Could you explain your work in a few words?
My work is about finding different ways of exhibiting dress as an open, but precise, language. And I think that the part that I love is evolving my skills around doing that; like extending one’s vocabulary, but in 3D. I come from a background in architecture and so I really have this idea of a development of a project in its aesthetic, social, and narrative meanings. It’s a serious procedure and quotation must be taken seriously, even though you are always aware that you are bringing your own histories to bear on the angle from which you start a project. I think that my work, if there is something called “my work”, is about looking at the implications of exhibition-making on what and around what is being presented.
“As an exhibition maker, I’m curating and designing the exhibition at the same time, as though it were an installation.” – Judith Clark
You often define yourself as an exhibition maker, rather than a curator. What is the difference between the two?
Today these definitions are more porous. However, I think traditionally a curator would build a story made up of objects. There was a priority around that aspect, with less weight given to the exhibition design, which was often delegated to somebody else. Whereas as an exhibition maker, I’m curating and designing the exhibition at the same time, as though it were an installation. That is no less collaborative, as I bring in different strands and voices, from Angelo Seminara to make a headpiece or Stephen Jones, to a tile maker in Venice, etcetera. It’s a very specific project in terms of the different groups that are put together around it. And I have an overview of that because I see it as an installation.
“With my interest in dress, my immediate association was the staging of it, rather than necessarily the writing about it.” – Judith Clark
You said that your background is in architecture. How did you start your career as an exhibition maker?
I wanted to reconcile these two loves of mine. And I am still, as I’m in love with architecture to this day and build models in my space. I also have a much older brother who is an artist. This is quite a key fact, as people don’t realise that you have aspirations associated with older siblings. The gallery has always been this space where important and exciting events occur. So, with my interest in dress, my immediate association was the staging of it, rather than necessarily the writing about it. And then, of course, there was Anna Piaggi, with her idea of the collage. I looked at her pages as though they might be in 3D. I don’t know why, but that’s just how I read them and wondered why they didn’t exist as gallery propositions.
Is there anybody else other than Anna Piaggi, whose work inspires you?
Anna Piaggi is certainly one of those key people because of an attitude to fashion that was restless and informed, light-hearted, and also very profound at the same time. She was making very important connections between things and across time. But she was presenting them as though casually. I quite liked that tension between being incredibly earnest and working within the fashion system. Those two things didn’t need to be contradictory. A lot of fashion theory is very earnest to be taken seriously. I also often look at curatorial practice and art history, like the work of Aby Warburg. I did an MA, not many years ago, at the Warburg Institute, as a full immersion into those studies around recovery and the recovery of references. His memory atlas was very much art history without words. So, it’s also about looking at those people who have been art historians or fashion critics and have enjoyed these anachronyms.
I do see some similarities between the collages from Anna Piaggi and Warburg’s work. You once mentioned his concept of “law of good neighbourliness” for an interdisciplinary approach to research. That is present in both works in a way.
Yeah, and that’s about the juxtaposition created within an exhibition because it’s in a way the same law. It’s an agreement between objects and how they progress the narrative of an exhibition.
“If you go into the Louis Vuitton or the Lanvin archives there’s too much to show in one space. In a way you need to do both things: you need to keep your eyes open and see where the strength of the archive lies.” – Judith Clark
How do you decide the theme of a fashion exhibition? And how do you unfold the project in the early stages? Is it more an analytical or a creative process?
I think it’s both. It depends on whether it’s commissioned or generated. I’m often commissioned to do exhibitions so I might start with the design house’s huge archive. There is a moment of an overwhelming excess of material. If you go into the Louis Vuitton or the Lanvin archives there’s too much to show in one space. So, in a way you need to do both things: you need to keep your eyes open and see where the strength of the archive lies. There is first statistical knowledge, then you can try to draw a chronological line. Or you can have a thematical attitude, as I usually do, and go with your hunch where these seem to be patterns that have not been exhibited before, or that could make for a good exhibition. It’s a kind of a relay. Then I start choosing hero objects, that become constellations. And into the pot, there is also the presumed venue for the exhibition. So, architecturally, that also starts to bring something to bear on the project. It all evolves when the exhibition is key, rather than from a hypothetical starting point.
“[The profession of the curator] needs to be far more politicised and it’s time to really look carefully at what we are saying. ” – Judith Clark
Fashion curation is a very recent discipline. When was the term “fashion curator” or in this case “fashion exhibition maker” come into use? And how do you think it will evolve?
It’s a very strange thing. It’s a discipline that, because it’s small, it appears to be very recent. Because when people start to think about it, they wonder why they haven’t thought about it before. Amy De La Haye and I wrote a book on recovering Cecil Beaton’s exhibition at the Victoria and Albert in 1971 and I think around that time is the moment when fashion exhibitions, in the way we think of them now, started growing. Clothing has been displayed in permanent collections and there has been such a thing as this profession for a very long time, but what has shifted is the idea of it almost as a career or vocation. And I love that this discipline has always been redefined. But I also think that everyone at that time was in such a hurry to justify its existence within the museum, that some of the implications of that were missed along the way. I think it needs to be far more politicised and it’s time to really look carefully at what we are saying.
