A new fashion exhibition drawn from the archives of the Fashion Institute of Design Museum, Los Angeles opens this week in Bendigo. Here, a conversation with its co-curator Kevin Jones.
While many of Australia's large art institutions struggle with the concept of presenting fashion in an exhibition format - the Museum of Contemporary Art hasn't, beyond an Annie Leibowitz photography exhibition, ever really tried, and the Art Gallery of New South Wales hasn't had a major fashion exhibition since the Yves Saint Laurent retrospective in 1987 - Bendigo Art Gallery, under the general direction of Karen Quinlan, has made a name for itself by prominently including fashion in its programming. Last year's Grace Kelly: Style Icon exhibition attracted 152,000 visitors, an incredibly significant number for a regional gallery.
Modern Love, which opens this weekend, is co-curated by FIDM's Kevin Jones and Bendigo Art Gallery's Leanne Fitzgibbon, and is drawn from the former's 15,000-strong archive of fashion objects. It also marks the museum's first international touring exhibition. While its name suggests the exhibition focuses on romanticism in fashion, it in fact comprises almost 60 works from the post-punk period of the 1980s to the new millennium, beginning with a work by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren and including pieces by John Galliano for Christian Dior, Thom Browne, Miuccia Prada, Jean Paul Gaultier, Issey Miyake and, rather excitingly for those who missed out on the Costume Institute's seminal Savage Beauty exhibition in 2011, a piece from the final collection designed by Alexander McQueen, transported to Australia with great care.
In Bendigo to install the exhibition, I had a quick chat with Jones ahead of its official opening - with the honours by Melbourne couturier Toni Maticevski - later this week.
Can you tell me a little about how did the collaboration with Bendigo Art Gallery came about? It was all because of Grace Kelly. She brought us together. We loaned a Grace Kelly gown to the Victoria & Albert Museum for its exhibition and when it closed I had a charming email from the team at Bendigo asking if they could borrow it for their show. I didn't know the curators from there, but they’re all fantastic as I got to know them when I came out and installed the gown. Once I went home [to LA] I sent a catalogue of a show we did called Fabulous, covering 210 years of fashion, as they were talking about doing a contemporary show, and I thought it would be great to loan to them again. I said to go shopping in that catalogue. Initially we were just going to loan a few pieces but once they saw what we had in the collection,they thought to do a complete show with us. Over the last ten years we have been focused on collecting contemporary dress. We've never done a contemporary show, nor had we ever sent a complete show internationally, so to be able to touch on a lot of firsts was really exciting.
What does your role entail at the museum? I'm the curator of the museum, so it's my job to give direction as to where the museum goes for its objects and what it is we accept into its collections, developing the criteria so only the best designs from any era come into the collection. It's tricky because there's so much competition with so many fashion exhibitions internationally today, as Bendigo [Art Gallery] has demonstrated with the tens of thousands of visitors coming to its exhibitions. So many different people are interested in establishing collections, particularly for contemporary fashion, that even design houses are trying to collect back their work to build up their own archives. Fashion exhibitions inspire, bring students in, the general public in, people that can't see fashion shows on the runway.
I understand the focus of the show is the post-punk period, but within that is there a thematic framework? It really touches on each of the eras and how the eras blend into one another, a continuum of design. Particularly in the 1990s and early 2000s retro fashion became acceptable for people to wear. As fashion houses brought out their versions [of period pieces], they're not inspired at all but almost exact recreations. So seeing these designs not as retro pieces but as completely contemporary is quite interesting. There is nothing in the show worn in the past and worn anew. There's no fashion today, so to speak, as you used to follow it in the fifties, when hemlines had to be a certain length. Everybody coming to the show will find something they love. These garments are up to forty years old. It shows that great design is great design.
How do you go about selecting designers and pieces when you have such a big collection? Because we have such a large collection it makes pickings rich. We could go in any direction we wanted to. We wanted to have a broad cross-section, so there’s everything from streetwear, like Adidas sneakers, to Yves Saint Laurent embroidered pieces. Western fashion from Europe, American fashion, Asian dress… fashion, especially contemporary dress, is so multicultural and global now that it doesn’t stay isolated. One of the other thematic ideas was to try to have people question where the garment has come from, because it may be that it’s from Asia, was shown in Paris, and retailed in America.
Who do you imagine this show will speak to? I think it'll appeal to a lot of people, because you can do a show on the 19th century and that might touch a specific group of individuals interested in older fashion, but if you're 40 or younger, or older for that matter, this will touch you in some way. The show has something for everyone, with pieces from [Toni] Maticevski's current range. Boys and girls clothes, everybody's represented. And of course everyone will have an opinion because it's not so removed from our contemporary world.
It’s an interesting proposition putting pieces in from a collection currently in stores as it blurs the line between commerciality and curatorial approbation. Is a piece like that gown valid in a show like this when it has no history, so to speak? I think it's tricky, yes, but still completely valid and it depends on what you choose to show. What was fantastic about Toni's show is that he said to go and choose whatever I wanted, and so I went with the most sculptural, least wearable gown, because it's an art gallery. It really is a sculpture. It’s made of white neoprene and we have no pieces from neoprene, so I thought that was such a fantastic use of the fabric because you usually see it in wetsuits, and even then usually black, but it holds every aspect of the original design. If you wear it you can become a piece of art.