BUT IS IT ART?

The rise of the fash­ion block­buster

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

‘FASH­ION is not art. Never.” Th­ese are the words of de­signer Jean Paul Gaultier, as told to an Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist in 2001. Ironic, then, that Gaultier and his work are the sub­ject of one of three block­buster fash­ion exhibitions soon to be un­leashed on the pub­lic at ma­jor Aus­tralian art gal­leries in Mel­bourne, Bris­bane and Ade­laide.

This month will see the un­veil­ing at Mel­bourne’s Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria of The Fash­ion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Side­walk to the Cat­walk, con­ceived by the Mon­treal Mu­seum of Fine Arts in Toronto, and since seen in seven ci­ties across the world in­clud­ing New York, Rot­ter­dam, Stock­holm and, most re­cently, London. Gaultier’s home­town Paris fi­nally gets its view­ing next year.

A week later in Ade­laide, the Art Gallery of South Aus­tralia is col­lab­o­rat­ing with Le Musee des Arts Dec­o­rat­ifs in Paris (via Art Exhibitions Aus­tralia) to show Fash­ion Icons: Mas­ter­pieces from the Col­lec­tion of the Musee des Arts Dec­o­rat­ifs, Paris. Cus­tom-cu­rated by Pamela Gol­bin, the French in­sti­tu­tion’s chief cu­ra­tor of fash­ion and tex­tiles, the ex­hi­bi­tion will ex­plore con­tem­po­rary fash­ion from Christian Dior’s New Look of 1947 through to the present.

A week after AGSA’s open­ing, Queens­land Art Gallery’s Gallery of Mod­ern Art in Bris­bane will open Fu­ture Beauty: 30 Years of Ja­panese Fash­ion. Drawn from the Ky­oto Cos­tume In­sti­tute and con­ceived for London’s Bar­bican Art Gallery, the ex­hi­bi­tion in­cludes the work of ground­break­ing de­sign­ers Issey Miyake, Yo­hji Ya­mamoto and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Gar­cons.

Fash­ion exhibitions at art gal­leries, ap­par­ently, are the new black.

Such col­lab­o­ra­tions, of course, are not a new phe­nom­e­non. Ac­cord­ing to Fash­ion and Mu­se­ums: The­ory and Prac­tice, edited by Marie Riegels Mel­chior and Bir­gitta Svensson, and pub­lished this year, the first Bri­tish cos­tume exhibitions can be dated back to 1912 at the Mu­seum of London. The fol­low­ing year the Vic­to­ria & Al­bert Mu­seum also hosted a fash­ion ex­hi­bi­tion.

GoMA di­rec­tor Chris Saines says art-fash­ion shows have al­ways been popular with au­di­ences. “I re­mem­ber go­ing back to my time liv­ing in Bri­tain in the late 70s and early 80s, go­ing to the Na­tional Gallery in London or the V&A, one of great en­gine rooms for th­ese sorts of exhibitions.” Saines says. “Th­ese shows are ac­ces­si­ble, en­gag­ing and give a sense of what’s hap­pen­ing in the con­text of visual cul­ture through fash­ion and cul­ture.

“The pub­lic finds exhibitions like this rel­a­tively easy to read be­cause they have a fa­mil­iar­ity with fash­ion and how it is pre­sented in mag­a­zines and cat­walk shows and within shop­ping cen­tres and the like; they’re fa­mil­iar with the tropes of fash­ion, how it changes sea­son to sea­son, how ‘the new black is brown’.

“This is all some­thing the pub­lic un­der­stands quite in­tu­itively.”

Gol­bin agrees, adding that the pub­lic un­der­stand­ing of fash­ion “might feel more ac­ces­si­ble than paint­ings” in a gallery con­text.

The Paris-based cu­ra­tor has said the fash­ion ex­hi­bi­tion land­scape has “ex­ploded” in the past 20 years. “I think mu­se­ums in gen­eral have be­come part of the cul­tural land­scape in the past 25 years,” Gol­bin tells Re­view. “(The gallery) is a place ev­ery­one goes to in what­ever city they travel to, it has be­come a very dif­fer­ent cul­tural space, much more ac­ces­si­ble, much more open, and mu­se­ums have made quite an in­cred­i­ble ef­fort to not only keep vis­i­tors but also go out and get new vis­i­tors and make them feel com­fort­able and wel­come.

