Veiled like a medieval princess on her tomb, Daphne Guinness lay dead still, just one hand shivering inside its armored “glove.”
The event held in London last week to display the collaboration between the artistic Ms. Guinness and the jeweler Shaun Leane was more than an extreme fashionista making an exhibition of herself. It was symbolic of the umbilical cord that now ties fashion to art.
Since the seminal book “Marketing Culture and the Arts” by François Colbert, a Canadian professor, appeared in the late 1990s, there is no doubt that fashion has become the big winner and its exhibitions money spinners.
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.
While Ms. Guinness was reclining last week, a private view was taking place across London at Somerset House: “Masters of Style” marks the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy with fashion photographs of iconic advertising campaigns from the country’s fashion houses — Armani through Ferragamo to Prada (until Aug. 14).
This week in Paris will see the opening of an exhibition dedicated to the conceptual designer Hussein Chalayan at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (until Nov. 21).
In what could be a precursor of digital-only exhibitions, Valentino is to unveil on Wednesday a fascinating project that offers an online exploration of the couturier’s fashion history.
On Thursday, the haute couture collections will close with a celebration at the Grand Trianon in Versailles of an exhibition called “The 18th Century Back in Fashion” (until Oct. 9). It is curated by Olivier Saillard, who says, “I am very inspired by the 18th century.” The show will face off today’s designers, from Jean Paul Gaultier to Vivienne Westwood, and historic costumes and accessories.
The same curator is behind the acclaimed Madame Grès exhibition at the Musée Bourdelle in Paris (until Aug. 28), where Mr. Saillard, creative director of Palais Galliera museum, has created a dialogue between clothing and sculpture.
Fashion exhibitions are thus the height of fashion — and omnipresent. This global phenomenon includes the Alexander McQueen “Savage Beauty” show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (extended to Aug. 7 because of its popularity). That was the birthplace of fashion exhibitions, when Diana Vreeland, under the stewardship of then-museum director Philippe de Montebello, created a study of Yves Saint Laurent in 1983 — the first living designer ever given a museum show.
Last year an exhibition at the Petit Palais in Paris once again put Saint Laurent — after his death — center stage.
The longevity of designers and brands offers constant opportunities for landmark events.
The Jean Paul Gaultier show “From the Catwalk to the Sidewalk” (until Oct. 2) at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts marked 35 years in fashion for the maverick designer. Nathalie Bondil, the museum’s director, was adamant that the show had to be independently curated and funded. It already is slated to travel the world — from Dallas and San Francisco through Madrid and Rotterdam.
That phenomenon of the traveling exhibition, offering vast global reach, is another expanding aspect of the museum world. The hats of the British designer Stephen Jones were displayed in 2009 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London before moving to Brisbane, Australia, and a separate Jones exhibition was recently in Istanbul after appearing at Mode Museum in Antwerp (known as MoMu), where the curator Kaat Debo works mainly with living designers.
Is fashion really so exhibition worthy? And, more importantly, are there explicit standards by which the various shows should be judged?
Crowds are pouring into the Pushkin Museum in Moscow for an “Inspiration Dior” exhibition (until July 24) installed by the house of Dior to compare and contrast fashion with major works of modern art. In the same vein, Chanel showed “Culture Chanel,” a modernist exhibition it put together, in Shanghai. It will move to Beijing in October.
Such self-funded exhibitions are not purely promotional — they have an artistic base. But they also underscore the history of a brand and educate residents of what will soon be the world’s largest luxury market.
Sidney Toledano, president and chief executive of Christian Dior, explains the strategy, referring also to the house’s previous collaborations with Chinese artists in Beijing and Shanghai.
“It is a way of speaking about the savoir faire, the creator, the house and its history — and the 150,000 people who go to the Pushkin understand that Mr. Dior was an artist and that there is a way of contemplating the dresses with fine art,” says Mr. Toledano.
The explosion of museum exhibitions is only a mirror image of what has happened to fashion itself this millennium. 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.
The reason there are so many exhibitions is, as Beatrice Salmon, director of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, explains, because fashion consistently attracts a large audience.
The museum factor has certainly transformed the way designers treat their own archives. At a new museum at Getaria, Spain, the birthplace of Cristóbal Balenciaga, dresses are linked to their original owners, some of whom were at the opening ceremony this summer. Hubert de Givenchy, a force behind the Balenciaga museum, spent a decade persuading couture ladies to donate.
It was slightly different for the editor Hamish Bowles, who mounted a Balenciaga exhibit in New York last year and recently at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Mr. Bowles had access to the archive used by the current Balenciaga designer Nicolas Ghesquière. But as guest curator in San Francisco, he worked with the museum’s archive and other loans.
