By  on November 10, 2006

BOSTON — The Museum of Fine Arts Boston opens "Fashion Show: Paris Collections 2006," its first major fashion exhibit in more than a decade, with challenging, cerebral collections from Yohji Yamamoto and Viktor & Rolf, presented on stages that mimic the original runway presentations.

Stepping through glass doors into a darkened gallery, visitors first see a somber procession of oversized suiting from Yamamoto's fall-winter 2006 ready-to-wear. The mannequins appear to march along a narrow runway, quiet and mysterious in swathes of fabric and enormous hats. They create a counterpoint to the adjacent Viktor & Rolf runway, where mannequins appear to twirl in silver-plated cocktail dresses, a send-up of Fifties dressing.

This initial juxtaposition — somber versus satirical, tailoring versus metallurgy — is one of the most powerful moments of an exhibit that has gone to great lengths to re-create the front-row experience of 10 Paris shows held in the winter and early spring of 2006. The lighting, runway blueprints, videos, accessories and even soundtracks were all dug out of Paris archives and sent to Boston. The exhibit runs from Sunday to March 18.

In selecting the houses, curator Pamela Parmal sought a balance between international brand powerhouses such as Chanel and talents working on fashion's artistic fringes, such as Hussein Chalayan.

The exhibition progresses from ready-to-wear (Yamamoto, Viktor & Rolf, Chalayan, Rochas, Maison Martin Margiela, Azzedine Alaïa) to haute couture (Christian Dior, Valentino, Chanel and Christian Lacroix). About a dozen looks per house are shown.

"The task needed a lot of diplomacy and that [curator Pamela Parmal] has," said French Fashion Federation president Didier Grumbach, who wrote an essay for the catalogue and attended the Nov. 3 preview.

It's a debut of sorts for the MFA. Backed by a $10 million bequest from the late philanthropist Roberta Logie, the museum's Department of Textile and Fashion Arts aims to become a prominent player collecting fashion and cultivating potential donors.

The timing is fortuitous as Boston's fashion profile is rising. The city has recently welcomed Valentino, Jimmy Choo and Barney's New York. Loro Piana will bow on Newbury Street in December or January.

Art was already fostering commerce at the show. Members of the museum's Fashion Council ($1,000 annually for membership), formed last summer, toured the exhibition in advance with Parmal, prompting one patron to make arrangements to order two Chanel couture pieces."There is enormous wealth in Boston, combined with enormous conservatism," reflected MFA director Malcolm Rogers. "A show like this is liberating fashion in Boston."

Parmal and senior exhibit designer Jaime Roark attended the Paris shows and worked closely with each design house for months to gather specifications.

They reproduced Karl Lagerfeld's circular stage, a nod to Chanel's famous rue Cambon staircase, John Galliano's oppressive black ceiling, red mirrors and pin-hole lighting at Dior and Martin Margiela's shadowbox pavilion for his Artisanal collection. In a concession to the four-month run of the show, Margiela's box is created in frosted Plexiglas rather than in the original white cotton.

Several houses sent teams, armed with everything from lighting gels to needles and thread, to oversee installation. Chanel archivists shaved plaster from a mannequin so she'd fit a teensy couture ensemble.

Arranged chronologically, the show creates an unexpected dialogue among the design houses. The spring-summer couture selections from Lacroix and Dior, positioned as gallery bookends and both rendered in a similar palette of icy white, black and pomegranate red, look like an alternate-universe exercise.

John Galliano's Dior vision is apocalyptic, with its red glare and "blood" pooling on the red plastic footwear of Marquis de Sade-inspired looks. Using ruffles, gold, crystals and crowns, Lacroix conjures fairy tales.

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