“In that shift ob­vi­ously there has also been a shift within fash­ion in mu­seum en­vi­ron­ments. Fash­ion at the same time has be­come a global cul­tural phe­nom­e­non. Bring­ing both of those to­gether has made fash­ion exhibitions all that more im­por­tant and vis­ited.”

Per­haps un­sur­pris­ingly, women make up the majority of vis­i­tors to fash­ion exhibitions, some­thing ac­knowl­edged by mu­seum direc­tors when pro­gram­ming their ex­hi­bi­tion sched­ules.

“Typ­i­cally the male-fe­male ra­tio at GoMA might be 50:50, maybe 54:46 skew to­wards fe­male,” says Saines. “That’s quite stan­dard world­wide. But that skew re­ally lifts when fash­ion shows are on.”

NGV di­rec­tor Tony Ell­wood says the gen­der split is part of a broader pic­ture.

“Re­search shows that you do ex­pand the num­ber of fe­male vis­i­tors when pre­sent­ing fash­ion exhibitions,” he says. “We don’t only tar­get women who have this in­ter­est, in fact we are al­ways look­ing at dif­fer­ent seg­ments of the com­mu­nity to align to ex­hi­bi­tion themes and ideas.” ( Fash­ion and Mu­se­ums notes that an 1847 edi­tion of Punch con­tained an ar­ti­cle ti­tled “Hints for the Bri­tish Mu­seum Com­mis­sion”, sug­gest­ing fash­ion might lure “the softer sex to find attractions in the Bri­tish Mu­seum”.)

While the three Aus­tralian block­busters share a sim­i­lar theme, they are very dif­fer­ent in con­tent. The Gaultier show, open­ing on Fri­day, is an up­beat ret­ro­spec­tive of the de­signer’s work since the late 1970s, cov­er­ing his love of the Bre­ton striped top, corsetry and his bound­ary­push­ing oeu­vre, from blur­ring gen­der lines to his ac­cep­tance of peo­ple of all shapes, sizes, eth­nic­i­ties and ages — his is a quite un­usual out­look in the fash­ion land­scape.

Gaultier’s celebrity af­fil­i­a­tions also are in­cluded — and there is a spe­cial ad­di­tion for this new it­er­a­tion that fo­cuses on his Aus­tralian col­lab­o­ra­tions, no­tably with Kylie Minogue, Cate Blanchett and Ni­cole Kid­man. The last was his first cou­ture client; Kid­man wore a Gaultier gown to ac­cept her Os­car for The Hours. (Look out for the man­nequins with “video” faces, some of which talk, which are won­der­fully creepy and in­clude Gaultier him­self and the show’s cu­ra­tor, for­mer model Thier­ryMaxime Lo­riot.)

The fo­cus of Fu­ture Beauty at QAGOMA is only slightly nar­rower from a his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive, look­ing at the work of pi­o­neer­ing Ja­panese de­sign­ers since the 80s. Cu­rated by fash­ion his­to­rian Akiko Fukai, the ex­hi­bi­tion in­cludes more than 100 gar­ments and ac­ces­sories, from the avant-garde and ex­per­i­men­tal to to­day’s street cul­ture in­spi­ra­tions in the Cool Ja­pan sec­tion.

Fash­ion Icons at the AGSA in­cludes almost 100 pieces from Les Arts Dec­o­rat­ifs, each of which was cho­sen by Gol­bin as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a chang­ing mo­ment in fash­ion, from Dior’s New Look of 1947, to the present, via fu­tur­is­tic Cour­reges from the 60s and min­i­mal­ist Hel­mut Lang from the 90s. Ar­chi­tect Christian Biecher has con­ceived the space for the ex­hi­bi­tion, which opens in Ade­laide on Oc­to­ber 25.

FASH­ION exhibitions are cer­tainly hav­ing a mo­ment in a very con­tem­po­rary sense. The wa­ter­shed was the 2011 ex­hi­bi­tion Alexan­der McQueen: Sav­age Beauty at the Cos­tume In­sti­tute of New York’s Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art. The ex­hi­bi­tion, which came the year after the de­signer’s death, broke all records for fash­ion exhibitions at the time. It was ex­tended by a week and had a to­tal of 661,509 peo­ple through the doors, putting it in the top 10 most-vis­ited exhibitions in the mu­seum’s his­tory and the most popular since 1946.