“Given that fashion exhibition-making is around the body inevitably, it is important to understand how the things associated with these lost bodies, such as performativity and gestures, are going to be translated into a different medium.” – Judith Clark
And talking about redefining the concept of fashion curation… Creators of fashion archives on platforms such as Instagram and Patreon are gaining more and more visibility and credibility to the extent that their work is often considered like that of curators. Would you say that the concept of fashion exhibition can or will take other dimensions than physical spaces?
Absolutely and it has to! It has to be inclusive. And the thing that I would ask, is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Because I think it’s often rhetorically described as “either-or”. Whereas for me it’s “all of the above”. It’s anything that occurs to anybody. And whether something interests me or not, is not a product of what the medium is, but rather of how interesting the idea is. It’s not about reserving mannequins or something else as this kind of unique communication tool. I just thought that one of the interesting things that we might do is grapple with this kind of surrogate body and the creative opportunities around that. Given that fashion exhibition-making is around the body inevitably, it is important to understand how the things associated with these lost bodies, such as performativity and gestures, are going to be translated into a different medium. I’ve done some experiments with casting a gesture, or asking Solange to sing the words of an archive, or doing something about cultural translation and a different kind of reception of these archives. Who are they for? How can they jump from one medium to another? This is something that preoccupies me all the time, but for me, there’s no one excluded. All of it is valid.
You have often been commissioned exhibitions by fashion houses. Do you think that new opportunities might arise from a brand’s storytelling strategies?
For sure. And in the past, I would be commissioned by the heritage department. Now there are no heritage departments, but communications ones. And that makes it explicitly strategic, but no less conceptual. I think they call somebody like me in, from the outside, as a gesture towards a kind of objectivity and rigour. I’ve also not encountered huge obstacles where someone’s sat me down and said “You can’t use this object”. It’s more common that my perspective has been valued and also value-added -I’m not saying this goes outside of the capitalist system. There is a huge investment in the fact of my being an exhibition maker and also an academic.
“It is a discipline that is more than others, immediately associated with commerce and with things that have been perceived as being against the rigorous or the academic.” – Judith Clark
You once said that fashion is a kind of dangerous territory for a museum because it’s too close to the commercial. Do you think that this kind of collaborations between fashion houses and curators might problematise, even more, this relationship?
It’s dangerous in a way I say it in inverted commas because it depends on who perceives this danger. I think it’s problematic, but as in more complex. I don’t think it’s only possibly bad. It makes it more necessary for us to own our opinion, our perspective, or our ethical position as much as we can. But it is a discipline that is more than others, immediately associated with commerce and with things that have been perceived as being against the rigorous or the academic. It has taken a very long time to unravel that and we probably are still unravelling that dilemma.
“We want students to be critically aware and to have regard for material culture, which means knowing the criteria of care of an object and how to analyse it.” – Judith Clark
You are a professor of fashion and museology at the London College of Fashion (UAL). What are the learning objectives of the course?
I have loved working on this course. The main learning objective is to give the students a sense of where this discipline is. My unit to date has been called “Past and Future of Fashion Curating”. It relies on a very Eurocentric account of this discipline, as mainly practiced in western countries for the past 50 years. It is about past and future because I want the students to get a sense not only of the experimental possibilities of fashion exhibition-making, but I also want them to be politically awake to the possibilities of redescription around issues of dress that are so intimately involved in issues of identity. We want them to be critically aware and to have regard for material culture, which means knowing the criteria of care of an object and how to analyse it. And we want them to emerge as responsible curators in all those dimensions, but also as innovative ones.
You also co-direct the “Centre for Fashion Curation”. What is the project about and what are its main aims?
Centres of universities are usually started because there’s a critical mass. Frances Corner, previous head of the college, felt that there were conversations happening around curating, that she valued hugely and that needed to be a flag saying “this is a centre for excellence”, so to speak. Amy De La Haye and I agreed to work on this and we put together a centre, rallying those people within the university who were having these conversations and organising projects around it. One of the bigger projects we’ve done recently is this website where we are documenting exhibitions of fashion, but also commissioning responses. The idea of the revaluation and re-politicising of this discipline can happen within our centre and on the website, depending on how people respond. And we hope that the response element will grow as much as the website and will start to feed into the theories around fashion exhibition-making.
“I would encourage students to bring their particular sensitivity and strength to bear on this and do not think that it is about blockbuster exhibitions. ” – Judith Clark
Is there any advice you would like to share with anyone interested in pursuing a career in fashion curation?
I think it’s one of the most enlivening disciplines because it gives you the space, quite literally, to think around lives, bodies, and histories. I think it’s truly an interdisciplinary project. The way in is so various: we have students who are historians, who studied English, or even theatre. Because it’s a collaborative job, you can bring your strengths without being intimidated by the other roles that are part of it. I would encourage students to bring their particular sensitivity and strength to bear on this and do not think that it is about blockbuster exhibitions. This is about beginning to make connections between things that perform themselves in space, and that have many more opportunities than have been rehearsed to date. My advice would be to go with the courage of their conviction in respect of the discipline they are coming from.