NEW YORK — With this morning’s press unveiling of “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology,” Andrew Bolton hopes to put to rest the age-old “is-fashion-art” debate once and for all.
During a whirlwind tour of the OMA-reimagined Robert Lehman Wing late Saturday afternoon, the newly-installed curator in charge at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute built a very strong case that it is. Despite the commotion that surrounded him due to the many workers perfecting the installation, Bolton spoke definitively about nearly each of the 170 garments and more emphatically about the artistry involved in creating them. (He personally inspected 800 in total.) Fascinated by the idea that the machine is never absent of humanity, Bolton said, “I find fashion a deeply, deeply humanistic practice and art form. I am such an advocate of fashion as an art form. I am so surprised that debate is still happening. I hope that after this show we can move on from there and ask other questions: ‘Is it good fashion? Is it bad fashion? What’s it saying?’ I just want to move on from that argument. I want people to accept it.”
Gesturing toward a Raf Simons-designed Dior machine-sewn silk organdy dress with, on one side, hand-embroidery by Hurel of sequins, bugle beads and crystals and, on the other, hand-embroidery by Lesage with gold metal threads, pearls, crystals and hand-cut flower petals, Bolton said, “How can someone not see that [art] with this exquisite form? Two embroideries together. From realism into abstraction — it’s just one painting in one dress. It sort of tells the history of modernity. I want to put an end to that debate. I want people to start asking different questions: ‘How is it made? Why is it made like this? What are you trying to say? Where is fashion going?'”
Exhibition visitors expecting to see wearables, videos and LED light shows will find instead a more contemplative exploration meant to appreciate, and question, the cultural and symbolic meanings of the hand-machine dichotomy. The exhibition bows to the public Thursday. Entering the show via what feels like an all-white cathedral-like space, visitors will encounter a Karl Lagerfeld-designed Chanel scuba knit wedding dress with a highly wrought train from fall 2014. Lagerfeld’s hand-drawn design was “transferred onto a computer to make a pixilated Baroque pattern, rhinestones were heat transferred by machine, outlined by hand with gold paint and finished with pearls and gemstones,” making it “the perfect case study” in Bolton’s view.
Nearby, Denis Diderot’s and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s “Encyclopédie” is on display, a reminder that “Manus x Machina” is set up around the métiers, or trades, of dressmaking. The métiers of embroidery, feather work and artificial flowers are showcased on the upper floor, while pleating, lacework and leatherwork are in the lower galleries. Toiles and paper patterns are also examined. Focusing not on technology per se, but the hidden technologies, techniques and processes of fashion, Bolton said he wanted to create a romantic space that invited reflection so that visitors will “look at the objects, appreciate the making of fashion and really slow down the pace of fashion.” To that end, he chose to play Brian Eno’s melodic “The Ending (The Ascent)” in the first gallery, where seating surrounds the showpiece dress.
“Sometimes the artistry of fashion is completely lost in a world that is obsessed by fast fashion, consumerism, celebrity disposable fashion. That was one of the ideas. And I wanted to show how the proximity to prét-â-porter and haute couture is diminishing,” said Bolton, motioning toward Christian Dior’s “Venus” and “Junon” dresses from 1949 beside a Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen machine-sewn and hand-sewn one. “In terms of the complexity and the craftsmanship between the two categories, what’s happening is that because prét-â-porter and haute couture are sharing the same techniques and practices, those categories are becoming more and more redundant. The only difference between the two is fit.”
Bolton continued, “We’ve stripped every garment down to what we call a genetic reading, what’s machine sewn, what’s handmade — part of it is to question the associations between the two and the hierarchy. There has been a hierarchy since the establishment of the haute couture in the 1850s between the hand and the machine.”
