Valerie Steele hardly needs introduction. The Director and Chief Curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of technology (MFIT), I’d last interviewed the prolific, doyenne of fashion in 1999. She’d guest-edited, then, the “Desire issue” of aRUDE, in print. As her current exhibition, Daphne Guinness draws to a close; I trust that this will be a reminder, a last-call of sorts for those of you who haven’t seen the exhibition, to go see it. It is a spectacular show indeed. Moreover, this all encompassing interview charts Dr Steele’s curatorial practice, philosophy, strategies, passion, vision and style.
What is the name of your current exhibition and how did it come about? I began working on the Daphne Guinness show about two years ago. When I met Daphne, I immediately asked if she’s willing to co-curate a show with me about her personal style.
The idea came to me because there are so many exhibitions about great fashion designers from Yves Saint Laurent to Alexander McQueen but very few exhibitions about individual women of style. And yet these are the people that make clothes come alive off the runway, in the real world.
In planning the exhibition, what role did Ms. Guinness play? I think that Daphne Guinness is today’s most inspiring fashion icon. She was very much co-curator of the exhibition. My colleague, senior curator Fred Dennis, and I chose most of the objects, but Daphne also suggested particular garments, and she styled each and every outfit. How did you flesh out the framework of the exhibition? Daphne is very well organized. Her clothes are all on a computer database. The first thing she did was to send me a disk with thumbnail pictures of her collection—about 2500 images — that we printed out. So Fred and I made a selection from these. Then Daphne came into the office and reviewed them and said that it was all fine.
Daphne Guinness styled the whole show, with her costume jewelry and accessories. The only thing I had to insist on is that there be no real diamonds, no rubies in the show.
Ultimately we finally chose about a 100 looks for the exhibition. I decided how to organize them based on two years of looking at Daphne’s clothes and interviewing her to get a sense of her style, because I did not want to organize them by designers—McQueen, Chanel, Alaïa, etc. Instead I wanted to show aspects of her style.
Thus, one platform was Dandy, the influence of men’s clothes; another platform was dedicated for her love of armor, etc.
In planning the exhibition, what role did Daphne play? Daphne let us borrow whatever we wanted. And she made additional suggestions of things that we should include. When I chose a single item, such as an Azzedine Alaïa jacket, I asked her how she would wear it,with what shirt, skirt or trousers or leggings, etc. She chose the other clothing components and accessories. She personally styled every look in the show. She asked if I wanted it the way she first wore it or the way she’d wear it today, and I said the way she would wear it today.
She styled the whole show, with her costume jewelry and accessories. The only thing I had to insist on is that there be no real diamonds, no rubies in the show.
So, she was a sort of co-curator? From the beginning I wanted Daphne to be a co-curator of the show, because I wanted the exhibition to be about her personal style – and who could do that better than she?
If you can clarify again, in what order was the exhibition arranged? The exhibition was arranged in seven categories: the first was the introductory gallery, which featured an iconic catsuit and cape by McQueen. This was surrounded by about a dozen pairs of shoes and other accessories, together with a lot of images, such as a video interview with Italian Vogue and her film, Phenomenology of the Body.
In the big room, there are six categories: dandy, armor, daytime chic, evening chic, sparkle and exotic. In addition we have two films—one that Daphne directed, another that she starred in. And finally we have a para hologram that we made with Daphne especially for the exhibition, which is projected on a life-size scrim that hangs from the ceiling.
Would you say that Daphne is a passive consumer, in collaboration with the designers or she buys what she likes or even commission dresses? Daphne says—and I think that she’s right—that she’s not a muse, that she isn’t associated with any one designer — although she was particularly close to McQueen. She says she more like “a bee that flies from flower to flower”. So she will buy things from different designers. Sometimes she will buy things off the runway because she’s a sample size. Sometimes she will commission a piece. She will also buy things from a store. She never felt that it was necessary to know the designers to appreciate their work.
We put on two special exhibitions per year — like Daphne Guiness; we also mount two exhibitions in the Fashion History gallery; so these are four major fashion shows per year
She’s far from being just a consumer. She collects fashion the way one would collect art or stamps from the point of view of connoisseur who knows the important things in fashion.
What is the oldest and latest pieces from her collection that are in the exhibition? Everything in the exhibition is from the last 15 years or so. We didn’t include anything from her earlier life.
[watch unabridged interview in video format]
What happens to the clothes after the exhibition? After the exhibition the clothes will go back to Daphne’s closets.
Is she going to donate some of her collections to your institution? I don’t know. I certainly hope that we can get something from the show for the museum. She has donated some pieces in the past. I think that she’s talking about doing an auction at some point in order to start a Foundation to protect and explore how Isabella Blow’s collection can best be shared with the world.
