It was a night when the stars came out to play and society's bold and beautiful showed up in full force. As with any Chanel cocktail party, flutes of bubbly were in abundance, conversation flowed easily and there were plenty of stunning outfits to admire.
But this glamorous evening was not, ostensibly, to sell anything. Instead, guests were in attendance for the opening night of Chanel's The Little Black Jacket exhibition at the ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands. The photography exhibition featured over 100 mostly black-and-white portraits of celebrities and personalities, including Vanessa Paradis, Song Hye-kyo and Anna Wintour, taken by the label's Creative Director Karl Lagerfeld.
With each subject styled in the brand's iconic black jacket according to their personal sartorial sensibilities, the exhibition was both a tribute to a classic wardrobe staple and a nod to the immense versatility of the garment.
This exhibition is but one of the more recent high-profile exhibitions by luxury labels that have fashion lovers rushing to the gallery instead of the shops. Most recent among them, 2014 kicked off with Diane Von Furstenberg's Journey of a Dress exhibition at the Wilshire May Company in Los Angeles that runs till April 1.
In the past year, other global exhibitions include The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City, Virgule, etc. In the Footsteps of Roger Vivier at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris; and Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! at London's Somerset House.
Last year, Singapore hosted Italian label Gucci's Flora Icon exhibition that showcased archival pieces featuring the brand's Flora print, as well as Hermès' Couleurs De L'Ombre scarf exhibition, in collaboration with Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto.
With a seemingly endless array of retrospectives and showcases to visit, there has never been a better time to be a student of the art and history of fashion, and the decorative arts. In an era of fast fashion and an ever-shortening retail cycles, a well-curated exhibition is a canny way for luxury brands to stand out from the madding crowd.
Circe Henestrosa, the programme leader of the Fashion Media and Industries Bachelor of Arts programme at Lasalle College of the Arts, says: “Luxury brands have identified and started borrowing from the museums an archival approach to tell their brand stories because they want to create and expose consumers to new experiences that feel special and unique.”
Henestrosa is also a fashion curator who holds an MA in Fashion Curation from the London College of Fashion. She most recently curated the exhibition Frida's White Cabinet, an exhibition of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo's wardrobe that was shown in Mexico City in 2012.
She adds: “It is also a challenge to themselves to be cleverer in new ways of visual merchandising, because at the end of the day, they are using objects to tell a story.”
This is why many such exhibitions tend to focus on iconic items with a rich history as these tell a more compelling story. Through these pieces, the labels are able to highlight their identifying traits, such as distinctive design elements, the way they treat specific materials and even the rarity of the artisans they engage to create these items.
It is certainly an opportunity for the luxury marque to showcase its expertise and elevate its brand cachet among consumers.
Amanda Triossi, Bulgari's in-house curator since 1997, says she looks out for the “Bulgari-ness” of a piece when considering what to buy. “What I try to find are pieces that are the most representative of a given period in the brand's history, as well as in terms of the design and workmanship of the brand,” she says. For instance, she seeks out historic examples of Bulgari's signature Serpenti collection and designs that showcase the brand's use of coloured gemstones.
The art of selling
Of course, there is still a commercial element to such exhibitions. Says Triossi: “From an altruistic viewpoint, I believe that by educating your audience, you heighten appreciation. From a commercial point, the more you understand, the more you appreciate and are inclined to buy.”
Indeed, exhibitions held by luxury labels frequently translate well to store window displays. For example, when Louis Vuitton launched a capsule collection with Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, the brand transformed its store windows into mini art installations. Similarly, eagle-eyed shoppers may have noticed black-jacket-themed window displays in its boutiques at Ngee Ann City and The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands.
“By taking that curatorial approach and borrowing from the museum into the retail space, the experience is richer for the customer,” comments Henestrosa. “They curate the window, the product and the shop and this drives sales.”
What many people do not realise is that creating and maintaining archives is an expensive endeavour that only the largest brands have the means to afford.
“The whole notion of collecting your archive is a fairly new one,” says Hamish Bowles, international editor-at-large for American Vogue, in an article titled “The Business of Fashion”. “Everything you produced for the runway you wanted to sell. The couture houses would hold sales [of fashion collections from previous seasons] for their favourite clients. The idea was to get rid of everything.”
It has only been in the last two decades or so that an increasing number of labels have begun to realise the importance of creating their own archives. According to the article, Yves Saint Laurent was an outlier who kept pieces from his couture collections for posterity right from the beginning.
Even Dior only began putting together its archives in 1987, in commemoration of its 40th anniversary, while the Gucci Museo in Florence, the brainchild of Creative Director Frida Giannini, opened just slightly over two years ago in 2011.
There is certainly a tactile appeal to seeing an item in the flesh — and many of the finer points of fashion design, such as the craftsmanship, fabric quality and finishing can only be appreciated when viewed up close and personal. This is why it can be a worthwhile investment for brands that can afford it to create their own archives, whether for publicity purposes, such as exhibitions and retrospectives, or to serve as inspiration for future designers.
However, some critics say that fashion should be worn and not left on display in a climate-controlled room. In her review of the Gucci Museo when it first opened, fashion journalist Robin Givhan remarked: “Even the best mannequins can't quite give viewers a true sense of the artistry in a gown whose ostrich feathers will flutter only with the help of a woman's swaying hips. And room after room of display cases of handbags begin to look a bit like the ground floor of a very fancy department store — no matter how painstakingly crafted or historical they are.”
But proponents counter that there are artistic, historical and sociological values to preserving key items in fashion history. “Fashion in the museum context is not so much about what is trending now but rather how we used fashion or the clothes we wear to express our identity, which changes with time. Fashion has a symbolic significance and is used very often by individuals or groups to express their identity,” says Chung May Khuen, senior curator at the National Museum of Singapore.
Engaging new audiences
Organisations such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City have held some of the most critically acclaimed exhibitions in recent history, such as Savage Beauty, the Alexander McQueen retrospective at the Met, which had a record-breaking half a million visitors in 84 days.
Says Henestrosa on the success of fashion exhibitions: “Design is cool, fashion is cool. Young people are looking for new things and fashion draws crowds.” Its popular appeal has inspired many other museums to devote some gallery space to fashion exhibitions in order to stay relevant with today's audiences.
Since 2009, the National Museum of Singapore has held five fashion exhibitions, including two in 2012 — In The Mood for Cheongsam: Modernity and Singapore Women and The Wedding Dress: 200 Years of Wedding Fashion in collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition.
For the museum, these are ways to “present the social history of Singapore”, which is why it tries to give its exhibitions a local context as much as possible. For example, for the wedding dress exhibition, there was a curated section featuring wedding dresses worn by various ethnic groups in Singapore.
Says Chung: “Fashion, being an accessible and popular subject, is extremely effective in narrating the social and cultures of Singapore and its context in the region and the world.”
Ultimately, as the adage goes, clothes maketh the man and that is precisely why fashion has a timeless appeal that appeals to such a broad swathe of the global population and makes it such an effective medium of exhibition.
Leave it to Kaiser Karl Lagerfeld to put it best: “The eternal can only last if it stays up-to-date at the same time.”