BUT IS IT ART?
The rise of the fashion blockbuster
‘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
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
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