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Posturing: Photographing in the Body in Fashion

24.10.2017 | Blog , Fashion , Twin Video | BY:

Curation has somehow has become a dirty word these days. We think of a curator in the digital age as a bloodless algorithm editing the things we don’t want to see or interact with out of our feeds and experiences. The great shame of all of this is that curation in its truer sense is far less about editing out the things we don’t want to see and far more about shedding light on the things we didn’t.

A great curator – be that of an exhibit in a gallery or an assortment of bric-a-brac at the local car-boot – knows how to make things elevate each other within a fresh context. Discovering something in a single painting, say, is in and of itself an incredible thing, but being able to connect that indefinable something to a whole exhibition is where a curator shows their skill.

Shonagh Marshall is a Fashion Curator who embodies the contemporary make-up of the profession, and reminds us why curation is a job of such unique expertise. After completing her Fashion Curation MA at LCF in 2010 Shonagh went on to archive the Alexander McQueen collection ahead of the Met’s Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty retrospective (!), and then to work on the Louboutin and Isabella Blow archives.

The rest of her CV is as impressive as those early projects would suggest, and since leaving her post as Curator at Somerset House in 2016 she has been flexing her muscles as an independent curator, as well as founding The Ground Floor Project with friend and AnOther Magazine Photo Editor Holly Hay.

With the fashion industry in recovery from a month of new collections, and ahead of the co-curated exhibition Posturing: Photographing the Body in Fashion (also with Holly Hay) now seemed like the right time to pick her brain about curating a disparate industry, and contemporary photography’s fascination with documenting the body within it.

Lurve Magazine, Issue 10, Spring/Summer 2016 | Posturing : Photographing the Body in Fashion

Lurve Magazine, Issue 10, Spring/Summer 2016 | Posturing : Photographing the Body in Fashion

How did you initially get in to curation – did you always know it was a job that somebody did?

Not at all. I studied Fashion History & Theory as my BA at Central Saint Martins and when I finished I wasn’t sure exactly what job I wanted to do. As a freelancer I was employed as a researcher for Somerset House’s first exhibition in 2007, in its current cultural iteration. It was a traveling show called Skin and Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture and it was then that I realised that I was really interested in curation. I applied to do the MA in Fashion Curation at London College of Fashion as a result, and studied under Judith Clark and Amy de la Haye, which was the most amazing training.

What was it that drew you to fashion in particular?

I started my BA in Fashion History and Theory when I was eighteen. It gave a historical overview of dress from renaissance to present day and teaching into the application of theory. Being a curator you need such an overarching knowledge of a subject I don’t think I would have been able to focus on another subject. The tools I have picked up over the years in how to consider fashion, applying historical knowledge to assess the contemporary for example I think is so important. Art History is something I am fascinated by personally but I am absolutely no expert! I love so much about the telling stories about clothing within an exhibition, with projects like Isabella Blow it was about the tale of a life lived through the garments but then Posturing: Photographing the Body in Fashion, which is about to launch, looks at the practice and process of fashion photography by making the link between the body and the garment.

Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! | Photos Chris Brooks/CLM

Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! | Photos Chris Brooks/CLM

Archival work is very solitary and organised, it is all about the process you are putting in place. Through doing this work into catalogue, photographing and boxing and storing the objects you have such an affinity with them. You learn about every mark or pulled stitch and note it down. When you are working on an exhibition the process is all about building a team around you: the graphic designer, the exhibition designer, lighting designer, the install team, the conservators. As a curator you are telling a story through the objects, bringing to life what you have noticed in the archive, and the team all works together to realise this for the visitor. It was such a lovely experience to be able to work on so many exhibitions about Isabella Blow after archiving her collection, there are so many hidden stories within the garments and accessories it is such a treat each time to tease them out.

From Marfa Journal, Issue 6, November 2016 | Courtesy of Pascal Gambarte

From Marfa Journal, Issue 6, November 2016 | Courtesy of Pascal Gambarte

Do you have a favourite forgotten gem that you’ve come across in your work?

I spent a lot of time throughout August at the Isabella Blow Collection reordering it and making sure everything was in the right place, after finishing archiving it nearly six years ago. When going through Isabella’s bags I found a nail polish that I had previously not noted down. There was something so evocative about this silver liquid, the brush once used to apply varnish to Isabella’s nails. I wondered if in the next exhibition, we are hoping to stage, if contextualised in the right way it might be able to conjure in the visitor the same reaction it had had in me.

You have worked on some very culturally important exhibits, such as Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! How do you approach the legacy of documenting the life’s work of such significant figures?

Isabella Blow’s legacy through her clothing is a project I have worked on since 2011. Firstly by archiving the collection and then by co-curating the 2013 exhibition Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! At Somerset House. I still work with the Isabella Blow foundation and have done a subsequent exhibition in Sydney and we hope to stage more to raise money for the charities we support and student bursaries the foundations runs.

