There are trends in museum shows just as there are in fashion. And lately, one of the biggest has been, well, fashion. Ever since the controversy over the New York Guggenheim’s Armani retrospective in 2000 and the designer’s maybe-coincidence-maybe-not $15m grant to the museum, there have been more and more exhibits: Chanel, Anglomania, and the upcoming Poiret at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; The Art of the Handbag, Balenciaga and now Gaultier/Chopinet at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris; Versace, Westwood and Kylie’s costumes at the Victoria & Albert museum in London.
At this point, you’d think the question of whether or not fashion belongs in the hallowed halls of an art institution would elicit nothing more than yawns. Yet the latest entrant in the field, the V&A’s New York Fashion Now, has again ignited the debate.
Composed of 60 pieces from 20 designers, the exhibition focuses on five areas of contemporary New York fashion: the avant-garde, menswear, sportswear chic, atelier and celebrity, with the clothes and accessories displayed on mannequins. The idea, says curator Sonnet Stanfill, is to ”celebrate the American tradition by highlighting the explosion of talent in New York that has taken place in the past five years”. So who is in it? Not the names you might expect.
There are no classic New York designers such as Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein or Donna Karan; nor even famous historical names such as Claire McCardell and Bonnie Cashin, the godmothers of that American concept, sportswear. Rather, there is Miguel Adrover, Maggie Norris, Costello Tagliepietra and Duckie Brown. Yes, I know who they are, but it’s my job - I’m a fashion editor. But the only names most people outside of fashion may have heard of are Sean Combs, Zac Posen, Derek Lam and Proenza Schouler. Given that this is also the first exhibition dedicated to US fashion at the V&A, the owner of London’s premier costume archive, the content is a little surprising.
”They represent a variety of voices that reflects the richness of the current offering,” says Stanfill, who spent two years working on the show. ”It’s not all sportswear, and it’s not all black. There’s a real optimism and youthful energy to the different areas.”
The problem in placing it in the museum is that the work takes on an importance it may not actually merit. Even some of the designers raised an eyebrow when they were approached. ”I was flattered,” says Alexandre Plokhov of menswear label Cloak. ”But I was also surprised - I didn’t realise new New York fashion warranted a museum show.” To be honest, I didn’t either.
Full disclosure: I am a New Yorker, though I have lived in London for the past 10 years, during which I have spent a lot of time championing/defending the city of my birth. This exhibition should be my dream come true: a major British institution giving its seal of approval to the creative prowess of its former colony. Hallelujah. Yet two months ago there I sat, in the tents at Bryant Park for New York Fashion Week, watching the work of many of the designers included in the V&A parade down a runway in front of me. All I could think was: ”This is a city in search of an identity.”
I agree with Stanfill that there has been a millennial flowering of the fashion industry in New York, but I think it’s still in process. Many of these labels - none comes anywhere near qualifying as brands - are still working out the foundations of their aesthetic, and many have yet to prove they have a clear vision of clothes and the woman. Freezing them in an institution at this stage in their development seems odd.
Traditionally, for a fashion designer to be exhibited in a gallery, the designer must have created something that permanently altered the general aesthetic. So when the Armani hoo-ha was raging, Guggenheim director Thomas Krens simply, and accurately, stated that the designer’s alteration of the suit - taking the structure out, relaxing the cut - was a seminal moment in sartorial history, and in itself justified the choice. I think he was right. At Anglomania, last year’s big Met show, curator Harold Koda was able to juxtapose work from designers such as Alexander McQueen and John Galliano against 18th- and 19th-century clothing, to demonstrate how contemporary designers play with - and against - their history to create a new approach to modern dress. But none of that is going on at the V&A.
In this show no argument is being made about fashion writ large; it’s about a specific, localised moment in place and time. According to Stanfill: ”In the early 1990s, because of the recession and dominance of the big names, designers were risk-averse and there was no real room for start-ups, but by 1999/2000, things had changed. It’s amazing how many of these designers started businesses after 9/11 and are still going.”
Still going, yes, but in a very small way: many of them are not even sold outside of the country - if they are sold at all. Behnaz Sarafpour, for example, one of the more familiar names, says less than 30 per cent of her stockists are outside the US. Meanwhile, three of the designers in the show have actually gone under in the time from research to realisation: Miguel Adrover, a designer who specialised in the reworking of classic garments into new forms; Tess Giberson, who takes a conceptual, thematic approach to her collections, and Cloak.
As a result, the show seems to function as an introduction to, as opposed to a statement about, how New York fashion might relate to the larger world of clothing; an argument that there is actually such a thing as New York fashion put to a world that historically has not believed it.
There is a reason that the V&A has not had a US fashion show before. Stanfill says it is because the museum saw its role as concentrating on the postwar couturieres of Europe (and indeed, in the context of the V&A’s historic collection, the clothes can seem startlingly contemporary). But others may argue it is because, for a long time, Europeans saw Americans as copyists - the first high-street merchants, if you will.
There is some justification for this, at least in the immediate postwar years. Then, department stores routinely sent employees to Europe to the fashion shows only to return with sketches they later produced themselves. Up until 10 years ago, Europeans were still claiming that New York Fashion Week, which came a week after the collections in Paris, Milan and London had finished, was full of derivative work.
In the end, New York Fashion Week jumped to the front of the calendar, a position it still maintains, partially to stop the whining. Still, designers such as Marc Jacobs, arguably the most influential US designer working today - and not, incidentally, represented in this exhibition - are often called stylistes in French, as opposed to createurs; a styliste is someone who is great at creating a look, but not necessarily an original garment.
With the V&A show, Stanfill takes the obverse position by using new designers to demonstrate creativity in multiple genres. So there are Derek Lam and Sarafpour’s elegant evening-or-cocktail-dresses-with-pockets in sportswear chic, and Adrover’s inside-out and backwards Burberry trench ”dress” in avant-garde. There is Jordan Betten (who works under the label Lost Art) and his bespoke leather in atelier and Thom Browne’s new, shrunken silhouette in menswear. The work ticks some boxes, in that it looks creative and of high quality, but without the street-scene photographs that line the exhibition’s walls, it would be hard to identify it as specifically New York.
In this way, New York Fashion Now is markedly different from Anglomania at the Met - which clearly showed a conversation between the clothes and the country. In fact, it is more like the big retail events that surround these exhibitions.
During Anglomania, for example, Saks Fifth Avenue filled its windows with the work of English designers and threw a big party for them; so did Barney’s. The strategy actually goes back to Bloomingdale’s ”Italian invasion” in 1992, when the whole store gave itself over to Italian products, from food and wine to - yes - Armani.
It would be easy to imagine Selfridges or, for that matter, Harvey Nichols, the main stockist in London for most of the emerging New York designers, doing a similar thing for this generation. But a museum? Shouldn’t the idea be to get the clothes on living bodies before they end up on mannequins?
Vanessa Friedman is the FT’s fashion editor.
”New York Fashion Now”, sponsored by ecco, is at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London SW7, April 17 to September 23.