Friday, April 9, 2010

Japanese Fashion and Textiles; Isabel and Ruben Toledo at Marymount

I finally made it to the Textile Museum to see "Contemporary Japanese Fashion: The Mary Baskett Collection," which closes on Sunday (I mentioned it here on the blog before it opened). The exhibit is excellent for many reasons, and if you have the chance to see it this weekend, by all means go.

For a costume exhibit-- or any exhibit, really-- to be successful, it needs to be both scholarly and engaging, which to me means 1) readable didactics and labels, 2) a layout that displays the objects to their best advantage while protecting them from damage and allows for easy viewing and movement within the space and 3) a coherent and digestible "big idea" or takeaway message. This exhibit did quite well on all of these fronts, although I had a few minor complaints.

While at first glance I considered the didactics too long (I prefer 150-200 words or fewer), I found them both concise and informative. There were only four didactic panels: an introductory one that explained the designers featured and the collector of their pieces, and one for each of the featured designers (Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake, and Rei Kawakubo). The label copy was not displayed; instead, it was featured in spiral-bound books that could be taken at the start of the exhibit, and each ensemble was numbered at the base of its mannequin or mount for reference in the catalog. I suppose they chose to do this in order to make the exhibit space as clean as possible, and not clutter it with labels, which are often difficult to place. Still, I had to go back and get the book because I didn't realize it was a necessity at first, and I feel as though many museumgoers would have missed it altogether and simply wandered through the space guided only by the larger didactic panels on the designers. Because of the unorthodox features and enigmatic style of these garments, as well as their connections to the design philosophies of their makers, labels were absolutely necessary in this exhibit and anyone who missed the label copy probably felt more confused than enlightened. My one other gripe with the labels was that some of the objects that seemed the most intriguing were left unexplained (an ensemble on a strangely posed mannequin by Kawakubo, and a shorts suit by Miyake, for example). Otherwise, I felt that the didactics and labels were quite well-written.

Besides the clothing itself, the most striking element of the exhibit for me was the way in which the garments were mounted. Most of them had custom interior mounts that were attached to the ceiling and floor by long wires, which allowed the pieces to take their proper shape as though being worn but also to speak for themselves, uninterrupted by distracting mannequins. My guess is that these mounts were provided by the owner, at least in part-- while the exhibit was sponsored (by the cosmetics company Shisheido, among other organizations), the production and installation of custom mounts for all of these pieces seems as though it would be prohibitive both in time and in cost. There were other pieces mounted on simple, appropriate mannequins, and a few pieces mounted flat or on custom-carved foam mounts. One piece was shown quasi-flat, so that the pattern could be appreciated, but with a subtle body shape in the foam support that suggested its look when worn. I was very impressed by the quality of the mounting in this exhibit, and few things are more important to costume exhibits than proper display!

The exhibit also had irregularly angled white wooden "floors" built up underneath the garments, which served as a kind of "set" and also prevented visitors from walking too close to, or underneath, the pieces on display. While I am certain these were labor-intensive and time-consuming to produce, the result was excellent-- it was just the kind of subtle backdrop that best accents these types of garments and eliminated the need for unsightly stanchions or guardrails.

Finally, one of the smartest things about the exhibit's arrangement was that it began with work by Yohji Yamamoto, continued with Issey Miyake, and finished with Rei Kawakubo (and some of her colleagues at Comme des Garçons). At first, I was suprised that the show did not begin with Mikaye, who is the oldest of the three and considered the field's pioneer. Starting with Yamamoto, however, both made best use of the space (the exhibit starts in a smallish hallway that would not have had room for all of the Miyake pieces) and made conceptual sense. Yamamoto's pieces are the easiest for Westerners to understand; they blend Western and Japanese fashion sensibilities and are the most "wearable." Miyake's are fun and innovative, and a little more difficult to accept aesthetically, and Kawakubo's are the most intellectual and least "beautiful" in a traditional Western sense. By beginning with Yamamoto and ending with Kawakubo, the visitor is introduced to foreign concepts bit-by-bit, and is warmed up by the time he or she reaches the most challenging garments.

While I would have liked to learn a bit more about the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi (beauty in imperfection and transience) that was hinted at, but not named, in the didactics, I felt that the exhibit did an excellent job of introducing both the layman and the fashion scholar to pieces that are at once unfamiliar and important. I appreciated that the didactics emphasized that the collector wears these pieces in her everyday life, showing that the designers are not creating these objects as pure art but as clothing to be worn.

There is much more to say about these designers and why they are so important to contemporary fashion but I will save that for another day. I want to end by saying that Marymount University (where I teach) is soon holding its annual Portfolio in Motion event, where fashion design and fashion merchandising students produce a fashion show and host a eminent designer, who receives an award and reviews the portfolios of the senior design students. I blogged about last year's event and featured designer Peter Som here. This year, the event takes place starting Thursday, April 22nd and continues into the weekend, and our featured designer is none other than Isabel Toledo, who designed Michelle Obama's "Lemongrass" ensemble for the inauguration and an exhibit of whose work I thoroughly enjoyed last year. She will be accompanied by her husband, celebrated illustrator Ruben Toledo. I am beyond excited about their attendance, both for my own sake and for the students'. Tickets for the opening show and cocktail reception are $100, but you can attend the subsequent shows (without the Toledos) for only $15. More information can be found here.

What do you think of these designers? Have you seen the exhibit, and how did you feel about it if you did? What do you think is most important in an exhibit like this?

Photo by Mark Whiting, http://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/0MYZE3-pdqbyw0fG7Kqb2Q

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