How does this exhibition compare or contrast with your usual Museum program? The exhibitions that we do at FIT vary a lot. Many of our shows are thematic: on subjects such as The Corset or Gothic: Dark Glamour. Sometimes we do an exhibition on an individual designer, like Madame Grès or Ralph Rucci. Many years ago, Richard and Harold Koda did a show on Tina Chow who was also a collector of haute couture and a woman of tremendous style. So, I will say that this exhibition fits in very well with our program of exhibitions.
What are the general and particular objectives of fashion Museum for the contemporary audience? The Museum’s mission is to advance knowledge of fashion through exhibitions, publications, and public programs.
How have you gone about fulfilling these objectives and how successfully? In order to advance knowledge of fashion, to get fashion taken seriously as a real cultural force, we collect, conserve, document, exhibit and interpret fashion. We focus on fashion that I think that is artistically and historically significant—particularly fashion that is directional, i.e. that points fashion in new directions and influences other designers.
Interesting term that you’ve employed here, “directional fashion.” How would you define directional fashion? Directional fashion is fashion that sets the course of where fashion will be going. It is fashion that other designers look at and by which they are inspired.
For example? Well it could be…for example the work of designers like Jean Paul Gaultier, especially his gender-bending designs, such as skirts for men… or it could be something like the romantic dark glamour of McQueen’s work. We try to identify who the important designers are – and we also look for designers that we think may be important in the future. This is true of Daphne as well; in addition to getting things from blue-chip, top-of-the-line haute couture, she also works with younger designers who she thinks are especially creative, like Gareth Pugh. He has a very small company, but she believes in his vision. We’ve also being buying things from Gareth Pugh and from Rodarte and other young designers whom we think are going to be important.
In order to advance knowledge of fashion, to get fashion taken seriously as a real cultural force, we collect, conserve, document, exhibit and interpret fashion”
And when you say important, how do you measure a designer’s importance? Is it from the press they get, from their sales, workmanship…how do you gauge importance in a designer? Please explain. When we look at which designer to collect, we are looking at those whom other designers admire and watch, people like Rei Kawakubo. And we look for the collections of theirs which have the greatest influence on other designers, and/or on the course of fashion history. So it doesn’t matter if their sales are negligible. In fact, many avant-garde designers are so far ahead of their time that they don’t sell very much and they don’t make very much money. For example, in the early-to-mid-1980s Vivienne Westwood did collections with bras on top of shirts. Her pioneering version of Underwear as Outerwear didn’t make much money, but a few years later many people were copying that. So we made the effort to get some of those original pieces by Westwood that launched the trend for underwear as outwear.
What is the disparity or gap between the Museum program and popular magazines? There are many different venues and many media that are devoted to fashion. Of course there is the fashion media—the magazines, websites, newspaper articles, blogs, etc.; there are also the retail stores, which provide another way to experience fashion. Increasingly people experience fashion via the Internet by watching videos of fashion shows or by buying clothes from Ebay. The museum is just another medium whereby people can exposed to fashion, but it’s one that looks at fashion from a somewhat different angle. It is not as overtly commercial, it is not trying to sell you something and it can get you to look beyond that particular season’s trend and maybe get you look at other bigger themes in fashion.
There is a general public perception that the institution of the museum intimidates with its scholarly and academic aura. Is this something that you are keenly aware of and is it necessarily true that one need to possess a certain degree of education in order to appreciate your exhibitions? I think that for museum directors, bringing in a large and relatively unsophisticated public is a big issue. You want to bring in visitors who are not necessarily those who go to museums. What’s nice about running a fashion museum is that everybody thinks that they know something about fashion. And, indeed, I think that members of the public are surprisingly knowledgeable about fashion, so they don’t find it threatening.
By contrast, with contemporary art, many people think, “I don’t know what it is,” or “I have never seen that.” But people are keen to see and talk about contemporary fashion. So I think there is none of the intimidating factor that you have with contemporary art museums. People just love to go to fashion exhibitions.
If the public perception of the museum intimidates, how do you assuage this anxiety and win them over? I don’t think that people are intimidated by fashion exhibitions. I think that they come in quite happily. I think that what’s more of a challenge is getting people to think that a fashion exhibition is more than thinking a bunch of pretty frocks. So you try to provide context for them, by giving information. You try to pitch the exhibition labels so they will appeal to the members of the general public, as well as to designers and fashion connoisseurs, so that everyone, no matter their level of knowledge, can get something from the exhibition.
