Just as brands, designers and social media are ever-churning with fashion, so is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.
Already in the midst of a yearlong exhibition that celebrates American fashion and the Costume Institute’s 75th anniversary, the Upper East Side institution has hit the refresh button on the first installment of “Part One: In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” with a continued emphasis on the here and now. Seventy percent of the 100 pieces have been swapped out so that the designs of about 35 designers, including many emerging ones, are in the new rotation.
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Although the second iteration of “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” was always part of the original plan, when its first installment bowed last fall few would have predicted the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Acknowledging how the state of the world has drastically changed, Wendy Yu curator in charge Andrew Bolton explained Friday that that part of the rationale of keeping the show open for a year and having a rotation was to create “a living exhibition that could respond to not just conversations and the current debates within fashion, but broader ones culturally.”
As a nod to the war in Ukraine, a dress by Ukrainian designer Valentina Sanina Schlee, who was known simply as “Valentina” and made her claim in fashion Stateside, will be added to the show in the Anna Wintour Costume Center. “Fashion is the only art form that can respond so quickly and so directly to the times in which we’re living because of the ephemerality of fashion. Sometimes it’s done more deliberately in response to what’s going on and other times it’s more subtle and tapping into the collective consciousness,” Bolton said.
The not-so-distant past is evident from the start of the exhibition. One of the first designs now on view is the Eli Russell Linnetz-repurposed bubble wrap coat that A$AP Rocky wore to last fall’s Costume Institute Benefit (aka as a decidedly scaled-down Met Gala). Linnetz reinvented a puff quilt thrift store find with remnants from some of his boxer shorts and his father’s bathrobe. The original quilt-maker’s great-granddaughter recognized the design and shared the connection on social media. Aside from being a red carpet favorite, it is a repurposed creation and sustainability, as well as diversity, are undercurrents of the rotation.
The style expertise of another megawatt personality — the late Virgil Abloh — awaits visitors at the foot of the stairs into the main gallery. The white cotton knit and off-white silk chiffon gown had been commissioned from the Off-White founder more than 18 months ago and was to be featured in “Part Two: In America: An Anthology of Fashion,” which bows in the American Wing on May 5, three days after this year’s Met Gala. After Abloh’s unexpected death in November at the age of 41, The Met decided to prominently highlight his life and contribution to fashion. Abloh had spoken of how cotton buds were his favorite flower, Bolton said. The piece reflects the beauty and brutality of cotton production and processing from the 19th century to the present.
The expansive skirt of Abloh’s gown has “Verg” graffiti-like sprayed in blue but it also meant to relay “Fragility,” one of the exhibition’s 12 overarching themes. Each garment on display also has a word bubble headpiece designed by Stephen Jones and 19 words such as “recollection” and “attachment” have been added to the mix.
There will soon be an homage to another force in fashion, pioneering former WWD and Vogue editor André Leon Talley, who died in January, in an adjacent glass case. In the next week or two, a cape that belonged to Talley — whose career started at the Costume Institute — will be showcased. “His life was spent in this field. He was one of our greatest ambassadors, so we wanted to pay homage to him,” Bolton said.
“I’ve always felt that fashion is so central to our lives, but that centrality is becoming so globalized. There is this incredible hunger for fashion because the speed of fashion has become so much more accelerated, and the production of fashion, in terms of what’s expected from designers right now — cruise collections, fall collections…the expectation to deliver constantly is huge. That’s also being partly fed by people’s consumption of fashion and their interest in fashion,” Bolton said.
The up-and-comers whose designs are on view include Elizabeth Shevelev, CDLM’s Chris Peters, Barragan’s Victor Barragan, Ji Won Choi, Kentucky Boy Tyler’s Tyler Webb, Lorod’s Lauren Rodriguez and Michael Freels, Luchen’s Lu Chen and Wiederhoeft’s Jackson Wiederhoeft. Heavily influenced by folk art, Tyler creates his own textiles using shredded garments, mending similar to Japanese boro textiles. Canadian-based Evan Ducharme and Section 35’s Justin Jacob Louis are among the First Nations designers whose work is featured. There are also pieces from Native American designers Jamie Okuma and Margaret Roach Wheeler. A good percentage of the additions were culled from collections from the past three years.
