NEW YORK — Given that many designers believe the sun and moon already revolve around them, it’s not surprising that their egos would also extend so far as to include firm beliefs as to just which deities most closely resemble their personalities.
As the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art prepares to open its latest exhibit, "Goddess," next week, celebrating with a lavish benefit Monday night, the fashion industry has suddenly become overwhelmed with antiquities fever. Bergdorf Goodman even turned over its Fifth Avenue windows to a "Goddess" themed display this week, recognizing the growing influence of the Met shows over the imaginations of designers who have spent the days up to its opening dreaming of just where they fit into the fashion equivalent of the Parthenon.
It all started back in February, when Costume Institute curator Harold Koda presented the "Goddess" theme to journalists during a press conference, when he compared the three hosts of a related benefit to specific characters. Nicole Kidman was named as Aphrodite, Anna Wintour became Athena and Tom Ford was compared to Apollo, who rode around on a gilded chariot, which in Ford’s world is called Gucci, the underwriter of the whole affair.
This caused some jealousy within the industry, which remains even now.
"I certainly don’t imagine Apollo looks like Tom Ford," said Oscar de la Renta, who would not go so far as to canonize himself. "Obviously, Tom Ford is a good-looking guy, but what about height?"
"I would like to be Zeus," claimed Valentino, referring to the God of gods. "The Olympus feels very much like home, and I plan on staying there." Tuleh’s Bryan Bradley also asked to play Zeus so that he could "eternally be surrounded by beautiful, powerful women, hopefully naked." Who’s he kidding?
Roberto Cavalli considered himself for the role of Eros, "for the love I have for Mother Nature, love for life and, of course, love for women," he said, while Anna Sui came back with the most well-researched answer: Penelope, the wife of Ulysses, who labored for 20 years on a tapestry that told the story of her husband’s struggle to return to his love and family. "She would weave the tapestry in the day and unweave her work at night to avoid the many suitors that wanted her hand," Sui said. "That was romance on a Herculean scale."In Paris, Christian Lacroix has dared to create a new hybrid deity for himself, "one in between Apollo and Dionysus (Bacchus), in between earthly pleasures and spirited inspiration. As children, our game was playing ‘Ben Hur’ or gladiator wannabes, draped in white tablecloths or sheets," he said.
Karl Lagerfeld, too, said he always has been fascinated by ancient civilizations. "I loved Homer since I was a child and that period was body conscious in a more refined way than today," he said. "There is something timelessly modern about Greek civilization. It’s in fact still the standard of ‘classic’ beauty. Ugliness can be a trendy look of the moment, but deep in our minds there is this Greek ideal." His ideal would be Aeolus, the god of winds. "It’s all about change in fashion," he said. "I love also Achilles — only a half god — but I am not so pretentious so that would be OK with me."
"He certainly has the weight for Aeolus," Diane Von Furstenberg teased. "As far as I’m concerned, if you had asked me what period I would have loved to live in, it would be ancient Greece. I always had this fantasy of being the slave favorite to the king." Her favorite deity? Venus.
And where does Diana Ross, who is performing at Monday’s event, fit into all of this? Ain’t no Mount Olympus high enough. But ask a designer about the influence of ancient Greek dress on modern fashion and the answer is the same whether it’s coming from de la Renta or Narciso Rodriguez: "Vionnet, Grès and Fortuny."
It’s not surprising that they would each point to designers of the 1930s as most closely reflecting the styles of ancient Greece and Rome, as Madeleine Vionnet, Alix Grès and Mariano Fortuny worked in a style of drapes and pleats that referenced the embodiment of Hellenic attire, as seen in neoclassical art of the 19th century. However, when Koda set out to explore the theme, the first thing he looked at was the "rope dress" Ford designed for Yves Saint Laurent for spring 2002."I could tell on a basic level that dress was about classicism," said Koda, who saw it on the cover of an international edition of Time as the "Dress of the Year." "I knew the problem was that I would have to convince everyone else."
As beautiful as the notion of classics may be — Koda has pared it down to three basic silhouettes: the chiton, peplos and himation — there’s also something really old about it, like about 2,500 years. Walking through the cul-de-sac galleries of the Costume Institute, however, it is not the influence of the ancient past on the Thirties or even on the gowns of Halston and Mary McFadden in the Seventies that is as readily apparent as what Koda demonstrates has taken place in more contemporary fashion.
