Opening Saturday, “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” offers exactly 100 definitions of American fashion, some by familiar names Halston, Donna Karan, Tory Burch and Ralph Lauren, and others by designers who never in their wildest dreams thought they would be included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.
During the press preview Monday, Los Angeles designer Claude Kameni of LaVie by CK screamed with joy when she saw her 2021 African wax print volume gown encased in the basement gallery, perfectly embodying the “vitality” moniker she was given in the museum’s lexicon of American fashion.
“This is unreal to me. I grew up loving these brands and now I’m next to them,” said Kameni, whom I first met in the early days of the pandemic, when she was struggling in her one-bedroom Hollywood apartment to finish work on gowns for the virtual BET Awards and for the film “Coming 2 America.”
The exhibition uses a quilt as a metaphor for the American fashion experience, with each look representing a square, highlighting overarching threads of individualism, folk art and functionality.
The designs are also organized into 16 thematic sections denoting emotions, including delight, assurance, belonging and nostalgia, although there is no signage for them. The object wall texts also provide little context.
Instead, visitors are left to make connections themselves, since the curation doesn’t give any greater weight to Michael Kors than Miguel Adrover. To reinforce the democratic approach, all garments are displayed in the same plain glass cases. (“China: Through the Looking Glass” this is not.)
The exhibition is certainly perfectly timed. American fashion is in the midst of a generational shift and renaissance.
During the spring shows at New York Fashion Week, established names like Moschino, Michael Kors and Christian Siriano may have had the most social media engagement, but up-and-comers Collina Strada, Eckhaus Latta, Peter Do, Sergio Hudson and Willy Chavarria are garnering buzz by designing on their own terms, sometimes outside of the fashion system, with values of equity, inclusivity and sustainability at the core of their businesses.
While certainly groundbreaking that these outsiders’ work has finally made it to the runways and to the museum, reminders of inequities in the industry that have historically prevented so many designers from achieving success are still plain to see.
A wall of glass cases traces the history of sportswear from Claire McCardell’s 1943 Popover apron dress to Diane von Furstenberg 1970 wrap; Halston’s 1974 Ultrasuede; Bonnie Cashin’s 1973 tweed pocket coat; Tory Burch’s 2018 canvas coat and pants; Donna Karan’s 1985 Seven Easy Pieces; Norman Norell’s 1973 camel skirt and jacket embroidered with gold sequins; Michael Kors’ 2021 gold sequin turtleneck gown and camel coat, and Marc Jacobs’ 2020 gold sequin jersey gown.
All white designers — albeit many whose work growing a business from the ground up is also part of the American fashion story.
While trailblazers of color Stephen Burrows, Patrick Kelly, Virgil Abloh, Pyer Moss and more are also included in the exhibition in other sections, the aesthetic visual of the historical camel-hued sweep says a lot about American sportswear’s difficult legacy and need to change long term.
Reminders of inequity were also present on the Met Gala red carpet on Monday night. Even though it was the most diverse crowd in the event’s history, which is to be applauded, many up-and-coming American designers, even those featured in the exhibition, could not afford to attend, with tickets at $30,000 each. Most of those who did attend were guests, and some were not even invited.
“No, I’m not going.…Imitation of Christ has never been funded,” said designer Tara Subkoff, whose 2001 upcycled lace dress in the exhibition was an early example of sustainable fashion. “We were the first. We were the Greta Thunberg of our time and revered and hated for it,” she said. (Perhaps a second young persons’ gala, with less expensive tickets, could be a solution?)
Kameni was still hoping for an invitation Monday morning, but was told by Met staff that the gala, which is the primary fundraiser for the self-funded Costume Institute, was sold out.
European houses Chanel, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, Balenciaga and Versace dominated the red carpet dressing game, along with deep-pocketed American brands Kors, Ralph Lauren, Burch, Coach, Tom Ford and Thom Browne.
There were exceptions, of course — Prabal Gurung, for one, took a table. Brother Vellies designer Aurora James dressed U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a dress that spelled out “Tax the Rich,” a pointed challenge to the crowd she’d joined, and Pyer Moss designer Kerby Jean-Raymond outfitted himself in a red suit with cropped Kevlar vest and gun pendant, highlighting the American stains of police violence and addiction to guns.
For Bon Appetit editor in chief Dawn Davis, B Michael designed a two-piece gold metallic top and trumpet skirt with embroideries of the names of iconic Black American fashion designers, including Elizabeth Keckley, Scott Barrie, Ann Low, Arthur McGee, Willie Smith, Patrick Kelly and Jay Jaxon, some of whom are also featured in the exhibition.
But Michael has never been invited to the gala, he said. “It was an American theme and my expectation was there would be more Americans participating, but that’s subjective,” he said.
Many of the young designers reweaving the fabric of American fashion could not afford to compete on the Met’s red carpet platform either, which speaks to how much work needs to be done, and is being done on the financial side thanks to James and her 15 Percent Pledge, the Black in Fashion Council and other new initiatives.
For visitors who know how and where to look, however, there is hope in the exhibition in how the new American lexicon of fashion is being defined by young designers like Tremaine Emory, whose Denim Tears floral jacket and jeans address the difficult legacy of Black people in the cotton industry; Telfar Clemens’ post-gender cutout jersey top and jeans, and Olivia Cheng’s Dauphinette preserved botanical chain link dresses reflecting the urgency of sustainability. (On Instagram, Cheng playfully Photoshopped her floral jewelry onto Rihanna’s Balenciaga dress, “just for fun.”)
Maybe the Costume Institute will purchase these designers’ items for its permanent collection one day, and they will be the ones hosting tables at future Met Galas.
There are amusing juxtapositions in the exhibition, too — including the sensual black 2006 “Vertebrae” dress by American couturier Ralph Rucci opposite a functional uniform from Heron Preston’s 2016 collaboration with the New York Sanitation Department. High-low a few feet apart.
“This is an out of body experience,” Preston said during a walk-through. On the red carpet Monday night, he wore Tom Ford — and arrived with Tom Ford, who also dressed designers Christopher John Rogers and LaQuan Smith. (Preston, Smith, James and Abrima Erwiah sat at Ford’s table.)
Yeohlee Teng has had her works in several Costume Institute exhibitions, going back to the 1990s, and will receive the CFDA Board of Directors Tribute at the 2021 awards. Her brown ombre stripe alpaca tie-front coat is on display under the word “Refuge.”
“A lot of what I do has to do with shelter,” she said, reflecting on the word. “My new spring 2022 collection is called ‘Extinction,’ and it’s also very appropriate. You have to think about when you have to leave sometimes the only thing you have to shelter is what’s on your back.” (Eerily resonant in this age of refugee crises, caused by global conflict and climate change.)
Further illustrating how many connections are to be made, designer Aaron Potts, whose coat is on view near Yeohlee’s, rushed up to the designer on Monday to shake hands and take a photo with one of his heroes.
“It’s usually only the classic designers and the darlings like Marc Jacobs and Isaac Mizrahi,” he said of the Costume Institute exhibitions. “Seeing so many people who are doing streetwear, young designers, Black and women, it’s about damn time,” said Potts, who designs A Potts out of his Brooklyn, N.Y., living room.
His cocooning green plaid brushed-wool tunic and scarf from fall 2021 was created during the pandemic and is displayed under the word “warmth.”
“I hope this sticks,” he said of the establishment’s interest in designers like him. “What me and my contemporaries are thinking is get while the getting is good. Get yourself really rooted because there is not always going to be this kindness. This isn’t a kind business.”