By  on December 8, 2006

Despite spring-like weather, Berlin has outerwear fever, thanks to "Coats! Max Mara, 55 Years of Italian Fashion."

The exhibit, a cooperation between the National Museums of Berlin and the Italian fashion house, presents a historical and cultural glance at women's coats and a multifaceted retrospective of Max Mara through its core product.

About 400 objects are on display at the Kulturforum Potsdamer Platz, including 60 original Max Mara and Sportmax coats, capes and suits; sketches; photos; magazines; look books, and artwork commissioned by Max Mara reinterpreting its one-size-fits-all classic Coat 101801 from 1981.

The show was the idea of Adelheid Rasche, art and fashion historian and head of the Lipperheidesche Costume Library in Berlin, which is billed as the world's largest library and collection of graphics on the cultural history of clothing. She knew Max Mara had an unusually rich archive of over 20,000 pieces, and the timing was right. The company was reorganizing its archives, and together they worked to create what she describes as "a complete new category of fashion exhibition." Rather than concentrate on the culture of the designer star or specific periods of time, "Coats!" focuses on fashion as a multilayered system.

The exhibit is in keeping with the philosophy of Max Mara. "We're trying to make a point with this exhibition about where and what is fashion," said Max Mara chairman Luigi Maramotti. "It's too simple to say that fashion is in the minds of the designer and full stop. This doesn't give credit to all the people in the creative process of making a garment. I always say making a drawing or sketch is nothing. It's just the beginning of the process. Then you have to discuss with the patternmaker how to get the idea from two to three dimensions, not to mention all the technical questions and side aspects of making a garment. All these people are creative, and they make it happen."

Not that the company hasn't worked with well-known designers, as the sketches and models in the show from Karl Lagerfeld, Jean Charles de Castelbajac, Luciano Soprani, Guy Paulin and Anne Marie Beretta illustrate. "But all the famous people who worked with us sat around a table with the people in the company and created a project," said Maramotti. Beretta still consults with the firm, but Max Mara now works on special projects with straight-out-of school designers.As the entrance to the show explains, the coat as we know it is a relatively new garment. It was developed in the late 19th century as a loose, short form called a pelatot. Prior to that, women wore capes, shawls, stoles and cloaks to keep warm. On display are historical illustrations from the Lipperheidesche Costume Library: an 1822 pelisse with stole, an 1890 silk velvet coat and a 1925 Galenga evening coat. There are two treasures from Max Mara's collection of 3,000 vintage coats: a 1960 reversible houndstooth coat by Balenciaga and a Fifties Dior model.

Visitors then enter the world of Max Mara, an environment designed by the Milanese architectural firm Migliore+Servetto. The 4,300-square-foot exhibition space has been split into five rooms surrounding a piazza where huge video projections give visitors an overview of the company. Room One traces the origins of Max Mara with a series of flip walls that show photos, early sketches and ads from the company's founding in 1951 by Achille Maramotti through to the Sixties, when he tapped French fashion editor Lison Bonfils to create the junior collection Pop (1965-66), and the debut of Sportmax in 1969.

Room Two is a library, with floor-to-ceiling shelves studded with visuals from Max Mara's early editorials in the Seventies, and sketches and garments by Max Mara's outside "advisers," among them Lagerfeld and Soprani. Room Three, dubbed "Creativity," has a wallpaper of sketches and a parade of star "big" coats from the Eighties and Nineties designed by Beretta, Castelbajac or Paulin, as well as artistic views on the 101801, such as William Wegman's canine takes and a version made of Vileda sponges by Thais Cabellero. Room Four is devoted to the brand's ad campaigns from the Nineties to the present, with original photographs, prints, slides and catalogues from Albert Watson, Craig McDean, Robert Erdmann, Stevel Meisel, Richard Avedon, Arthur Elgort, Max Vadakul, Peter Lindbergh, Sarah Moon and Pamela Hanson.

Room Five invites viewers to learn about production at interactive multimedia stations where they can touch part of a real garment, say the collar, and then see a video of a seamstress cutting and sewing the collar.

"Coats!" runs through March 4 in Berlin, and is then slated to travel to Milan, Tokyo and Toronto. A 240-page book published by Skira, in English, German or Italian, accompanies the show. The cover of the book, as well as the poster of the show, features a photograph of Maggie Rizer by Richard Avedon for the Max Mara fall 1988 collection. Maramotti said there was a memorable story behind this particular photo."Not everyone liked it when it came out as a campaign," he said. "It was too abstract, and she looks almost like an alien. But we decided to make a very big poster to set up in the Piazza Venezia in Rome. It was over 300 square meters [3,250 square feet]. For some reason, I switched on the TV one day, and there was the pope addressing the crowd in Piazza Venezia. And behind the pope, there was this huge [Max Mara] image.

"I didn't feel right. I thought it was overstretching it," he said, "but it's also nice to remember."

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