PARIS — Fashion is letting its exhibitionist streak run wild.
Whether organized by the curatorial staff of a museum or commissioned by a brand and brought to a host institution, showcases are multiplying, and attendance is surging.
One indicator of fashion’s drawing power was this spring’s “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which attracted 661,509 visitors, placing it among the institution’s 10 most visited exhibitions.
“Clearly the critical as well as popular success of the McQueen show suggests that fashion design has a more secure place in the precincts of an art museum,” commented Harold Koda, curator in charge of The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “What is endlessly fascinating about fashion is that it can be approached and interpreted from so many different angles.…In the end it is about the object: its transformational originality, its details of unequaled technical virtuosity and its incomparably compelling aesthetic.”
“There’s a loyal following — besides the fact that fashion is fashionable,” agreed Pamela Golbin, chief curator at Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris. “There’s something very intimate about clothes.”
Indeed, her museum extended the run of its hit Hussein Chalayan retrospective through Dec. 11, and is gearing up for the March 9 opening of “Marc Jacobs Louis Vuitton,” which is bound to attract healthy interest given recent headlines. As reported, the American designer recently halted negotiations to become the new couturier at Christian Dior and is expected to remain at Vuitton, where he’s been artistic director since 1997.
A rash of other exhibitions this past year underscored the popularity of style showcases:
• “The Art of the Automobile: Masterpieces of the Ralph Lauren Collection” attracted 152,000 visitors over its recent four-month run at Les Arts Décoratifs.
• Long lines also were a common sight outside the Pushkin Museum in Moscow earlier this year, when “Inspiration Dior” — boasting 120 couture dresses displayed next to priceless artworks — drew some 250,000 visitors.
• Chanel racked up 70,000 visitors to its “Culture Chanel” expo at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Shanghai, which subsequently moved on to Beijing’s National Art Museum of China.
• The Jean Paul Gaultier retrospective, which moved in November to the Dallas Museum of Art, attracted more than 173,000 visitors during its initial run at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, its second most visited exhibition in the past five years after “The Warrior Emperor and China Terracotta Army.”
• Max Mara’s “Coats!” — on display at Moscow’s State Historical Museum until Jan. 10 — has already logged more than 90,000 visitors as the retrospective visited Berlin, Tokyo and Beijing.
Then there were shows devoted to Azzedine Alaïa at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands and the Walter van Beirendonck retrospective at the Fashion Museum in Antwerp. Both shows run into 2012.
The pace of fashion exhibitions won’t slow next year, either. The Fortuny Museum in Venice will unveil a show devoted to Diana Vreeland in March, the same month the Design Museum in London opens its Christian Louboutin retrospective. The Barbican in London in April will open its show called “Fifty Years of James Bond Style,” with pieces from Giorgio Armani, Prada, Oscar de la Renta and other designers. The next month will see the opening of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s “Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950,” with designs by the likes of Zandra Rhodes, Norman Hartnell, Catherine Walker, Alexander McQueen, Erdem and Gareth Pugh. And let’s not forget the Costume Institute’s upcoming show “Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada on Fashion,” which it no doubt hopes will replicate the success of the McQueen show.
According to Chalayan, exhibitions are the exception to what is often perceived as an “isolated” fashion world.
“It reemphasizes the fact that fashion is a part of culture, and a lot of us forget this,” he said. “It reaches people who are not just interested in fashion. It adds a lot of value to what we do.”
He also noted that “you can share a lot more in a museum. You can show your drawings, your films. Usually, we as designers determine how long someone spends looking at your collection, whether the show is 10 or 15 minutes. With a museum, you can look at clothes as long as you like.”
Brands continue to ramp up investments in their own archives and patrimony, recognizing it as a rich asset for present — and future — creative directors. Archives also represent a key tool for recounting a brand’s story, especially in fast-growing markets like China, where consumers are hungry for heritage.
Balmain, which plans to mount an exhibition in Beijing next year, already counts some 1,100 dresses and more than 22,000 sketches in its archives, in addition to photographs and even original press releases.
Recent acquisitions include a striking drawing from 1942, when Pierre Balmain was working with Christian Dior at Paris couture house Lucien Lelong. It telegraphs Balmain’s background studying architecture, and foreshadows the strong shoulders that catapulted the brand in recent years.
“We always have to remember where we came from, and we owe so much to our founder,” stressed Alain Hivelin, Balmain’s chief executive officer and majority owner. “Marketing is fantastic, but marketing would not be possible if you did not have something real to recount.”
Chloé hired an archivist this past summer, charging her with gathering treasures from its warehouse designed by Karl Lagerfeld, purchasing portfolios of runway images from the Seventies and collecting drawings, videos and vintage garments, restoring them when necessary.
Such items will be needed when the brand fetes its 60th anniversary next year with a retrospective exhibition. But the main idea behind this long-term project, according to Chloé, is to reconnect the brand with its heritage and confirm its place in Parisian fashion history as an innovator in creating luxury ready-to-wear.
Meanwhile, Roger Vivier snapped up the lion’s share of top lots at an auction of the shoemaker’s private collection in late November. Together with the French Footwear Association and the government, it acquired 80 percent of the roughly 340 lots to prevent the treasures from being scattered among collectors. Many items will now return to the Musée Romans, which has a Roger Vivier room and chapel.
Curators agreed that archives were often deemed a burden to fashion houses until the Eighties, when Diana Vreeland, then a special consultant to the Costume Institute, thought to do an exhibition on Yves Saint Laurent, which turned into a blockbuster.
According to Koda, Saint Laurent recognized the value of maintaining an archive of his life’s work. “Since then, many design houses have begun to keep and actively seek past examples of their most important works. This is helpful in preserving objects which had not been especially valued after they had passed their moment of fashionability,” he explained.
Permanent museums for brands are the latest expression of the trend.
The new Gucci Museo in Florence, christened at the tail end of Milan Fashion Week in September, sits on Piazza della Signoria, across which eight million people transit every year. Patrizio di Marco, president and ceo of Gucci, said the site is already often at capacity on weekends.
“The café restaurant is fully booked for most of the main meal times, and the bookstore is attracting a lot of interest, probably because Florence does not really have another location like it,” he says. “We are very proud of our heritage and traditions, which include a passion for innovation. I think the museum provides a place for us to showcase those attributes and values — values which are more important than ever in a world where our customers are placing a greater and greater emphasis on quality and integrity.”