Models of incentuib

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 May, 2011, 12:00am

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Tomorrow night one of the grandest and most glamorous occasions in the fashion calendar takes place in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Costume Institute's annual gala will mark the opening later this week of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, a major retrospective of the British fashion designer who committed suicide last year.

The exhibition will explore the poetic and romantic vision of the designer and also the deepest, and often darkest, aspects of his imagination.

The retrospective comes days after Inspiration Dior opened at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and is the latest in a list of at least 16 major fashion exhibitions around the world this year. The Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum in London, which has one of the world's largest archives of fashion and clothing, is currently presenting a retrospective of Yohji Yamamoto's work. In Paris the Musee des Arts Decoratifs is preparing a visual treatise on the work of Hussein Chalayan while MoMu in Antwerp explores the theme of knitwear in its Unravel: Fashion in Knitwear exhibition.

The number and breadth of fashion exhibitions point to their popularity (and, therefore, profitability) for museums, so curators need to look at increasingly more dynamic ways of presenting their shows to attract and excite visitors. Gone are the days when they could simply display clothes in glass cases. Clothing is presented now not only with a fashion-is-sociology approach but with some interactive formats.

One of the greatest conundrums that faces a curator is the nature of clothing. Wearing fashion is by definition an exhibition: it's about showing off. The whole point of wearing an outfit is to create some kind of spectacle. However, by taking clothes off the wearer and putting them on a mannequin you are losing the fundamental human element - movement - that is so important to understanding clothes and how they work.

Looking at garments on static display is a very different experience to watching them in motion on the catwalk. Curators try to address that issue by screening video clips from fashion shows as part of their displays, offering accessories for people to try on, and having scenographers experimenting with exhibition layouts.

Short of staging major fashion exhibitions on live models and creating 'living' mis en scenes, curators are finding other inventive ways of giving visitors a closer understanding of their subject.

The V&A has done this by creating open displays of Yamamoto's clothes that people can wander through 'so that people can look at them as equals and openly touch the garments', says Ligaya Salazar, curator of contemporary programmes at the museum and the curator behind this exhibition.

'The V&A has never done that before because historic items are so delicate. However it was Yohji's desire and mine, for people to come up close to the clothes.'

The exhibition is not restricted to one gallery either. Visitors can encounter the clothes in other parts of the museum as installations in the tapestry, painting and ceramics galleries.

Meanwhile, a parallel installation at London's Wapping Project has an especially innovative way of displaying Yamamoto's autumn/winter 1998 silk wedding dress with bamboo crinoline, so that it hovers above a pool of water in the Boiler House of the old power station. The visitor floats out on a boat in darkness to gaze up at the spot-lit gown.

Curators around the world are increasingly looking at original ways to inform and inspire their audience. McQueen was renowned for staging astonishing and extravagant catwalk presentations, which were given dramatic scenarios and narrative structures that suggested performance art, such as the show finale that had model Shalom Harlow rotating on a turntable as two menacing industrial robots spray-painted her.

While the McQueen retrospective in New York cannot hope to replicate this, curator Andrew Bolton has brought in creative director Sam Gainsbury and production designer Joseph Bennett, who produced McQueen's shows, as scenographers for the Costume Institute exhibition.

'The catwalk was integral to McQueen's creativity,' says Bolton and, therefore, this drama has to be part of the visitor experience.

Some of those compelling show finales, including Karen Elson's dance of death from the collection, They Shoot Horses Don't They?, can be watched on mini-projections in small charred wood cubbyholes in a section of the exhibition entitled Cabinet of Curiosities.

The centrepiece of this gallery, though, is the ghostly apparition (hologram) of Kate Moss from the finale of McQueen's Widows of Culloden. Equally dark and poetic is the gown made of silk and real flowers for spring/summer 2007 that shed blooms on the catwalk, which will be displayed in a bell jar, adorned again with real flowers, which will decompose over the course of the exhibition to become pot pourri.

The exhibition, which explores the designer's radical methods of cutting and construction, is presented thematically and not chronologically. Bolton says it 'began with a tattoo on McQueen's upper right arm - the quotation 'Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind' from Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream. To me it encapsulated McQueen's vision of fashion, which reflected upon the politics of appearance by revealing both the prejudices and the limitations of our aesthetic judgment'.

Fashion historian Florence Muller, who was curator of the immensely successful Yves Saint Laurent exhibition at the Petit Palais in Paris last year, has curated the Inspiration Dior exhibition at the Pushkin Museum.

The concept that brings fashion and art together, she says, was not originally her idea but 'it was a perfect opportunity to show how fashion is not an isolated phenomenon, but rather a form of expression in constant dialogue with art'.

This is a rare opportunity to bring together designs by all the house's artistic directors over its 64 years - from Dior to Marc Bohan, to John Galliano and jewellery designer Victoire de Castellane - and display them side by side with the works of art that have inspired them.

A Giovanni Boldini portrait, for instance, hangs next to a degrad?grey tulle fin de siecle style gown modelled by Erin O'Connor. While the exhibition stimulates the eye it also entices the olfactory senses as Dior has commissioned Russian artist Olga Kisseleva to create a special installation that wafts Dior perfumes over visitors.

Unravel: Knitwear in Fashion, curated by Karen Van Godtsenhoven at MoMu in Antwerp, is a very different kind of exhibition: it deals with a craft, one of the elements of fashion, rather than look at the oeuvre of one designer or house. Godtsenhoven commissioned giant samples of knitwear to hang over the balustrade and took the exhibition out into the street, covering street furniture with knitwear. 'We call it positive graffiti,' she says.

MoMu has a significant archive of the work of Belgian designers as well as donations from Balenciaga and Helmut Lang, but Godtsenhoven says that from the beginning they have showcased both new and historic clothes in open displays for people to appreciate the colour and craft, but created natural barriers with the props to prevent more delicate pieces being touched.

The phrase 'fashion exhibition' is an oxymoron because fashion belongs to real life in a way other visual art and design do not. Clothes have to be dynamic and act with the body. The nearest museums have recreated this effect by staging their own catwalk shows, such as the V&A's Fashion in Motion initiative with London's best designers. It's as close as the visitor can get to seeing clothes in their natural environment but until museums can find ways of preserving treasured historic creations so that they can be worn again, making fashion exhibitions dynamic is a challenge the curators will continue to face.