A pattern for fashion
If there’s one thing fashion isn’t fickle about, it’s building brick-and-mortar tributes to the people who have most influenced the industry
Who can blame anyone for thinking fashion is fickle, especially now? In recent months, more than a few designers have played musical chairs with major houses; trends have waxed and waned faster than you can say “Instagram”; and brands seeking to adjust their show schedules to suit an audience demanding more immediacy appear to be in sync on just one thing: constant revision.
Yet even as the industry scales the peaks of capriciousness, it has also cemented increasing allegiances to its nearest and dearest. Over the past few years, fashion museums and exhibitions have become the height of, well, fashion, with more being opened in celebration of the most significant names than ever before.
Setting fashion in stone
While no official figures are available, industry commentator Suzy Menkes observed in a New York Times piece in 2011 that “at any given moment there are at least a dozen museums across the world offering major fashion displays, not to mention exhibitions in galleries or even department stores”. And the number is surely growing.
In the United Kingdom, the National Museum of Scotland is launching 10 new spaces this July, one of which will be its first dedicated fashion gallery. On show there will be 50,000 exhibits including pieces by Jean Muir, Pringle of Scotland and Alexander McQueen (who came from Scottish ancestory and whose work included two highly controversial Scot-influenced collections, Highland Rape and Widows of Culloden, inspired by the historic subjugation of Scotland to Britain).
Meanwhile, two museums dedicated to Yves Saint Laurent are slated to open in Paris and Marrakech next year—the former at his previous couture house at 5 Avenue Marceau, the latter in a new 4,000-square-metre building in the Moroccan city that inspired so much of the designer’s work and where he had a second home. Both will display a part of the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent’s collection of more than 5,000 haute couture garments and 15,000 accessories, as well as thousands of sketches, photographs and other objects.
“These two museums not only intend to attract fashion and art lovers, but also aim to appeal to a large audience interested in discovering Yves Saint Laurent’s work, the oeuvre of a major artist of the 20th century,” said the foundation.
Drawing by numbers
What, you might ask, has happened to the longstanding differences between the purveyors of traditional art and fashion? “With the force of technology, instant images and global participation, fashion has developed from being a passion for a few to a fascination—and an entertainment—for everybody,” said the New York Times. Pop culture has also played a lead role in increasing its allure. Says the American art journalist Tyler Green: “A hit show like Project Runway, whose viewers are young females, underscores the passion for fashion among a key demographic that is also crucial for museums.”
In other words, fashion is now recognised as a terrifically effective way for cash-strapped museums to raise some much-needed capital—if not from fashion brands (who are still sceptical about independently curated shows), then the general ticket-paying public.
Fancy fundraisers aside, last year’s Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition became the Victoria & Albert Museum’s most successful paid-for showcase with almost half a million visitors. Over in New York, China: Through the Looking Glass, a collaboration with the Costume Institute, is now the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s fifth-most visited exhibition in history, drawing more than 800,000 people. Says Beatrice Salmon, former director of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris: “Fashion consistently attracts a large audience because of its relevance to many, which is why there are so many exhibitions.”
State of the art
Still, even as museums seem en route to accepting fashion as a form of art, designers such as Karl Lagerfeld and Rei Kawakubo remain adamant that it’s not. Lagerfeld once famously told the UK’s Telegraph: “I am against museums and exhibitions in fashion…if you call yourself an artist, then you are second-rate.”
But that may change—and soon. Already, brands have started archiving part of every collection, a practice that was unusual three decades ago. They are also realising that fashion museums and exhibitions are offering more consumers a new way to enjoy what they produce.
At a recent Issey Miyake show at Tokyo’s National Art Center, where the exhibition notes called fashion “a form of design that is closely connected to our lives on a much more universal level”, one visitor stood transfixed by a fantastically pleated pantsuit. “I’ve never seen clothes this way before,” she said. “It’s like a sculpture, like art.”