Thirty years ago it was not normal practice to archive part of a collection. Katell le Bourhis, who worked with Ms. Vreeland on the 1983 Saint Laurent exhibit, remembers that the house had a single brown lace dress available for the Met’s Costume Institute show. Ms. Vreeland, herself a Saint Laurent devotee, asked American women to donate dresses. Only afterward was an archive established by Pierre Bergé, Y.S.L.’s partner. That period marks the beginning of fashion’s acceptance as not just a decorative art, but part of a cultural heritage.
Now all brands are constantly building from their pasts — not least because history is used as inspiration. Gucci will open a dedicated museum in Florence in September. Frida Giannini, its current designer, says the museum, which will be in the 15th-century building that was formerly her office, will “mix fashion with art.”
Ferragamo already has a museum in Florence — suggesting that the Italian brands are ahead on what will surely become a brand trend.
Significantly, it was the Italian maestro Giorgio Armani whose exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2000 caused controversy because the designer was a benefactor. Pamela Golbin, curator in chief of Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris, sees that exhibition as one that “changed the landscape.”
All the many different efforts to energize the past, to offer “stimulating visual elan” as Mr. Bowles puts it, raise one simple question: What is a fashion exhibition for?
The subsidiary questions are: Who should be the keeper of the flame, especially with a living designer? Should an independent museum curator take an objective exterior approach, or work in tandem with a designer? And can an exhibition mounted by a house ever be considered objective?
Claire Wilcox, senior fashion curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, draws on a lifetime of experience mounting shows and says that, in taking a historical approach, she allows herself what can be “years of research.” Because the museum focuses on art and craft, the curator is equally involved in textile conservation and innovations in that field. She also focuses on catalogues and images available online and says that it is because she has worked with the “most wonderful collections in the world” that she began to “understand the vocabulary of design.”
“For me, objectivity is the key,” says Ms. Wilcox, particularly now that designers are increasingly aware of heritage and value their own history.
In spite of the V&A’s scholarly approach to fashion, it also has had fun with an exhibition of the singer Kylie Minogue’s show wardrobe, imported from Australia, and with a continuing series called “Fashion in Motion” that draws a hip, young crowd. (Yohji Yamamoto was at the museum on Friday for the live catwalk shows. An exhibit of his work continues there until Sunday.)
By contrast, an exhibition like “The Golden Age of Couture” in 2007, curated by Ms. Wilcox, was presented from a historical perspective and made a point of technique — something that Damien Whitmore, director of public affairs and programming at the V&A, says is part of the museum’s responsibility.
“My main focus is on creating a program because our collections are so varied,” says Mr. Whitmore, who has 100 exhibitions of various sizes on display around the world. For example, the museum’s “Cult of Beauty” exhibition on the Aesthetic Movement (until July 17) will move to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris in September and on to the de Young in San Francisco next February.
The Musée des Arts Décoratifs is, like the V&A, a decorative arts museum, although that even includes Ralph Lauren’s vintage car collection (until Aug. 28), which Ms. Salmon says is about the art and craft of the automobile.
Ms. Golbin, who joined the museum in 1993, has produced exhibitions on fashion as varied as Balenciaga and Viktor & Rolf, said, “I know what can work. It has to be strong enough from design point of view.”
Her next exhibition, after Chalayan, is already raising eyebrows: Louis Vuitton and Marc Jacobs. Ms. Golbin sees a story about the industrialization of the 19th century followed by the globalization of the 20th. Others might read it as pure promotion.
Ms. Salmon says the 2012 exhibition will reflect the museum’s attitude, drawing around 50 percent of the items from its own archives of Louis Vuitton leather bags and trunks. The Jacobs material will come from Vuitton, which will be the show’s sponsor, just as the Alexander McQueen exhibition in New York is sponsored by the house of McQueen, part of the PPR luxury empire.
The subject of sponsorship is delicate. With all museums short of money, almost no fashion exhibition could take place without some external investment. Mr. Saillard is even frustrated that sponsors — in fashion or art — are drawn always to the same big museum names and that wealthy brands do not try to help museums with funding, even though their creative teams do research there. To the curator’s chagrin, luxury groups like LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and PPR are investing in contemporary art projects, rather than in museum fashion.
In Montreal, Ms. Bondil is adamant that “a museum is not a showcase.”
“Independence is sometimes expensive, but freedom is priceless,” she says. “I hate the word ‘blockbuster.’ If we compare ourselves with cinema, we belong to the independent circle — not the Hollywood one. When we organized with San Francisco the Saint Laurent first retrospective, I insisted on having an independent curator and expert. In my mind it was not possible to conceive of such an exhibition which still had an active commercial brand without any independent outlook.”