Not since the Harold Koda-orchestrated “Haute Couture” show in 1995 has the Costume Institute displayed this much couture in one exhibition. Chanel’s original little black dress is among the older pieces. Nicolas Ghesquière, Hussein Chalayan, Issey Miyake, Courrèges, Miuccia Prada, Proenza Schouler, Noa Raviv, Valentino’s Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli and Christopher Kane are among the numerous designers whose work is displayed. With 170 pieces, the show is more substantial than last year’s blockbuster “China: Through the Looking Glass,” which drew 815,992 visitors, making it the fifth most popular show at The Met. While art patrons and fashion followers alike might view “Manus x Machina” as Bolton’s watershed moment now that Koda has retired, the energetic Bolton said he did not feel any added pressure. “I never expect shows to be blockbusters, I never plan for them to be. I really think people make them. If you don’t engage people’s imagination or interest then the show has failed no matter how clever or how complex it is,” he said. “If your audience doesn’t respond, then I think it’s a flop.”
Interestingly, the Apple-sponsored “Manus x Machina” is light on special effects, videos (with exceptions, like Chalayan’s remote control dress) and free from gadgetry of any kind. Bolton said, “I feel as though fashion is one of the first arts to embrace new technologies. I also wanted to redefine what one means by wearable technology, which is always about basically gadgets. Wearable technology is about laser cutting, ultrasonic welding…more hidden technologies than a jacket that tells you how hot you are.”
While the transluscent scrims that surround the individual spaces are meant to help gallery-goers look at the garments on display with laser focus, their transparency unintentionally adds another dimension, in that they mirror the idea of being able to see how things are made. A Gareth Pugh dress on view is made of hundreds of hand-cut straws that are attached by hidden tiny hooks like jewelry. An Iris van Herpen consists of laser-cut silicone chevrons that the designer baked in an oven and assembled by hand one Christmas night. The entire project took many days, but the designer described it as “a fun project, kind of like Lego.” Given that, while the objects speak for themselves, Bolton said, “You have your overreaching narrative — hand, machine, the end of chapters, the métiers. We’ve been really analytical. It’s a very empirical show. You can appreciate it and look at the beauty of everything. But I think to really understand it, you have to read the labels for this one.”
More telling are the detailed interviews Bolton conducted with 12 designers that are part of the “Manus x Machina” catalogue. Van Herpen describes 4-D printing, nanoengineeing, metamaterials, biotechnology and using nano drones to make a dress. The complications that come with some of those advancements have made Bolton consider a “Fear and Clothing” exhibition theme. In another interview, Lagerfeld noted how in the time since Chanel took over Lemarié, the staff has grown from 15 to 150. All in all, he said, “I’m just always looking toward what’s next. To be in the mood of our time, that means you’re in fashion.”
But with time being this world’s greatest commodity, there’s no denying that museums, especially New York’s art-based ones, have become hypercompetitive given recent expansions and collaborations. To amp up the experiential element, the Costume Institute shortlisted six architectural firms before choosing Shohei Shigematsu, the force behind Rem Koolhaas’ New York office. The sometimes choppy waves of fashion are familiar waters to Shigematsu, whose portfolio includes “Waist Down,” a traveling exhibition for Prada, as well as collaborations with Cai Guo-Qiang and Kanye West. At work on Miami Beach’s Faena Arts Center, the 18-year OMA veteran will next set the stage for Taryn Simon’s limited-run performance at the Park Avenue Armory in September.
“In the design world, architecture, fashion and art are all working together,” he said. “The lines are blurring and that is affecting further change. It is really a renaissance. This exhibition could probably be the collaborative model that is starting to reemerge.”
As a New Yorker, even Shigematsu sounded a little in awe to be involved with one of the biggest events of the year. “It is very inspiring to work with Andrew and to see the kind of commitment that the Costume Institute has to exploring the culture of fashion,” he said.
With the recent opening of The Met Breuer, the museum is putting forward a more contemporary direction while still respecting its history. Shigematsu said, “This exhibition could be one of their efforts to create a new engagement with New York.”