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Dr. Valerie Steele: On the Art of Fashion Curation

17.10.2017 | Blog , Culture , Fashion | BY:

The fashion curator is a role that has risen in recent years to that of a modern bard: a storyteller that can enrapture audiences and obsessives with their informed and accessible spins on the past. Much like the ancient bard travelled from town to town, the fashion curator moves their visual tales through varying cities, through exhibitions, talks, conferences or publications. The responsibility the bard held was to leave their audience with some enlightenment, be it through words of omens and warning, history re-told, or deliberation on the times: future, past and present. The fashion curator is no different, leading their audience through discussions on the past, comparisons to the present, and reflections on the future. The bard was heralded as a spiritual guide – the fashion curator has become a reputable pond of cultural relevance. No one is in better company to deliberate on the realities and the responsibilities of the fashion curator than Dr. Valerie Steele – Director of the Museum at Fashion Institute of Technology and a published author of multiple titles. Her books have explored the influence of fetish in fashion, to her exhibitions ranging from Shoe Obsession to Gothic: Dark Glamour. Reviewing and retelling from a fresh perspective: the art of fashion curation can both delight and discover.

What​ ​do​ ​you​ ​feel​ ​is​ ​the​ ​role​ ​of​ ​the​ ​fashion​ ​curator?

I think that fashion curation is much more than what most people think it is. I feel that most people think it is just choosing a selection of pretty dresses and putting them on display. In fact the whole word ‘curation’ is used so casually – this beautiful curation of cheeses at the supermarket etc. Being a curator is like working on a film or a book. You do research and tell a story, only you are using objects to tell a story. Hopefully you are going to do it in a way that is both educational and entertaining; that you are going to bring something new to the whole subject of fashion.

Does​ ​the​ ​fashion​ ​curator​ ​hold​ ​any​ ​responsibilities​ ​to​ ​the​ ​audience​ ​or​ ​to​ ​the​ ​subject​ ​they​ ​are​ ​exploring?

Of course – they have responsibility to both the audience and the subject matter. I wrote the mission statement for the museum here, which is to educate and inspire diverse audiences through innovative exhibitions that advance the knowledge of fashion. So yes, I think that you are responsible to educate and inspire your audience while also making a genuine contribution to the knowledge about fashion.

Stella Tennant @ Eclect Dissect, Givenchy F/W 1997 Haute Couture by Alexander McQueen

Stella Tennant @ Eclect Dissect, Givenchy F/W 1997 Haute Couture by Alexander McQueen

What​ ​are​ ​the​ ​considerations​ ​you​ ​take​ ​into​ ​account​ ​when​ ​deciding​ ​upon​ ​a​ ​new​ ​exhibition​ ​or​ ​a​ ​book?

I am fortunate in having a really great team of curators here – when I first came to FIT I had to curate 5 exhibitions a year myself, which is insane, and now I do one every year or so. Nowadays the other curators will present proposals – I will look at the proposals and see if they are plausible, and try to figure out whether it can be done with what we have here, or would it require us to buy or borrow a lot of things. For example, if someone said to me they would like to do an exhibition on the influence of 18th Century fashion on contemporary haute couture, I would have to say that is going to be a hard one to do, as we only have a small selection of 18th Century pieces. They are very fragile, so we can only show them once in a while, and we don’t have a lot of couture that was inspired by the 18th century, so it is going to be an expensive show to put on. Then two, we would want to be looking at having a range of exhibitions over the course of a year, so we wouldn’t want to have four shows about 1960’s fashion, as that wouldn’t be fair to our audience who might want to look at contemporary fashion. We sometimes have shows about a particular designer, but biographical shows tend to tilt towards the hagiographic – you have to beware of claiming the designer as the greatest to ever walk the face of the earth, so if we do a show on a particular designer, we try to contextualise the designer, to show how he or she fit into the context of other designers. On the whole we prefer to do thematic shows, such as the theme of the corset, or the theme of gothic in fashion – how did it influence high fashion designers like McQueen or Rick Owens.

The​ ​in-house​ ​archive​ ​of​ ​FIT​ ​is​ ​approximately​ ​50,000​ ​pieces:​ ​what​ ​influences​ ​the​ ​decision​ ​of​ ​a​ ​new​ ​acquisition​ ​into​ ​a fashion​ ​archive?

