I must have been having my very own looking glass moment last year, when I read the initial announcement for this show. It appears I only saw what I wanted to see. Regardless, what I naively hoped for from this exhibition has not materialized.
The New York MET’s Costume Institute had an opportunity to update the message, rather than capitalize on the nostalgic missteps of fashion past. It had an opportunity to present a fresh and exciting vision of Chinese creativity now – in the Year 2015 – but it didn’t. The Costume Institute, it seems, is very much in the business of costume – not fashion.
Chinoiserie – the main stylistic focus of the exhibition – is not an aesthetic that is used / known and recognized by young stylish people living in China. Born out of Orientalism, it isn’t part of their world. It isn’t actually Chinese at all. It is a Western notion of a Chinese aesthetic, born out of the Rococo period. It is a tourist take on an imaginary China; an import / export scenario where a visual language is attached to another culture in an attempt to place it as quixotic, to other it – and to separate it from “us.” Cue bounteous opportunities for the West to then pillage this visual code – and use it as a language to communicate the strange, curious and wonderful.
As the world becomes increasingly globalized, such antiquated, nationalist – and quite frankly backward notions – are thankfully fading away within modern fashion. Progressive creatives now think (g)locally. The notion of “you come from here so you dress like this”, and “I come from there, so I dress like that” is an artificial construct / a meta narrative (a big story) aimed at controlling and limiting society – invented by the same school of beliefs that categorize the behaviour of people by their class, race, disability, sexuality, faith or gender. Postmodernity believes that all “big stories”, such as these, all contain within them a non-truth. A lie. This exhibition focuses not only the non-truth. It drowns in the non truth – it doesn’t seem to know where to go next.
One appreciates that The Costume Institute sits within The New York Metropolitan – a museum steeped in historicism. The past will never not feature heavily in any of their exhibitions. But when an historical view is damaging, it’s time to take creative responsibility for where the fashion world is going – rather than trading on the démodé views of days gone by. As it is, this adopted view by The Costume Institute certainly means more tickets may be sold. And for many a museum, putting on a fashion blockbuster, that is the most important thing. It seems the strategy employed here is to appeal to the masses, by way of reaffirming a set of social stereotypes – and the idea of fashion being a form of visual culture that merely reflects and does not question. Semi-snoozing in the low lit sedative comfort of the known, attendees get to sleep walk through an exhibition, which won’t dare to wake them up. No preconceptions are challenged, no preconceptions altered. This limited approach to blockbuster exhibitions dumbs down our consciousness. It also helps coach trips feel like fashion is “for them” – and that they did indeed always “get it.”
I take similar issue with The Costume Institute’s other exhibitions. I felt uneasy when I entered Savage Beauty’s Cabinet of Curiosities, to see Lee McQueen’s ideas reduced to simply practice. It represented what is so wrong with fashion today, that we reduce a genius’s ideas to the material, to a Pandora’s Box of twinkly “must haves” and fashion show reels, which one could easily find on You Tube. Hardly any educative interactivity was offered whatsoever: no films offering attendees the opportunity to learn more about what inspired the collections, no documentary on the Highland rape clearings, no piece of film showing the melting of our polar ice caps, no copies of his favorite magazine National Geographic – or any kind of contextual background to the characters that inspired other manifesto collections, such as VOSS or Joan. Surrounded by hundreds of Lee’s pieces, I felt so sad that his spirit was absent. The closest I felt to Lee McQueen here was hearing his voice in room one of the exhibition and – many rooms on – when I experienced Nick Knight’s haunting hologram of Kate Moss.
Otherwise, it felt like sanatized consumerism. Marginalized from his own work – without the world and the mind that inspired him, we are left with his incredible tailoring and construction – yes, but the combination of craft and agenda was what made his work so culturally important. I am not sure whether museums (please note I say museums and not curators) feel that by including context they will disengage the audience. However, in my experience as an academic lecturer within fashion, this is gold dust. This is the stuff that brings fashion alive for people. This is what makes them see that fashion matters.
Which is why this exhibition was such another missed opportunity. If we delete context or contemporary relevance, fashion never really stands a chance of being part of our world.
As a creative consultant, I have been observing the pastiche within which fashion designers have found themselves stuck. The grooves of tokenism and condescending curiosity runs deep. Wishing to appeal to the Chinese customer – the same counts for any new territory – designers are looking to appeal to these markets by embedding / badging the codes of their house with the motifs and signs of the new market, in the psychoanalytical hope that customers will buy a brand that mirrors their own culture. Although this is an essential part of design development now, it has to be done sympathetically and sensitively – and with a degree of wanting to intelligently educate the customer. One of the crudest examples of how this has been done in recent years is the blue and white willow pattern, used as print design on dresses and tailoring – through to categories such as nightwear, homeware and lingerie. One of the biggest farces within cultural exchange, this story goes way back beyond the wardrobes of S/S 2012 (when this micro trend really started to accelerate across our runways).