“(The McQueen ex­hi­bi­tion) did a num­ber of things,” says Ell­wood. “Crit­ics who wanted to see (fash­ion) as some­thing to be tol­er­ated all of a sud­den saw it front and cen­tre. The Met put it into the main ex­hi­bi­tion cen­tre and the num­bers eclipsed any num­bers in his­tory.”

Ell­wood says that while fash­ion cu­rat­ing can be “in­cred­i­bly con­ser­va­tive”, the dis­play of the McQueen ex­hi­bi­tion sur­passed any­thing pre­vi­ously seen.

“Its dis­play val­ues were so su­perb. It was (cre­ated by) a Bri­tish de­sign team who broke a lot of rules, did things that were beau­ti­fully de­tailed — and I’m sure very ex­pen­sively de­tailed — and that got the at­ten­tion of the whole mu­seum world.”

AGSA di­rec­tor Nick Mitze­vich be­lieves the

cur­rent fascination with fash­ion exhibitions goes beyond the ex­am­ple of McQueen.

“I think there’s been a cul­mi­na­tion,” Mitze­vich says. “Maybe the McQueen ex­hi­bi­tion at the Met cat­a­pulted fash­ion to a new level, but it didn’t come from nowhere. Around the world, mu­se­ums like Les Arts Dec­o­rat­ifs have been cham­pi­oning fash­ion for decades. It’s been some­thing that has grown and McQueen high­lighted it.

“In Aus­tralia we have had some great exhibitions,” he con­tin­ues, cit­ing the Yves Saint Lau­rent ret­ro­spec­tive at the Art Gallery of NSW in 1987, cu

rated by Vogue ed­i­tor Diana Vree­land for the Met; Vivi­enne West­wood: 34 Years in Fash­ion at the Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia in 2004-05; and Valentino, Ret­ro­spec­tive: Past, Present, Fu

ture at GoMA in 2010. “So as a cul­tural na­tion we have had some won­der­ful ex­am­ples. This sum­mer we have a plethora of them.”

Aus­tralian au­di­ences have form with th­ese

exhibitions. The Valentino show at GoMA — ini­ti­ated by Ell­wood dur­ing his pre­vi­ous ten­ure at the Bris­bane gallery, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Les Arts Dec­o­rat­ifs where it was first shown, and cu­rated by Gol­bin — set the bench­mark for the fash­ion block­buster in Aus­tralia.

“When we did Valentino in Bris­bane it was an eye­brow raiser,” says Ell­wood. “Peo­ple hadn’t ex­pe­ri­enced cou­ture in Bris­bane and we had noth­ing to test it against. For me it was a big risk. We had over 200,000 vis­i­tors, which re­ally thrilled me and gave us the con­fi­dence to book the Ja­panese ex­hi­bi­tion hap­pen­ing (there) this sum­mer. We’re so proud of the out­come of

Valentino.”

Saines agrees that Valentino is the most suc­cess­ful ex­am­ple of fash­ion exhibitions in this coun­try to date. “It hit a very high mark,” he says. “There was a daily av­er­age of 2028 vis­i­tors each day the ex­hi­bi­tion was open, and 33 per cent of vis­i­tors de­scribed them­selves as first­time vis­i­tors. Many of those from in­ter­state or over­seas came more than once.”

And it’s not just the big ci­ties reap­ing the big ticket sales. The Bendigo Art Gallery in re­gional Vic­to­ria also has made a name for it­self by im­port­ing high-pro­file fash­ion exhibitions. Its

Grace Kelly: Style Icon ex­hi­bi­tion in 2012 (from the V&A) broke all pre­vi­ous re­gional attendance records with more than 150,000 vis­i­tors through the doors; that gallery will close the doors on another V&A ex­hi­bi­tion — Un­dressed:

350 Years of Un­der­wear in Fash­ion — on Oc­to­ber 26. Un­dressed then trav­els to Bris­bane, where it will show at the Queens­land Mu­seum from Novem­ber 12.

It may be as­sumed this in­creased in­ter­est in fash­ion exhibitions, and gal­leries pro­gram­ming them across the block­buster sum­mer months, is en­tirely geared to­wards the chime of cash reg­is­ters. That may be partly the case but, ac­cord­ing to gallery direc­tors, any prof­itable out­come is tem­pered by a huge in­vest­ment.

