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Costume Institute Looks Beyond Chanel

This fall, it is inaugurating the new focus on accessories with "Rara Avis: Selections From the Iris Barrel Apfel Collection."

The Costume Institute's Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton stand by as the Chanel exhibit is dismantled.

The Costume Institute's Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton stand by as the Chanel exhibit is dismantled.

Kyle Ericksen

NEW YORK — The last Chanel tweed suits have been carefully taken off the mannequins, and the video installations were disassembled on Wednesday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Now the Met is on to the next show, which will include a sharpened focus on accessories.

“The Costume Institute collection is encyclopedic…if you wanted a complete survey from the 18th century onwards, with our collection, you could just do it,” Harold Koda, curator in charge of the Costume Institute, explained.

“However, over the years, shoes, bags, hats and gloves were only collected as they were offered to us. There was never a preemptive acquisition policy though; despite that, we have a reasonably strong collection of accessories, especially in shoes.”

This fall, it is inaugurating the new focus on accessories with “Rara Avis: Selections From the Iris Barrel Apfel Collection.” Apfel is known for her witty and irreverent way of mixing high fashion with flea-market finds, particularly in her choice of accessories. “Rara avis” is Latin for “rare bird.’

Initially, Apfel’s collection was intended to be solely an accessories exhibit, but it has since morphed into a fashion and accessories show. “We felt the point of showing accessories is to address the issue of how the clothing looks if fully accessorized,” Koda said.

Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute’s associate curator, added, “Apfel’s clothing collection is very much textile driven with a really strong focus on forms, so it complements the fall collections of Marc Jacobs and Stefano Pilati for Yves Saint Laurent. We think it’s very timely in that sense.”

The installation will showcase accessories such as a Gripoix brooch, a Roger Jean-Pierre bracelet, and a pair of 18th-century paste earrings reminiscent of plastic cuffs. The exhibition is being organized by Stephane Houy-Towner, a research associate at the Costume Institute, with Koda’s support. It will run Sept.13-Jan. 22.

In discussing the next show, Koda took the opportunity to address some of the critics of the Chanel exhibit, which he and Bolton look back on as a very personal and challenging experience.

The exhibition closed its doors to the public on Sunday after 12 weeks. The show had a total attendance of 463,603, and proved to be one of the institute’s most successful shows ever. In comparison, the 2001 exhibition, “Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years,” attracted 559,902, but that show’s space was more than twice the size of Chanel’s and was able to accommodate more people.

This story first appeared in the August 11, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“We wanted to do something original to bring a new perspective and understanding of Chanel’s work,” Koda reflected. “Perhaps that was a misjudgment, because so many people wanted a different show. They seemed to want what was already known, but we didn’t want to confront the familiar.”

Koda and Bolton were particularly intrigued by cultural critics who asserted that Chanel’s biography superseded her clothes. “That just isn’t the case,” Koda said. “I am interested to learn more about Shakespeare, but I don’t need to know about his life to appreciate his literature.”

The New York Times made a point about the issue of commercialism and suggested that the curatorial independence could have been compromised since Chanel also sponsored the show.

“The New York Times took a very jaundiced view of both the exhibition and Chanel sponsoring the show on Chanel,” Koda said. “I have no qualms about an art critic coming to the show and doing a critical judgment of it. But to even think that there is curatorial intrusion … the impression that there is is very hurtful to the reputation of the institution. You have to exercise a rigorous curatorial process that precludes that.”

The Costume Institute is still in discussions regarding next year’s big spring exhibition. That decision will be made according to the museum’s overall exhibition calendar.

Koda and Bolton walked away from the Chanel experience with a new desire to pursue.

“We have never been able to do a show on a living designer, though Chanel, in a way, ended up being close to one with Karl’s work,” Koda said. “This show has made us think more about collaborating with contemporary, living designers.”

Which living designer’s work, then, would the duo like to pursue for the Met?

“I would like to do a show on [Alexander] McQueen, but I think it may still be a little too soon for it,” Bolton said.

Koda didn’t have to hesitate. “Alaïa,” he quipped, “but there are so many others who would also be interesting for the museum.”