The exhibition’s layout is unchanged — essentially rows of square glass cubes with one designer ensemble displayed in each. Words are meant to be the bedrock but the colorful craftsmanship on view makes for a more visual experience than a cerebral one. With the aim to attract repeat museum visitors by presenting established and heavily followed designers, and create curiosity about lesser-known ones, the show seems to somewhat mirror Instagram, the exhibition’s lead sponsor. “I never thought about that but it is a bit like that — the immediacy of Instagram. Again, that does reflect fashion. Fashion has always been immediate. Its strength, and sometimes its weakness, is its immediacy and accessibility. That’s always been the case and certainly more with social media. There is a certain democratization that’s happening because of social media,” Bolton said.
That said, designers’ social media followings were not considered before selections for the update were made, Bolton said. Nor was Instagram involved in the creative content, he said.
Some of the new designs in the mix are from Brandon Maxwell, Khaite’s Catherine Holstein, Ashlyn’s Ashlynn Park, Oscar de la Renta’s Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia, Christopher John Rogers, Claudia Li, Batsheva’s Batsheva Hay, LaQuan Smith, Jason Wu, Jonathan Cohen and Phillip Lim. Creations from Old Guard talent like Adolfo, Vera Maxwell, Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo, Anne Fogarty, Bill Blass, Lilly Pulitzer, Elizabeth Hawes and Frankie Welch are also part of the refresh. An eight-way adaptable “Frankie” dress by Welch, an Alexandria, Va.-based designer and retailer, reflects her Cherokee heritage due to its Cherokee syllabary print, noted assistant curator Amanda Garfinkel.
In line with the theme of “Consciousness,” the final gallery plays up sustainability techniques and ethical production as executed by threeAsFour, Gypsy Sport and CDLM. Garfinkel noted Elizabeth Shevelev’s deconstructed knitting and Manonuk’s Yoshiyuki Minami’s handmade knitting. “So many young designers are using sustainable techniques or making an effort to produce sustainably. It’s becoming more common in general,” she said.
”Traditionally, American fashion has been characterized by ideals and principles of practicality and adaptability, based on viability for use. However, we are trying to project in this show a new way to engage with garments and to interpret garments to their emotional expression and the emotions they elicit from viewers and wearers — and also the emotions that the designers are trying to project,” Garfinkel said. “It was really gratifying to dig in, broaden our scope and discover new designers, especially focusing on American designers. And to do it two times in one year was a challenge, but it was exciting.”
With the refresh, The Met aims to create a living exhibition and using more of-the-moment contemporary resources lent themselves to the long-range run. Nineteenth-century garments and early 20th-century garments come with more considerations, she said. “Since we were focusing on representing a wide range of American designers, the rotation gave us an opportunity to feature as many as we have. When Andrew [Bolton] was first introducing this exhibition, he joked about it being a zero-waste exhibition design. We used every possible space in this show to show as many possible designers as we could.”
Along with gearing up for next month’s Met Gala, museum officials are preparing for the May opening of “Part Two, In America: An Anthology of Fashion.” Eight film directors — Martin Scorsese, Sophia Coppola, Chloé Zhao, Regina King and Tom Ford among them — are conceptualizing narratives that will be staged in the American Wing’s period rooms. Spanning from the 19th to the mid-late 20th century, the second installment will address the foundations of American fashion in relation to the complex histories of those rooms. They are not creating films, but mise-en-scènes that are meant to be reminiscent of single frame shots.
Accustomed to working with actual living and breathing people, who can be directed, repositioned and advised about self expression versus “static mannequins that don’t have facial expressions and their movements are limited” has been “a bit frustrating for them,” Bolton said, adding that that has led to some ingenuity. “The part I love most about my job is those outside collaborations. It’s expanded our curatorial practice working with them. Tom Ford developed some mannequins with a company in Japan that we hadn’t known about. It’s been really interesting. While Anthology is more about storytelling, Lexicon is more about vocabulary. They’re linked through language. They are just different expressions of that.”
Both parts of the exhibition will shutter on Sept. 5.
Launch Gallery: The Met Previews In America: A Lexicon of Fashion Exhibit
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