it's not a fancy one). More next week!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Marymount's Portfolio in Motion and Peter Som

Friday, April 24th was Marymount University's annual Portfolio in Motion fashion show, featuring designs by students in the Fashion Design B.A. program (including the "senior lines" of three garments by each of the graduating design majors). The show was staffed and coordinated by students in the Fashion Merchandizing B.A. and the garments were modeled by Marymount students, so it was a great opportunity for students all around. As faculty, I was able to attend the Friday afternoon reception, luncheon, and fashion show and meet this year's featured designer, Peter Som. Every year, an eminent fashion designer comes to Portfolio in Motion, watches the show, says a few words, and then sits with the graduating designers and gives them individual feedback on their portfolios. Past designers have included Michael Kors, Cynthia Rowley, Carolina Hererra, and Pauline Trigere, to name a few (there is a complete list and more information on PIM here).

Peter Som is a young designer and graduate of Parsons who began his career at Bill Blass before starting his own label in 2001. While Som's bio describes his style as one of "unstudied elegance and refined sensuality," I prefer's description of his Fall 2009 collection: "upbeat... ladylike without being stiff, and full of optimistic color and tactile interest." Som aims to create ladylike but unfussy clothes and enjoys mixing prints and patterns; in his own words, he explores "the clash of delicate/feminine with bold and graphic."

I particularly like this dress, this coat and this outfit from the Fall 2009 collection, which was apparently shown by appointment since he is no longer working with his financial backer (according to The design quality is there for sure, so hopefully it won't have too negative an impact on business.
Peter himself was a delight- professional, kind, humorous, and relaxed. He took his time with each student's portfolio, dispensing helpful comments, gentle criticisms, and encouraging praise and really helping them create the strongest possible portfolio for interviewing. I learned a great amount from listening to him and I am very grateful for how helpful and considerate he was with each student!

The entire Portfolio in Motion event was exquisite: the catwalk design, music, modeling, and (of course) the clothing were all great. It's not meant to be a carbon-copy of an industry show, and while I can't say I've ever been to one of those, I think I'd prefer this kind for sure- it was upbeat, with sharply choreographed modeling by women of a variety of shapes and sizes who were really owning the garments they wore. I think it really highlighted all of the students that worked on putting the show together.

The theme of this year's show was "Enchanted Garden" (which, coincidentally, is an idea that meshes well with Som's aesthetic).
Here are some highlights:

The last shot is of some faculty and students with Som as he reviews a student's portfolio. I'm fourth to the right of Som, in the green suit (sticking out my purple shoes next to my purse under the table).

Friday, May 8, 2009

Coco Avant Chanel

April 22 marked the French release of the film Coco Avant Chanel, a Warner Bros./Sony Pictures movie about Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel's early years. Chanel is played by Audrey Tatou, of Amelie and Da Vinci Code fame. The screenplay is based on Edmonde Charles-Roux's biography of Chanel titled "l'Irreguliere" (The Non-Conformist), considered to be the authoritative work on the "true" Chanel story (Mademoiselle Coco loved to cultivate flowery stories about her life, and the house of Chanel sometimes maintains intrigue about certain uncertainties surrounding elements of her designs). It will be interesting to see a movie-industry take on the story (a good, if not entirely complete, synopsis of which can be found on Wikipedia here); there may be an interesting dialogue between the almost-inevitable additions and embellishments added to make the movie interesting and the fictitious claims made by Chanel in her lifetime.

Apparently Karl Lagerfeld, who is the current designer for Chanel, is overseeing (but not creating) the costume designs. I think he does a wonderful job of reinterpreting Mademoiselle Coco's design ideology for the 21st century, so his understanding of her work will be an asset, I'm sure.

I'm not sure yet where the movie ends; I wonder if the film will touch on the break in her design history. She shacked up with a Nazi during World War II (which damaged her PR in France...) and reopened her house in 1954, gaining widespread success- especially in the United States-in the early 1960s.

Younger fashionistas and the public, who tend to associate Chanel with Lagerfeld's designs, the Chanel suit, and the quilted bag, will hopefully be educated on the more complex and nontraditional elements of Chanel's design credo- sportswear, the appropriation of "lower-class" materials in haute couture, impeccable tailoring skills, and the stripping away of excess adornment, to name a few. These are the things that I really love about Chanel, much more than two-tone shoes and tweed cardigan jackets. Also, every Chanel design incorporates some element that is personally important to her-- the black and white, the camellia, etc.-- all of which are more significant after learning about her history.

If you're interested in more reading, Cecil Beaton's diary includes notes on his lunch dates with Mademoiselle Coco, at that point a relatively elderly woman. Talk about a fiesty old lady- she seems to have been quite the piece of work (which is no surprise).

I have yet to figure out where the film is showing in the states, since it's in French and seems to be appearing only in select theatres. If anyone finds it, let me know!

Here are a few links:
The NY Times review
The trailer (in French)
Some stills from the movie, courtesy of Fashionologie. Looks great!

Undated photo of Gabrielle Chanel, c.1920, from the Life Photo Archive.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Marymount Portfolio in Motion and Peter Som

I can't wait to blog about Marymount's 2009 Portfolio in Motion fashion show and its guest designer, Peter Som- but I would like to do so with lots of juicy pictures, which I don't have yet! So watch in the next few days for some great shots of the students' work and some comments on one of my new favorite designers (Som, of course).
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