“Cos­tumes are ex­pen­sive to in­stall,” says Ell­wood. “Paint­ings come in and you put them up on the wall. This re­quires dresses, wig mak­ers, (in this case) Jean Paul Gaultier him­self, the cu­ra­tor (Lo­riot) from Canada, the amount of peo­ple on deck just to get ev­ery­thing dressed in time and done beau­ti­fully is quite re­source heavy.

“So if they’re go­ing to be done well and dy­nam­i­cally, that costs. We’re do­ing our best to break even. It’s a bonus if we ex­ceed our ex­pec­ta­tions, but the main thing is it’s done with good at­ten­tion to de­tail.”

FASH­ION AS ART FORGES OUR CUL­TURAL MEM­ORY

NICK MITZE­VICH

Saines agrees, adding the set­tings of­ten need to be quite the­atri­cal and re­quire build­ing in­vest­ment and de­sign work. Although he con­cedes that is typ­i­cal for many exhibitions. “But you end of up hav­ing an in­te­grated ex­pe­ri­ence,” he adds.

Fash­ion exhibitions also al­low for a broader ex­pe­ri­ence beyond the gallery walls. Cer­tainly the three ma­jor gal­leries in ques­tion are of­fer­ing ex­ten­sive pro­gram­ming around the shows, from lunchtime talks to late-night view­ings with live mu­sic and DJs; even themed food and bev­er­age of­fer­ings in bars and restau­rants are part of the deal.

Mitze­vich says the AGSA’s pub­lic pro­gram is “the most am­bi­tious we’ve ever as­sem­bled. For us it’s about an op­por­tu­nity to give peo­ple shared knowl­edge and aware­ness and in­spire them to be fas­ci­nated by th­ese ex­tra­or­di­nary de­sign­ers in our world.”

At GoMA — where there will also be a Comme des Gar­cons pop-up “pocket shop” and a Tokyo street-in­spired “Kawaii” (cute) cor­ner where peo­ple can take pho­tos of them­selves for In­sta­gram — Saines is clear on the over­all idea.

“We’re build­ing an ex­pe­ri­ence that is just big­ger than inan­i­mate ob­jects,” he says. “It’s the the­atre of be­ing in­volved and en­gaged. And work­ing with so­cial me­dia is such a huge chan­nel.”

SO to the big ques­tion: should fash­ion be seen as art? Ell­wood is con­vinced: “I have no doubt that fash­ion is art. Like any good de­sign pur­suit it takes a cre­ative mind with a good tech­ni­cal knowl­edge to suc­cess­fully achieve a pos­i­tive out­come.”

“Fash­ion cer­tainly can be art — but isn’t al­ways,” coun­ters Mitze­vich. “As art, fash­ion presents us with the world and the unique vi­sion of its maker.

“Fur­ther­more, the mean­ing in­tended by the maker en­riches the lives of the au­di­ence or wearer. Fash­ion as art forges our cul­tural mem­ory, help­ing us to un­der­stand the past, make sense of who we are in the present, and imag­ine the fu­ture.”

And if a so­journ to London is in your fu­ture, then you can see McQueen’s Sav­age Beauty ex­hi­bi­tion at the V&A next year. That’s if you can still buy a ticket. When they went on sale in April this year — almost a year ahead of its March open­ing — more than 7000 were sold in the first three days.

The ap­petite for fash­ion as art is still grow­ing.

The Fash­ion World of Jean Paul Gaultier opens on Oc­to­ber 17. Fash­ion Icons opens at the Art Gallery of South Aus­tralia on Oc­to­ber 25. Fu­ture Beauty opens at QAGOMA on Novem­ber 1.

Aus­tralian model An­dreja Pe­jic in the Gaultier ex­hi­bi­tion at the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria, left; a Junya Watan­abe cre­ation from Rei Kawakubo for Commes des Gar­cons, from the Fu­ture Beauty ex­hi­bi­tion at QAGOMA in Bris­bane, be­low

Clock­wise from top left, Pierre Bal­main, Fash­ion Icons; Dolce & Gab­bana (body shaper), Fash­ion Icons; Junya Watan­abe, Fu­ture Beauty; Kylie Minogue from the Jean Paul Gaultier ex­hi­bi­tion; an im­age from

Un­dressed in Bendigo

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