We try to get pieces which are artistically and/or historically significant, so when we are looking at things, we are looking at which designers have been most influential, which of their collections, which of their individual looks. For example, I am working on a show at the moment about the colour pink in fashion, so many of our acquisitions are made with a view to a show we are working on. That said, sometimes it’s a question that if an auction comes up and they have a piece that we feel is very important in the history of fashion we will try and acquire it. Hence, some of our purchases are opportunistic and others are planned ahead. I am working on another show for 2019 – Paris: the capital of fashion. When a Jeanne Lanvin evening coat that was made during the Nazi occupation came up, it was such a rare find that we wanted to have it and we got it for a very good price. We are always thinking ahead about how we will show an object, and will we show it more than once. Most fashion history collections in museums like the V&A traditionally had more 18th & 19th Century pieces while we have more 20th & 21st Century pieces. Because we want to continue to show people the history of fashion we do look and buy 18t &19th Century pieces too. Once we were shopping at auction in New York and Hamish Bowles saw me bidding on a particular Madame Grès piece and let me have it: he then sent over all his research on it; while you have lots of competition you also have people trying to help the museum collection advance.

John Galliano for Christian Dior, SS'98

John Galliano for Christian Dior, SS’98

Do​ ​you​ ​ever​ ​take​ ​on​ ​extremely​ ​new​ ​designers?

We do! We absolutely do! It’s very much like buying contemporary art – it’s not a known entity. You don’t know if that designer will disappear in three months or become extremely important. We do feel that it is important to buy from new designers, so if we see somebody who is really doing something interesting and new, we will try and buy from them. Who​ ​are​ ​your​ ​heroes​ ​of​ ​the​ ​fashion​ ​industry,​ ​past​ ​and​ ​present? Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons is an incredible talent. The late Alexander McQueen also.

What kind of mixture do you have? Do you choose exhibitions ​that​ ​reflect​ ​current​ ​societal​ ​interests​ ​and ​subject​ ​matter​ ​that​ ​hasn’t been​ ​deservedly​ ​explored​ ​enough?

Yes you have a mixture of that. Our young fashion curators tend to work in our fashion history gallery because thats easier to do, then the more senior curators tend to work in the special exhibitions gallery, where we hold bigger exhibitions and you can borrow things. In the fashion history gallery, exhibitions have to have some chronological framework, and draw from objects that are entirely our own collection – which doesn’t mean we cant buy things for it – but the curators have come up with very creative ideas, like how nature has inspired fashion, which is the current show, or politics in fashion, or eco-fashion, or seduction as it traces through the history of fashion. So those are very clever ideas. Patricia Mears is doing an exhibition on expedition – fashion and the extreme, which will look at how explorers to the arctic, the deep sea, outer space, wear protective clothing that has influenced fashion. She will show a real explorers parka that he would wear to go to the north pole, then she will show that next to Balenciaga parkas, Chanel outfits etc.

How do you​ ​feel​ ​the​ ​new​ ​breed​ ​of​ ​designers​ ​from​ ​the​ ​fashion​ ​capitals​ ​and​ ​beyond​ ​are​ ​exploring​ ​new​ ​territory​ ​in​ ​fashion?

Some designers from alternative fashion cities are taking new approaches. Maki Oh from Nigeria and Masha Ma from China, for example, are exciting talents. Education​ ​is​ ​becoming​ ​more​ ​and​ ​more​ ​important​ ​to​ ​young​ ​creatives​ ​to​ ​try​ ​ensure​ ​a​ ​future​ ​in​ ​the​ ​industry.​

New designers find themselves in a position of having vast pressures on output and financial strains from expensive education, but also work in an ever-expanding landscape – how do you see the situation for young talent? ​

The landscape of fashion is becoming ever-more competitive, and young, independent designers are kind of squished between the big companies, with LVMH at one end, and H&M and fast fashion at the other. I do worry that what with the cost of training for BA’s and MA’s in fashion a lot of talented, young people aren’t getting as much as a chance to study fashion. I think it would be a dilettante thing if only the super wealthy could study it, but those that aren’t wealthy were locked out of it.

What​ ​was​ ​the​ ​last​ ​thing​ ​that​ ​made​ ​you​ ​excited?

I was thrilled by the recent Rick Owens show.

Explore fashion books by Dr Valerie Steele here. 

(Featured image: Stella Tennant @ Eclect Dissect, Givenchy F/W 1997 Haute Couture by Alexander McQueen)

 

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