BY DAVE WIECZOREK
There’s a pivotal moment in the movie The Devil Wears Prada when a sniveling Andy confides to her colleague Nigel that she doesn’t think she’ll survive as personal assistant to Miranda Priestly, the ruthless editor of Runway magazine. Nigel tells Andy to quit her whimpering and appreciate their rarefied world: “Don’t you know that you are working at the place that published some of the greatest artists of the century? Halston, Lagerfeld, de la Renta. And what they did, what they created, was greater than art because you live your life in it.”
Nowhere does art imitate life and life imitate art more than in the world of fashion. Love it or hate it, everyone from 19th-century critic and essayist William Hazlitt to French designer Coco Chanel to Gossip Girl Blair Waldorf feels compelled to express an opinion about fashion.
“[Fashion] is haughty, trifling, affected, servile, despotic, mean and ambitious, precise and fantastical, all in a breath,” wrote Hazlitt, “tied to no rule, and bound to conform to every whim of the minute.”
Whether compliment or insult, it’s hard to tell. Where Coco stood was more obvious, if no less abstract.
“Fashion,” she said, “is in the sky, in the street; fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.”
Leave it to the Gossip Girl – apropos to our times – to positively apotheosize fashion, declaring: “Fashion is the most powerful art there is. It’s movement, design and architecture all in one. It shows the world who we are and who we’d like to be.”
Truer words from a fictional character were never spoken, if we are also to believe what famed fashion photographer Mario Testino recently said: “We are in a moment of blending in fashion and art and the world in general.”
So it’s no wonder the Boca Raton Museum of Art booked IMPACT: 50 Years of the CFDA – a celebration of the American artistry of the leading fashion trade organization in the United States, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA). The exhibition, which includes garments and accessories for men and women that were selected by 50 of the most “impactful” creators of the last half century, runs from Jan. 29 through April 21.
“American designers have always had impact on how people dress,” says designer and CFDA president Diane von Furstenberg. “Impact was the one word that came to mind immediately – it is so strong and defining of our individual and collective influence – that we knew right away that our exhibit would be called Impact: 50 Years of the CFDA.”
Among the designers are von Furstenberg, Geoffrey Beene, Michael Kors, Coach, Donna Karan, Norma Kamali, Francisco Costa/Calvin Klein, Vera Wang, Kenneth Cole and Thakoon. The show also features interactive touchscreen displays that illustrate a timeline of American fashion and recognize the nearly 600 designers who have been members of the CFDA over the past five decades. (Running concurrently with IMPACT is Draw and Shoot, featuring fashion drawings and photography culled from the museum’s permanent collection.)
Surprised that a fashion show should turn up in an art museum? Don’t be.
“Fashion has become its own living, breathing, moving art form,” says Andrew Burnstine, a professor of business and management at Lynn University in Boca Raton who teaches fashion-management courses. “Fashion imitates art and art imitates fashion.”
Fashion and the Boca museum’s new mission statement flow together as flawlessly as one of von Furstenberg’s famous wrap dresses.
“Our mission is to celebrate, exhibit, interpret, preserve and promote and inspire creativity,” says Steven Maklansky, the museum’s director. “We feel this show fits right into that idea of exploring creativity in its many forms.”
Kelli Bodle, the museum’s assistant curator, says that fashion is “culturally significant as a display of each generation’s idea of who they think they are and who they think they’d like to be. Fashion reflects the zeitgeist of each generation.”
Fashion designers, she says, belong in the same artistic conversation as painters and sculptors.
“Fashion designers have original creative ideas, making them up out of nothing,” Bodle says. “They have a vision for their work and what they want people who see it to come away with.”
Art can stimulate our fantasies and dreams, and the question of fashion as art often comes down to the orthodoxy of one’s definition of art.
“If art is something you hang over your couch, then perhaps fashion isn’t art,” Maklansky says. “But the definition of art and what gets included under that umbrella and what doesn’t is always changing. Art museums have to be an arena where this question is explored.”
