Black to the future

mannequins

Photo by Whitney Van Dyke

building

Photo by Eric Wolin

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Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM

Galleries painted, platforms placed: check

Mannequins and clothes unpacked and installed: check

Design and lighting effects working: check

Labels produced: check

Outfit for opening party selected: still thinking…

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Installing Future Beauty, photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM

We’re in the final days of preparing the exhibition Future Beauty: Avant-Garde Japanese Fashion for its opening on November 16. No exaggeration—this tops my list of exhilarating and fun shows to have worked on as a curator.

Why? So, so many reasons really.

The Kyoto Costume Institute in Japan has an extraordinary collection of modern and contemporary fashion that they share generously through shows like this.

The KCI’s organizing curator Akiko Fukai developed a compelling, flexible thematic approach for this internationally traveling show. She and her fellow curator Rie Nii have been great collaborators as we developed an exhibition experience just perfect for our PEM audiences, who have a healthy appetite for our growing number of fashion exhibitions.

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Akiko Fukai, organizing curator from the Kyoto Costume Institute, and a woman from her team make the final touches on the exhibition. Photo by Walter Silver/PEM

Just being in the presence of these garments has been enough to make my fingers twitch with anticipation of being able to explore the designers’ innovative structures and materials. And it has stoked my curiosity about what it would be like to wear any and all of them…

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Junya Watanabe for Junya Watanabe Comme des Garçons, Autumn/Winter 2009–10. Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute.

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Yohji Yamamoto for Yohji Yamamoto, Autumn/Winter 1996-97. Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute. Photo by Takashi Hatakeyama.

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Junya Watanabe for Junya Watanabe Comme des Garçons, Autumn/Winter 2000-01. Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute. Photo by Takashi Hatakeyama.

Rei Kawakubo’s incongruously lumpy bumpy skirt and top, Yohji Yamamoto’s elegant, inky black silk gown, Koji Tatsuno’s whirling dervish of a dress (that keeps reminding me of Marilyn Monroe’s billowing white dress on the subway grate), or Junya Watanabe’s cheeky mashup of a simple shirtwaist dress and a hoop skirt (try sitting in that one). The list goes on.

And the thrill of the challenge—how to create an engaging installation and interpretation to get people thinking about the big ideas: the relationship between our bodies and clothes and what we consider beautiful and why.

Japanese designers have revolutionized and complicated that relationship and our definitions since the early 1980s. Have you ever tried making a piece of clothing? The one and only time I did—in my high school home economics class—was a swift and humbling introduction to what it takes to transform a flat piece of cloth into something that works on a three-dimensional body, physically let alone creatively.

To move a garment from a purely functional place to one that pokes and pushes at beauty from multiple perspectives is no small feat. That’s why the exhibition ends with a literal question: What’s your future beauty? That longstanding adage about beauty being in the eye of the beholder is fair enough. But thinking about it from the perspective of a wearer, a shopper, a collector, a designer or an artist opens up other possibilities.

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Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons, Spring/Summer 1997. Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute. Photo by Takashi Hatakeyama.

Continuing my list of reasons….

To play, yes play, with ideas and objects—that are very different from my experiences as a curator of American and modern art yet relate to one of my private passions: fashion. All rumors about my love of clothing are true. Some of that has to do with how we all work clothing into shaping our identity, whether we are conscious of that or not.

A lot of it has to do with the very visceral response that textiles elicit in me, thanks to a grandmother who made every stitch of clothing for her four daughters and more quilts than my family will ever have beds for. I experience/learn a lot from touch and texture; accompanied by pattern, form, and color—makes things feel real, approachable, comforting, exciting, sensual. That’s one of the reasons the exhibition includes the opportunity to try on clothes by designers in the show, thanks to some smart purchases we have made on eBay.

And last but not least, the show has delivered an unexpected insight into something that has puzzled me—why the almost ubiquitous presence of black in contemporary life? Think about it—black clothing, black nail polish, black suitcases, black cars, black credit cards, black label liquor brands, etc. The jokes about everyone in the art world dressing in black are based in actuality. Different cultures and different times have utilized their share of black for a multitude of reasons: elegance, mystery, mourning, class, authority, prestige and rebellion primary among them. But I can’t help but think that black’s currency today owes a great deal to the pioneering Japanese designers who have embraced black not just as a color but as a sign of change and energy for the future.

And about that last item on the show’s checklist, what to wear to the opening? You guessed it—all of my options, spread out in my guest room, are black.

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Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons, Autumn/Winter 1983-84. Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute, Gift of Comme des Garçons Co., Ltd. Photo by Masayuki Hayashi.

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