"In the Thirties, there were references to neoclassicism and in the Eighties, it was to the Renaissance, but today, there has come to be a steady accrual of what represents classical," Koda said. "It isn’t so much classicism as it is classicist. The thing that is so great about the last few years and what makes it different is that these designers have added something else, which is irony. These dresses aren’t perfect. It is violent, it is shredded and it’s been in the street."
The concept of the "Goddess" exhibit came to Koda as he was putting on last year’s major show, "Extreme Beauty," which analyzed historical fashion that distorted the human body. "Goddess" is the antithesis of that show, demonstrating the continuing presence of clothes that do the opposite by accentuating the natural form. Koda’s theory as to why the clearest examples of fashion that reflects the spirit of Graeco-Roman dress come from the Thirties, Seventies and today is that each period represents a time when women were looking to show off their bodies.
"The main reason it appeals to women of such different generations is that the maintenance of the body is seen by them as really important," Koda said. "Rather than relying on underpinnings and structured clothing, women want to display their efforts, whether it is through exercise, diet or cosmetic enhancement."Koda’s investigation into the subject, of course, brought him directly into the realm of the deities, where he took inspiration from the mythology of Hira, Aphrodite and Athena — or Juno, Venus and Minerva as they were known to the Romans. The exhibit thus opens and closes with their fashion equivalents, demonstrated by Hira in a black Ungaro gown, Aphrodite in a rose Gucci dress and Athena in a Balmain design by de la Renta, which the designer had called the Minerva dress since it featured a gold breastplate of feathers (her animal equivalent was an owl). The exhibit requires a strenuous mental capacity to follow a classical trace through its connecting themes of surface design, the standard shapes, draping techniques and more avant-garde manipulations. But Koda made a point to keep it lively and fun for a young audience that might lack the historical knowledge of the Trojan Wars and what not. The entrance to the exhibit features three mannequins wearing Issey Miyake pleated gowns that are installed as caryatids —the kind of columns where it appears as if statuary is holding up the building — while downstairs, the Three Graces depicted in Botticelli’s famous painting are reimagined wearing Dolce & Gabbana.
Although most designers would not confess to studying antiquities for inspiration quite so closely, Koda did find a striking amount of scholarly brotherhood in designers like McFadden, McQueen and even Gianni Versace, whose work featured prominent treatments of the Greek key motif and Roman figures. (Donatella Versace wasn’t surprised. "When Gianni, Santo and I were growing up in Reggio Calabria, there were the remains of a mosaic with the Medusa in front of our home where we would play," she said. "Years later, when I asked Gianni why he chose the Medusa as the house’s symbol, he told me he thought that whoever falls in love with the Medusa can’t flee from her. So why not think that whoever is conquered by the Versace style has no chance of turning back?")
Koda similarly pointed to the modern cult of celebrity as creating a new form of "Goddess," one that walks the street and mixes with the plebians such as Eros, the god of sexual love, who seemed to have a habitual problem of falling for mortals, and Zeus, who kept turning into animals to woo poor maidens and pretty boys. Bringing into the exhibit gowns made famous on the red carpet by Nicole Kidman and J.Lo, or on a magazine cover by Julianne Moore, helps improve the sex appeal of the show. Its increasing visibility under Koda’s tenure has not gone unnoticed by many designers, as Robert Burke, vice president and senior fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman, detected, leading him to turn over the store’s Fifth Avenue windows to the theme and using looks from the fall collections to illustrate the point."The work at the Costume Institute is very much affecting what designers are doing today," Burke said. "While it was timely that a lot of the looks showed the impact of a goddess influence because they are showing feminine clothes, a lot of it was due to the awareness that the Met was doing this exhibit."
Designers, it seems, have also caught "Goddess" fever. Donna Karan has two white gowns featured in the exhibit that resemble the peplos of ancient times. She sees fashion’s interest in the theme relating to the seductiveness of the period. "It’s all about the body and a piece of fabric," Karan said. "What could be more seductive?" But de la Renta sees the simplicity of ancient designs as inspirational on another level, since sometimes a fabric speaks best when a designer does the least. Recalling one of his own famous quotes, he said, "Whenever you don’t know what to do with a piece of fabric, you just toss it over your shoulder, and it becomes a toga."
"I was driving back on Saturday afternoon from the beach, and I just saw this sign saying 'Skydiving for $95.' And I was like, I can't not sky dive for $95," says Tom Bateman about a moment in Hawaii while shooting "Snatched." #wwdeye (📷: @victoriastevens; Interview by @ktauer; Styled by @thealexbadia)