It’s true, too, that fashion fills those arena seats.
Cashing in on Fashion
Fashion has been attracting huge crowds since at least 2000, when New York’s Guggenheim became one of the first museums to open its doors to fashion, presenting the “works” of Armani. Since then exhibitions have gone global, from Beijing to Boca, some shows drawing in excess of 100,000 paying visitors. The Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Jean Paul Gaultier show From the Catwalk to the Sidewalk in Montreal, Coco’s Culture Chanel in China and Christian Louboutin’s well-heeled extravaganza in London were just a few of the many wildly successful museum exhibitions staged around the world in the past two years.
“People are recognizing that the boundaries of clothing as fashionable, artistic items is not restricted to the commercial arena,” Bodle says. “They can see how aesthetically pleasing, say, the shape of heel can be for a shoe, or the cut of a dress, its drapery and how it lays across the human form, which is the same way that you appreciate a Greco-Roman sculpture.”
Visitors to IMPACT won’t see a marbled Zeus, but they will get to ogle 53 pieces ranging from the traditional to the eccentric.
From traditionalist Geoffrey Beene, for example, there’s an evening gown with a black and white Dalmatian print that undulates to the ground. From the maverick tongue-in-cheek designer Thom Browne there’s an ensemble for men featuring pheasant feathers on top of a wool jacket with a fur bowler hat. There’s a bit of history to be seen too, including accessories such as the iconic Coach “bucket bag,” the leather duffle sack that was one of the first “it” bags – a power accessory released in 1973.
Maklansky says museums and these kinds of exhibitions play a vital role in a consumer’s own creativity and choice.
“A museum, just like art, changes over time. Art must evolve,” he says. “A museum should create an engaging forum to encourage people to think of art not just as a thing but as an epistemology, a way of understanding life. These shows are not only celebrating fashion as an art form but encouraging people to be artists for themselves, in terms of the clothing they select and the way they present themselves to the world. We’re sure that IMPACT will create a great sense of relevancy about art in people’s everyday lives.”
He adds: “There’s also a greater sense of attainability. You go to a Picasso exhibition but not many people can afford a Picasso. The idea that you can come to a show like IMPACT and see works of art that are much more attainable, that involve many fewer zeroes, is part of the appeal as well.”
Breaking Down Castle Walls
So just who will attend a show like IMPACT?
“You’ll have the affluent ladies of South Florida who will valet their Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, the luncheon girls, the grand dames who will go and make an afternoon of it,” says Burnstine, the Lynn professor. “You’ll have Baby Boomers reminiscing about their era, and younger people who are students of fashion looking to see how fashion imitates art, maybe a dress that was reinvented or re-stylized that they saw on Sex and the City.”
Some will come for a perspective on the history of women in post-World War II America, when women were entering the workforce and were becoming more sporty and on the move.
“Clothing had to be made to fit the masses of women who were leaving the home and didn’t have the time or the money to have everything handcrafted,” Bodle says. “So that’s where the American designers stepped in. They embraced the machine age and the mass production of clothing. They created their own original designs for the runway and copied them to sell in the department stores that were popping up all over America.”
To Maklansky’s way of thinking, it was just a matter of time before haute couture became, well, fashionable in museums.
“An older idea of museum practice was that Art – with a capital ‘A’ – was something separate and distinct and that a museum was conceived almost as an art castle to protect the arts therein,” he says. “It was very authoritarian, omniscient and didactic. A newer concept about museum practice reflects more of how we live and how we think, that art is all around us.
“As a smart, thoughtful, clever and sometimes even playful museum, our role is to help people navigate, select and interpret all this creative stimulus that’s around us and to present it in an interesting and engaging fashion.”
In other words, art with IMPACT.
For more information about “IMPACT: 50 Years of the CFDA” call the Boca Raton Museum of Art at 561-392-2500 or visit www.bocamuseum.org for hours, admission and directions to the museum.