Museums' retrospectives let public admire fashion designers' work up close
European museums are giving the public the chance to admire, up close, the works of star fashion designers Jean Paul Gaultier, Alexander McQueen and Karl Lagerfeld.
The Gaultier show, being held in Paris as part of a global tour, and the McQueen one in London have proved to be hits, organisers say.
The newly opened Lagerfeld show, in Bonn, Germany, is certain to attract those curious about the Chanel designer's work.
"Those who don't get a chance to attend the fashion shows rarely see what a haute couture creation looks like," says Jean-Paul Cluzel, president of the Grand Palais in Paris. "Even the very best images, the very best televised reports are not able to show the richness of the material, of the embroidery. Only an exhibition allows common mortals to see that."
The Gaultier show has already been seen by 1.4 million visitors since starting in Montreal in 2011 and making eight other stops around the world.
In London, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) is featuring "Savage Beauty", the biggest-ever exhibition in homage to McQueen, the British designer who committed suicide in 2010 aged 40. The show began in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011, organised by its Costume Institute, where it achieved "blockbuster" status with 660,000 visitors in three months.
Fashion-themed exhibitions are not new; however, the number of shows has grown exponentially in recent years. In 2011, there were reportedly 16 major fashion exhibitions around the world, including "Inspiration Dior" at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, and a retrospective of Yohji Yamamoto's work at London's V&A.
Hong Kong has also seen its fair share: there was "A Life in Fashion", featuring works by Vivienne Westwood, at ArtisTree in 2008; and, a year later at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, "The Golden Age of Couture", which explored the history of the fashion house Christian Dior, in particular between 1947 and 1957. Both were staged in collaboration with the V&A.
But the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is at the forefront of the thriving retrospectives of designers since launching the trend in 1983 with an Yves Saint Laurent show that was the brainchild of influential American journalist Diana Vreeland.
Vreeland, a Harper's Bazaar and Vogue columnist who was also a consultant at the Met's Costume Institute before her death in 1989, was behind numerous fashion exhibitions around the world.
"She felt that clothing as art had to be associated with individuals, charismatic individuals in any period," says Harold Koda, the curator in charge of the Costume Institute. "She didn't believe that art percolated up from the masses; she believed it trickled down."
But that aspect has changed, as today's public is more sophisticated and knowledgeable, Koda says. Now the focus is on more substance. "The public requires it," he says.
Olivier Gabet - director of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris, which organises two or three fashion exhibitions each year - also stresses how much more demanding the public has become. "It's so hard to escape fashion these days … It fascinates people," he says.
What is important in the museum exhibitions, he says, is to include scientific and artistic information. "There has to be a point of view and analysis. Otherwise, it's just a marketing operation."
The collaboration in which a museum shows a designer's work is valuable, but contains the danger of the designer "also becoming his own curator", Gabet says. The need to keep some distance was highlighted last year when the Museum of Decorative Arts showed works by Belgian designer Dries Van Noten.
"There was a real discussion - a fairly sharp one sometimes," between the designer and the museum, Gabet says.
Designers must understand their work is being interpreted - and it isn't his or her representation, Koda says: "A great artwork is sometimes beyond the intention of the artist."