For example, one can argue that live fashion shows are more popular than fashion museums in terms of the public excitement with the former. Live fashion shows are obviously very accessible to people, at least emotionally, but they are inaccessible to people in as much as fashion shows are not open to the public. So most people cannot attend fashion shows, and the only way they can get close to those clothes is to go to an expensive store and see them.
When we look at which designer to collect, we are looking at those whom other designers admire and watch, people like Rei Kawakubo.
So it is a “live factor” then. One difference between a live fashion show and a museum exhibition is that clothes at a museum are not worn on living, moving bodies—they are worn on static fiberglass mannequins. Some people have a problem with that. Fashion is a part of life and when it is in the museum, it is slightly removed from that. But I don’t think it is a significant problem, because the museum provides you with another way to look at the clothes.
What have been your five most popular exhibitions whereby, the audience were considerable broader in range in relation to socio-economic, class, education or lack thereof, social backgrounds, etc.? The Ruben and Isabel Toledo exhibition was very popular. Because we had Michelle Obama’s inaugural dress, which was designed by Isabel, that exhibition attracted an extremely large number of African-Americans and Latinos. What was very cool about it was that they came in, initially, to see Michelle Obama’s dress and they stayed to see all of Isabel and Ruben’s things and were very enthusiastic about the show. Another exhibition they attracted a large and diverse public was Gothic: Dark Glamour. That brought in lots and lots of young people and sub-culture people. Many of the visitors said that they were enthusiastic, because we respected Goth style. London Fashion also brought in a lot of young people because we had Punk clothes and all kinds of outrageous clothes. That was very cool. The Corset brought in a lot of people, because the corset is the most controversial garment in the history of fashion –and corsetry is about the body. And of course if there is an exhibition which has a celebrity factor, like when we did the Bob Mackie show that brought in a lot of people because they had seen Cher’s clothes and Carol Burnett’s clothes on television.
Returning back to the issue of live fashions, is it possible to use life models in an exhibition? You really cannot use live models in an exhibition with clothes that are part of a museum collection. It is completely unacceptable by international museum standards. You can do a sort of live fashion show, where you borrow clothes from a designer and then have models parade through the galleries of the museum; the Victoria and Albert Museum has done this, so that people can view a kind of mini fashion show, which they call “Fashion in Motion.”.
Do you think that the phenomenal popularity of Alexander McQueen’s exhibition will help lure the general public to attend/participate en masse, fashion exhibitions at institutions such as yours? The extreme popularity of McQueen’s show certainly helps any museum, which is putting on fashion exhibitions. But you should also recognize that even before McQueen, there have already been many blockbuster fashion exhibitions. McQueen is so far the biggest. But there were hundreds of thousands of people who went to the Armani show at the Guggenheim; who went to the Chanel show, etc. There was the Yves Laurent’s show in Paris that drew enormous numbers of people.
How many exhibitions do typically execute in a year and how long doe it take you to plan the average show? We put on two special exhibitions per year — like Daphne Guiness; we also mount two exhibitions in the Fashion History gallery; so these are four major fashion shows per year. We also work on a small show with the graduate students at FIT, so that’s five. And then we do another dozen student and faculty exhibitions around the campus or in Gallery FIT. With the large special exhibitions, we tend to work at least two years in advance, the Fashion History exhibitions require about one year of work. We do two Fashion History exhibitions a year, and each of these stays up for six months. The special exhibitions last for about four months.
You are VERY busy then. Yes we are VERY busy. It is an INSANE exhibition schedule.
For the future, what kinds of exhibitions are we to expect from your museum? After Daphne’s show, the next exhibition is IMPACT: Fifty Years of Fashion Council of America. Patricia Mears will be curating that. It was the idea of Diane von Furstenberg to showcase the great American designers who belong to the CFDA—those are still living and those like Halston who are deceased. Then in the fall, Patricia will be doing one on Ivy Style, which is about Ivy League or preppy style. And in the fall 2013 Fred and I will be doing a big exhibition on Queer Style— about the influence of gays and lesbians on fashion for the past hundred years.
In addition, in the fashion history gallery, our upcoming exhibition is The Great Designers. It is in two sections, beginning in November 2011 with Part One and continuing with Part Two in May 2012. We will be featuring a selection of masterpieces from the museum’s permanent collection in conjunction with a publication of big book by Taschen called The Great Designers.
What would your ideal show—if you have the financial means to pull it off? Before McQueen died, Daphne and I were talking about the idea of doing a McQueen show, but he said to her, “Isn’t it a little early for a retrospective?” Now the one that I’m working and focusing on is the one on queer style. It seems like a no-brainer. I can’t believe no one has done this show!