For three fashion art exhibitions, it's not about the designers – it’s the curators who run the show. By Alyx Gorman.

Gallery fashion

Fashion Icons at the Art Gallery of South Australia features (from left) John Galliano for Christian Dior, Olivier Theyskens for Rochas and Alexander McQueen for Givenchy.
Fashion Icons at the Art Gallery of South Australia features (from left) John Galliano for Christian Dior, Olivier Theyskens for Rochas and Alexander McQueen for Givenchy.
Credit: Saul Steed

When Akira Isogawa gave a talk on the opening day of Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion at Brisbane’s GOMA, the exhibition’s curators were surprised. Isogawa is the only Australian designer featured in the exhibition, on until February 15, but it is his inclusion in the show that made his participation in the day’s festivities so shocking.

In Japan, designers never show up to their own exhibitions. Especially not on the first day. Meanwhile, in Melbourne, Jean Paul Gaultier had no such qualms. He flew halfway across the world to be at the opening of his exhibition, The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier, at the National Gallery of Victoria until February 8.

At the Art Gallery of South Australia, the works of about 60 designers are on display in Fashion Icons until February 15, an overview of post-World War II fashion from the collections of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.

Although more than 30 of the designers featured in Future Beauty are still living, in true Japanese style, none were in attendance on opening night.

“By definition fashion houses want to have full control, and in a museum they do not. Which frustrates them,” says Pamela Golbin, chief curator of fashion and textiles at the Paris museum and curator of the Adelaide exhibition.

Isogawa agrees. While he has no ego when it comes to his own work – “When I am finished making a dress, it’s up to the wearer to decide what will be done with it” – he can see how some designers, especially those who work for huge houses with armies of assistants, might be more precious about what happens with their clothes.

Cheeky and wildly charismatic, Jean Paul Gaultier has not an ounce of Isogawa’s reserved nature. But, like the Australian designer, he is not precious.

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier is a romp through the designer’s “passions and obsessions”, according to the exhibition’s curator, Thierry-Maxime Loriot. It is the first exhibition Loriot, a former male model, has put together, and to say it has been a runaway success would be an understatement. Through iterations in Montreal, San Francisco, London, New York and Stockholm, it has become the most popular fashion exhibition to date.

Loriot views himself as a “storyteller” as much as anything else, and has organised the exhibition thematically, rather than chronologically, to help express this. In each city the exhibition visits, he works alongside Gaultier to add new and relevant themes. Locally, it’s Australian muses such as Kylie Minogue, Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett.

 “It’s fun, to be honest,” Loroit says of working with Gaultier. “He’s really open-minded. It’s also challenging because he has so many ideas all the time. He’s like a sponge that has absorbed everything… My goal as a curator is to do an exhibition that he will feel comfortable in, so that when he sees the exhibition, he thinks ‘Oh, it’s really me!’ ”

Golbin, who has pulled together solo exhibitions for designers as diverse as Dries Van Noten, Hussein Chalayan and Valentino, has a very different answer about what it’s like to work closely with still living artists.

“My involvement when working with a designer is pretty high-level intense. Designers are incredible creatures, and they’re very emotional. I tell them from the beginning, ‘This is not going to be easy.’ They all have their own way of working, and if they are still working today, it means they’ve come up with a system for what they do. I take them out of that comfort zone. It means that I’m very invested in taking that journey with them. But it’s very difficult, and it’s based on trust.”

Akiko Fukai, director and chief curator of the Kyoto Costume Institute, has a different philosophy again. “I don’t,” she tells me when I ask if she ever discusses a garment with its maker when she acquires a piece. “I never think about the monograph of the designer. I am always interested in the long-term subject of fashion. The cross-cultural subject of East and West.” She adds: “Maybe my attitude to curation is a little bit different from most.”

With its talking mannequin heads (they have videos projected onto them) and sexy sailors, Jean Paul Gaultier is certainly the most lighthearted of the shows in Australia’s summer of blockbuster fashion exhibitions. It is also the only one of the three to be created in conjunction with a fashion house.

All of the garments on display in Brisbane and Adelaide are owned by the institutes that have organised their display. Which is not to say that Future Beauty or Fashion Icons are fusty or overly serious. They simply have more gravity.

Fashion Icons is arranged in chronological order, by decade. “Part of my curatorial ethics is that I need to give a comprehensive point of view that is objective when it comes to historical fact,” Golbin explains. She uses the way garments are placed to aid her storytelling. “For instance, in the 1950s section we have two beautiful ball gowns – ‘Mexico’ by Christian Dior and one by Pierre Balmain. It made sense for me to put them together, because they were working together at Robert Piguet before they founded their own houses. Those kinds of considerations are very important … Not only does a show have to be aesthetically coherent, those facts have to be clear.”

Later in the exhibition, a witchy, hooded creation by Véronique Branquinho – part of a segment on the Antwerp-based designers who rose to prominence in the 1990s – faces into a bank of more contemporary ball gowns. It is making direct eye contact with an equally Gothic, though strikingly different, dress by fellow Belgian Olivier Theyskens, for Rochas. It’s a subtle gesture of one generation staring on to the next.

Golbin relishes the flexibility she has when creating retrospectives such as Fashion Icons. “When it comes to a survey or thematic exhibition, there’s much more freedom. You’re working directly with the audience. They’re the ones that are taking the journey with you.” She selects garments with silhouettes that are representative of their time, by designers who are notable for that era, but she also tries to find a connection with the place she is curating for. In Adelaide it is a ball gown by Christian Dior, which is also named Adelaide, and opens the exhibition. “It was named because Louis XV’s daughter was named Adelaide, so for me it is Princess Adelaide meets the Queen Adelaide for whom this city is named. It’s always these type of connections that make a real difference for the audience.”

Future Beauty sits in between Fashion Icons and The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier in that it is somewhat thematic and somewhat chronological. It begins with the monochromatic, deconstructed collections of Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto that sent shockwaves through the French fashion industry in the 1980s, in a section called “In Praise of Shadows”. Then it explores themes – “Flatness” (which hints at fashion’s relationship to origami), and “Tradition and Innovation”, which highlights the importance of close collaboration with Japan’s highly developed textile industry. Finally, in “Cool Japan”, modern works from late 1990s to present-day street-style subcultures such as Lolita are displayed.

Dividing the exhibition in this manner was important for Fukai. In so doing she has created a cross-generational context, while going a long way to explaining how Japanese fashion has come to be what it is today. The final room of the exhibition homes in on key collections by Japan’s most important designers, including three works from Comme des Garçons Spring/Summer 2014 collection. “Rei Kawakubo [the designer of Comme des Garçons] continues always to see something new. She is still challenging, and creating new ways of seeing, so it is still important to show her newest work,” Fukai explains.

When I ask the three curators whether fashion designers are ever the best arbiters of their own creations, each answers differently. Loriot believes firmly that Jean Paul Gaultier has a firm grip on his history: “Sometimes he sees his own work in an exhibition and gets inspired by it for the next season.” Golbin says it varies, depending on the designer. “Designers don’t have a lot of time to reflect. You finish one show, and the next day you’re picking out fabric for the new collection … But that’s what’s wonderful and magical about fashion.”

There is one exception to Fukai’s reticence to communicate with designers, and that is Rei Kawakubo. Sometimes, Fukai will request to buy a piece after a show, only to discover that Kawakubo has squirrelled the garment away for her own historical archives. With a mixture of awe and frustration, she explains: “Rei Kawakubo always knows.” And she doesn’t need to turn up on opening night to find out.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 8, 2014 as "Fabric showing".

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Alyx Gorman is The Saturday Paper’s fashion editor.

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