From Rags to Riches

Culture By SUZY MENKES October 7, 2011
T Magazine

Clockwise from bottom left: the Museum at F.I.T.; V&A Images; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Museum at F.I.T.; Stéphane Piera/Galliera/Roger-Viollet Showstoppers Clockwise from top right: this year’s exhibitions included a paean to Balenciaga at the de Young Museum; Alexander McQueen at the Met; Daphne Guinness’s dress by McQueen for Givenchy at F.I.T.; a dress by Madame Grès at the Musée Bourdelle; Guinness’s shoes by Nina Ricci; and Stephen Jones’s hat at the Bard Graduate Center.

My teenage memories of rainy weekends watching classic movies often had a star — Bette Davis, maybe — shrugging off a compliment with a sneer and the words “This old thing?!”

The message was that there was something dull or shabby about relying on wardrobe favorites. So who would have thought that a vintage dress — from on- or off-screen — would later fetch a fortune at auction and become a fashion object of desire?

The word “vintage,” which suggests the richness of a fine wine, was barely used in fashion until celebrities like Renée Zellweger and Julia Roberts started choosing past finery for Hollywood moments in the early 2000s.

Now old clothes are considered so intriguing that they are put on display in museums. And how! The latest subject for scrutiny is Daphne Guinness at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, where Guinness and the museum’s director and chief curator, Valerie Steele, have taken the personal fashion collection and shown its rigor and restraint — burnished, of course, with a collection of riding hats, silver-gray wigs, bold jewelry and extraordinary platform shoes that require the wearer to walk as if on air.

Guinness is just one fashion person to be the subject of a show. With people around the world drawn to museum presentations, 2011 has offered an especially crowded calendar. Stephen Jones, whose hat exhibition opened at the Bard Graduate Center in New York this autumn after runs in London and Queensland, Australia, says that many visitors see a museum as a community experience. Yet the most forceful reason to hold these shows must be financial: the high attendance brings in the big bucks.

The Alexander McQueen show, “Savage Beauty,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, set the gold standard for imaginative installation and for pulling in a crowd. But there are a slew of runners-up: The Madame Grès exhibition in Paris, with draped clothes set among molded statues in the Musée Bourdelle, had an electrifying effect on designers, who flocked to see the imaginative face-offs between stone and cloth. In Florence I saw a collection from the Mulleavy sisters of Rodarte that was tailored to go directly to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. And again in Paris, Hussein Chalayan’s multimedia show at Les Arts Décoratifs is to be followed this winter in the same space by a focus on the original Louis Vuitton and the company’s current creative director, Marc Jacobs.

With big-name museums increasingly relying on fashion, it was only a matter of time before corporate brands saw the advantage of creating their own exhibitions and “museums,” where they could set their focus without any intervention from pedantic historians and where they could make or break their own rules. The concept of the branded museum show is now becoming a reality. The luxury conglomerate PPR, which owns Balenciaga and McQueen, sponsored the Met’s show, for example. Vintage Christian Dior outfits were taken to Russia and exhibited alongside fine art at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. And the upcoming Louis Vuitton show in Paris is sponsored by the brand.

More important, Gucci, a brand seen as forward looking and aimed at the millennial generation, has installed a permanent museum in one of its 15th-century Florentine buildings. Behind the private museums is the idea of burnishing a heritage. That vision has been around for some time in the jewelry world, where companies often bid at auction for historic pieces and then send them traveling around the world as a promotional tool.

But whereas a Cartier diamond ring and a Bulgari emerald necklace become brand ambassadors, can the same really be said for clothes? However much an outfit from the past is of urgent interest to the fashion world, it tends to take that musky, faded aura of dead people’s possessions.

The ideal outfit from the corporate point of view is one that has been touched by celebrity — with a photograph or film projection to make the connection to fame and fortune.

But with so many more museum exhibitions scheduled to open and an audience that adores fashion displays, no one would dare to dismiss a heritage piece as “this old thing.”


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