Although Ms. Bondil sees funding, and curating contemporary art in general — not just fashion, as a complex subject, Ms. Debo, director of MoMu in Antwerp, refuses to view sponsorship as a moral issue.
“I don’t have a problem. It comes down to how you collaborate. Sometimes the press are too suspicious, thinking that a museum cannot decide anything,” Ms. Debo says. “It is important how you use the collaboration and what kind of agreement.”
However, it is difficult to imagine how a deep critical appraisal — suggesting, for example, that the most creative years of a famous designer were far behind — could possibly appear in an exhibition sponsored by the brand.
Some museums have a crystal clear vision about what constitutes a proper subject for a fashion exhibition. John E. Buchanan Jr., director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, says that the first is whether a show can “find its strength and derive its origin” from the museum’s permanent collections of textiles, costume and couture, citing the 46 Balenciaga pieces that provided a springboard for the Bowles show.
“Second is the fact that fashion designers are artists,” says Mr. Buchanan. “In considering a monographic exhibition, we look for ‘the genius factor.’ We want the designer who is seminal — who has created a singular vision, silhouette, technique or style unlike that which came before and who has a broad-reaching oeuvre that inspires and influences successive generations of designers.”
That judgment is easier to make of a designer who has passed into history. But, aside from the funding issue, the other big debate about museum exhibitions is whether they should be led by the will of a living designer.
Ms. Debo, whose Antwerp exhibitions have included monographs on the Belgian designers Martin Margiela and Veronique Branquinho — as well as Mr. Jones and his hats — thinks it essential that a living designer works with the curator.
Although she says she has to redirect the designers’ tendency to show their latest work, the Antwerp curator says, “There is a value in working with living designers. With Dior, you can’t ask Mr. Dior himself.”
She cites her coming exhibition in the autumn on the Antwerp designer Walter Van Beirendonck and the need to surround herself with his collaborators to get into the “Walter World.” But she says the Margiela exhibition was a different experience, as the designer said: “You are the curator. Propose me your concept.”
It certainly made sense for the Met to have the input of the set designers of McQueen’s fantastical runway shows. The museum installation includes a cabinet of curiosities, displaying jewelry by the same Mr. Leane who made the Daphne Guinness armor and hats by Philip Treacy, as well as videos of shows.
However, it was definitely Andrew Bolton, who works with Harold Koda at the Costume Institute, who had the vision of the McQueen exhibit. He divided the show into categories (all starting with “Romantic”): Gothic, nationalism, exoticism, primitivism and naturalism.
“Our exhibition strategy is very specific,” says Mr. Bolton, referring to a need to put clothes in a context of social history and education and to “present costume as living art.”
The Met’s approach is therefore thematic and interpretational, putting fashion in a context. The museum criteria for a monographic show, like those on Paul Poiret, Chanel or McQueen, is whether the designer “changed the course of fashion history,” Mr. Bolton says. Another type of exhibition was “American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity” based on masterworks from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection.
Mr. Bolton, who came from the V&A, says that the main difference is that the London establishment is a design museum “but the Met is an art museum with the main focus on artistic merit.”
Since the furor surrounding the Saint Laurent show in the 1980s, the Met does not do monographic shows of living designers. But the museum has a strong New York rival in FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology), where the curator Valerie Steele produces exhibitions with piquant subjects.
Jean Paul Gaultier is unquestionably a highly creative designer, and the exhibition in Montreal matches that imaginative talent, using mannequins with “talking heads” created by digitally projected faces. Mr. Gaultier was involved in the choice of sections titles, including “Skin Deep,” “Punk Cancan” and “Urban Jungle.”
But the exhibition, two years in the making, has the curatorial vision of Ms. Bondil, who stresses the importance of craft and the need for a decorative arts museum to concentrate on Mr. Gaultier’s exceptional work in haute couture.
“I am not a fashion specialist but an art historian, and the museum’s mission is to show works which are not usually accessible,” she says. “It is also to show excellence, which includes the high standards of haute couture, and to enlarge its public. In my mind, design presents a special interest, as the public can easily recognize an object through its form and function. That can attract them towards other fields, which need more learning.”
“We try to promote social, humanist values in the programming far beyond art,” Ms. Bondil continues. “When art supports a more engaged message it reaches all kinds of people, not only the amateurs and specialists: the museum then talks a universal language.”
That fashion dialogue takes many forms. And one of those is Ms. Guinness, muse, animator and fashion original. Not only is Mr. Leane’s extraordinary jeweled glove (five years in the making) going on display in London at the White Cube Gallery of the modern art supremo Jay Jopling but an exhibition, “Daphne Guinness”, is to open at the Museum at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) in New York on Sept. 16 — making her the Marina Abramovic performing artist of a fashion world with art as its beating heart.