Working with the clothing to tell Isabella’s story is really amazing, I always think that like other figures in history she was building her own myth through the objects she amassed. Every object in the collection has a story attached, through either her personal relationships or where she wore it. Daphne Guinness bought the collection so that she would be able to keep Isabella’s legacy alive through the garments and accessories so it is a real honour to be a part of that.

Do you think fashion is inherently fine art?

No I think art and fashion are two completely different things, which sometimes speak to one another but are incomparable.

What do you see as the difference of approach between choosing how to display a piece of clothing and a priceless painting?

I think that curating fashion and curating art are two different disciplines and the approach is so wildly different. The interventions used within an exhibition of dress are selected and considered to give further context to the story, however within a fine art exhibition the art is centre-front in laying the narrative.

It seems that everyone is a ‘curator’ today. Do you think the term has lost some meaning, and does its meaning matter?

A curator is a keeper of a collection and as I don’t actually manage a museum collection, and I never have, I think the meaning of the word has changed somewhat. The application of the word curator to define making lists, or selecting something, is another mutation of this. I don’t know for me it is great as I think so many doors have opened over the last ten years for curators in light of it.

You are also working on a new cultural programme for Chess Club London – would you say programming and curation are two sides of the same coin, or fundamentally different?

They are so different. I really love working with Holly Hay to programme the events at Chess Club, it is such a lovely project. We think there is something so brilliant about learning nuggets of information and Holly and I set out that everything we did at Chess Club would result in absorbing tidbits that you could then relay at dinner to your friends. We do such different things there and meet so many amazing people. Last month we had an expert tea taster who travels the world to find the best tealeaves, and this month we have Clym Evernden coming to talk about his inspirations amongst so many other things.

 Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! | Photos Chris Brooks/CLM


Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! | Photos Chris Brooks/CLM

Exhibits are most often worlds built for the public – what do you think is valuable about working on an experience for a more private sphere?

It is to nice to build a rapport with people who come frequently to the events at Chess Club. Also we have figured out what people like coming to, and can incorporate their feedback. It is much more organic than mounting a temporary exhibition which is on and then dismantled with no opportunity to change anything. It would be really interesting to do an exhibition that morphed with the times and opinions, I wonder how you could make that work?

Can you tell us a little about your new project ‘Posturing’ – what made you decide to focus on the body?

I had been thinking about it for a while. About two years ago I proposed a promenade contemporary dance commission around the body in fashion when I worked as curator at Somerset House, which didn’t happen. However it got me thinking. I noticed a shift, away from the sexualized body within fashion photography and I thought a group of contemporary photographers were exploring a new approach to gesture and pose in their work. I wondered how we could present this within a group exhibition. This exhibition is now launching on the 1st November and is entitled Posturing: Photographing the Body in Fashion, the first of a three part project the second looks at filming the body in fashion and the third, a book, writing the body in fashion.

What do you think that the repeated distortion of the body in fashion imagery, the ‘new aesthetic’ the exhibit focuses on, tells us about fashion today?

It is less about fashion today and more about the presentation of fashion. Shifting trends each season is the very foundation the fashion system is built upon but with this project we evoke thinking (hopefully) around how this then impacts on the way in which it is captured across different mediums. The approach employed by all the photographers within the exhibition is one of wit and subversion could this be a reaction to the world we live in now? Should we take fashion very, very seriously? I don’t know – but these are the kind of questions we would absolutely love the work to inspire in the visitor.

Photos above Kristin Lee Moolman and Ibrahim Kamara. All other photos courtesy of the artist.

Photos above Kristin Lee Moolman and Ibrahim Kamara. All other photos courtesy of the artist.

For Holly and I the whole project is about mediums and imprints. The body is the common thread but applying this theme to look at the way in which it, and in turn the clothing, can be captured in a photograph, a film or within the written word felt a really exciting way to capture different thoughts, insights and opinions. The Ground Floor Project, the company Holly Hay and I have founded, is all about creating conversations instead of offering conclusions and full stops. All the work is so contemporary that we wanted our exhibition, film and book to become part of the conversation as opposed to offering reflection and analysis to something that has already happened.

Do you have a favourite fashion image? A favourite collection?

I couldn’t possibly pick! I love researching imagery and slotting them together, I don’t think I could single one out.

And finally, apart from your own, can you recommend any new or upcoming fashion exhibits we should look out for?

I am really excited about Amy de la Haye’s next exhibition at Brighton Museum on the artist Gluck. It isn’t fashion but I can’t recommend Andy Holden and Peter Holden’s Artangel exhibition ‘Natural Selection’ enough, it is amazing. I also loved Rachel Whiteread at the Tate Britain is fantastic. I am super looking forward to going to see the Basquiat exhibition at the Barbican.

Posturing: Photographing in the Body in Fashion co-curated by Shonagh Marshall and Holly Hay runs 2nd – 12th November 2017: 10 Thurloe Place, London SW7 2RZ. The exhibition is free of charge. 

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Viktor & Rolf, AW 05

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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