One such fan of “blue and white wares” was the founder of the Pre Raphaelite brotherhood, Gabrielle Rossetti, who decorated his London apartment with them – setting them against handmade green velvet wallpaper. In the 1860’s, a collection of Chinese porcelain was an en vogue way to display to your guests that your lifestyle somehow afforded you the opportunity to regularly nip up the Silk Road – or that you were at the very least wildly worldly and deliciously decadent. Rossetti was a fierce and competitive collector. One anecdotal tale saw him at a friend’s dinner party, where he was so keen to see the marks on a prized porcelain dish that he turned it over – forgetting that there was food in it.
Fast forward one hundred and fifty years – via a detour that saw Chinese collectors buying back the Dutch Delftware versions, complete with windmills (as somehow part of their heritage) – and we are pretty much stuck in the cultural vacuum of boomerang copycats and dizzying misappropriation. This is a case study in the ludicrous. I appreciate there is an ironic charm to the confusion – a fascination even – but for The Costume Institute to feature the blue and white pastiche as the headline image for the exhibition – a Roberto Cavalli blue and white porcelain print dress, no less – it is not so much laughing at the joke, it is the joke.
As we chuckle onwards at the obliteration of the now, let’s take a moment to grimace at the irony of this exhibition’s irrelevance to the current tastes of the luxury Chinese consumer. They are a world away from the opulent and ostentatious prints, colours and decoration, which pack the exhibition halls of The Costume Institute. The contemporary Chinese customer is increasingly placing values of elegance and discretion at its heart. This is the market that every single fragrance house would trade their biggest seller to break. The problem? Chinese culture frowns upon extrovert invasion, resulting in it being an etiquette based no no to inflict your personal smell / fragrance onto another person. Yves Saint Laurent’s violently seductive fragrance Opium is an example of a product that is designed for a Western market, which uses an outdated and imaginary Orientalist view, which has no market validity in its contemporary homeland.
China’s growing appetite for modesty extends to its fall out with logo driven super shiny fashion. LVMH’s market share is decreasing in China, whilst the discerning discretion of Hermès manages to slip below not only the Communist radar – but it falls in line with the Chinese customer’s desire for authenticity, quiet luxury and exclusivity. Taking it one step further, Hermès is still the only luxury brand that has invested in the realization that Chinese customers will one day want their own designers. Shang Xia, the niche lifestyle brand owned by Hermès, operates as an independent brand, which has been built from within China. Yes, it uses traditional materials such as bamboo, jade and Mongolian sheepskin – but it is also quiet, respectful, chic and modern. It is very possible to celebrate heritage whilst not reverting to cartoonish costumes. The proof? Shang Xia opened its first store outside of China last year – in Paris. Modern contemporary Chinese luxury is coming our way, and this is the beginning of the two-way conversation.
Exhibitions such as Art of Change: New Directions at London’s Hayward Gallery (2012) still sticks in my mind. It was an exhibition that truly captured the agenda driven creativity that makes China one of the most interesting places in the world for contemporary art right now. Contemporary Chinese art really says something. Fresh from the age of Chairman Mao’s repression – and wading through the new age of corruption, surveillance and humanitarian disaster that washes through its veins – it has the energy and drive similar to that of the punk movement. This was the era where fashion too was at its most urgent, when we knew what we were up against – and why we had to push it further. It is not only the artists and product designers graduating from China’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, The Shanghai Institute of Visual Media – or the incredible directors operating within the groundbreaking Chinese film scene we should be focusing on culturally – but new fashion design talent.
Phillip Lim, Vera Wang, Derek Lam, Alexander Wang and Joseph Altuzarra are just of the big name Chinese designers, heading up New York’s fashion empire. Not one of them is featured in this exhibition. The question has to be asked if these modern designers are not being celebrated creatively, despite them being so important to New York fashion, what is this exhibition really doing? The earworm that asks one whether the appointment of Alexander Wang for Balenciaga was a strategic Asian-for-Asian (market) business model returns.
Western labels are very happy to take money from the Chinese customer, as they are the most lucrative set of shoppers to enter a department store or boutique on Fifth Avenue or Knightsbridge, but with Anna Wintour at the helm of the Costume Institute, she has an enormous obligation to protect the American fashion industry. It wouldn’t suit for this to become the aforesaid two-way conversation. Keeping the status quo of the Chinese as customer and not creator makes sense for her and the western fashion economy. The powers that be that run this show have really showed their hand with this exhibition – and the hand is questionably trembling. Afraid that Beijing or Shanghai could one day not only take over as the world’s fashion capital – not only economically but creatively – it seems keeping Chinese style under the antiquated guise of Orientalism is either a tactic, a misstep or both.
“Keep them in their box”, they say.
The more lacquered and gilded the better.
Words: Lucy Norris
Image: Qing dynasty, Daoguang (1821–50)–Xianfeng (1851–61) period, China, Silk, metallic thread, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Anonymous Gift, 1944 (44.122.2) Photography © Platon