Representing the creative future

Fashioning Spaces: Curating Contemporary Fashion outside the Institution

Why are alternative fashion displays often better at showcasing fashion than the traditional fashion museum? Jihane Dyer, a graduate of Central Saint Martins’ Fashion Theory and History course, shares her thoughts on contemporary fashion exhibition-making, and speaks to fashion curators Jeff Horsley, Alistair O’Neill and designer Charles Jeffrey to imagine a fashion-curatorial space outside the established institution.

From the exhibition ‘RED Comme des Garçons: innovation, provocation’ at Live Archive, curated by Jeff Horsley.

In spite of contemporary fashion’s long and challenging struggle to be considered ‘worthy’ of the museum institution, blockbuster fashion shows have fast become the money-makers in a climate where museums are facing ever-increasing budget cuts. Savage Beauty is the perfect case in point; its staging at the Met attracted over half a million visitors, while it’s V&A instalment was recently announced as the most popular show in the museum’s history.

We all flock to these shows, but are we really getting our time and money’s worth? And perhaps more importantly, are museums’ showstopper collecting policies neglecting too much of contemporary fashion output? Museums’ obligations to educate, combined with narratives deeply constructed according to institutional policy and wider social assumptions, have too often resulted in limited interpretations of material culture and the lurking sense that we’re just not being challenged enough.

Perhaps, then, the future of fashion exhibitions lies outside of the museum, where freedom from collection restraints and, where possible, a lack of state informed policy allow innovation and critical engagement to take centre stage. The last few years have seen fashion exhibitions popping up in all manner of venues: retail environments, cultural centres, renowned contemporary art galleries, and exhibition spaces in academic institutions – including Central Saint Martins’ own Lethaby Gallery that greets visitors and students on entering from the main entrance. More recently, smaller galleries dedicated to exhibiting contemporary fashion have emerged. Melbourne-based Centre For Style is notably disrupting the conventions associated with the practise (headed by Matthew Linde), while leading the way in London are Live Archives and Maison Mais Non.


from Alexander McQueen’s ‘Savage Beauty’ at the V&A

While certain examples are easily recognisable as thinly veiled marketing tools aimed at appealing to the public’s heightened cultural consciousness (you know which ones) others are breaking ground in the innovative and explorative display of contemporary fashion and are filling the gaps left by museums. To find how, I spoke to two London-based curators leading the way in innovative fashion exhibition making – Jeff Horsley, curator at Live Archives, and Alistair O’Neill, part-CSM Fashion History & Theory course leader, part-Somerset House fashion curator – as well as MA Fashion graduate Charles Jeffrey, whose designs have been exhibited in two pioneering exhibitions so far this year.

Despite their categorisation, it is worth mentioning dedicated ‘fashion museums’, a number of which can be said to fall somewhere between the state institution and its non-institutional, radical alternatives. Take Antwerp’s ModeMuseum, for instance. For his doctorate at London College of Fashion, Jeff Horsley, a fashion curator and  researcher explored MoMu as a site of innovation in the display of fashion. I asked him, what makes MoMu so progressive? Like most fashion museums, MoMu is a relatively recent addition to the world fashion stage, having opened in 2002. This has undoubtedly had an impact on its approach, says Horsley: “Because they had no history, and because they didn’t have an encyclopaedic collection like the V&A or the Met, they felt they had to do something different to make their mark,” he explains. “They decided they were going to be deliberately experimental in their exhibition programme, and actually it was one of the museum’s policies to act as a laboratory for display – to see if they could push the conventions.”

Horsley’s interest in innovative fashion display is distinctly reflected in his work at Live Archives, a ‘contemporary clothing company, private archive and exhibition space’ in Hackney. He has curated two exhibitions there so far: RED Comme des Garçons: innovation, provocation in March, and recently, Yohji Yamamoto: Showspace, with an exhibition turnaround of roughly twelve weeks indicating plenty more to come. Having trained as a theatre designer, he approaches exhibition making in a uniquely theatrical and spatial way, using curatorial devices that are at the same time both striking and subtle. Light fittings covered with red gel resulted in a penetrating blanket of vermillion cast over the entire Comme des Garçons installation, intended to alert visitors upon entry that exhibitions are invariably highly constructed environments, that “everything within that environment creates meaning.”


from ‘Yohji Yamamoto: SHOWSPACE‘ at Live Archive

Largely unorthodox in exhibition terms was Showspace’s performative use of live models alongside static mannequins. Channelling a contemporary take on a couture salon, the exhibition referenced Yamamoto’s rebellious break from the prêt-à-porter calendar, as well as his notorious dislike of having his designs displayed in museums; where, according to him, “fashion goes to die.” By presenting Yamamoto through a simultaneous exploration of today’s couture industry and alternative approaches to display (where clothing’s connection to the moving body is restored), Showspaceachieved the challenge of exhibiting the phenomenon of contemporary fashion in a refreshingly communicative way.

What’s more, Live Archives offers archive pieces for sale as part of their exhibitions. Whilst the thought of visitors being allowed to try on, purchase and even simply touch display pieces might cause most museum curators to shriek, Horsley is keen to incorporate a commercial element within his exhibitions, not only to offset the expenses of putting on an exhibition but also as he believes that, “to deny [Live Archives’] link to retail and the fashion industry would be absurd; they’re not a museum and they’re not an institution.”

Asked whether his exhibitions are a reaction to blockbusters, Horsley muses that they are rather an exploration of alternatives: “The danger is almost that they set up that that is what a fashion exhibition is.” He continues, “the [blockbusters] focus on a type of fashion, those showstopper pieces that are sent down the runway to grab the attention of journalists. That makes me wonder about the balance of not just how fashion is shown now, but how fashion is collected and recorded. I wonder who’s collecting the stuff like the Yamamoto items we’re showing here, that is still extraordinary work, design, and textile technology, but because they’re not big, showy pieces – you wonder whether they’ll assert their place in the history of fashion.”

For Somerset House’s Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore, Alistair O’Neill furthered this point by displaying Blow’s wardrobe just as the legendary muse left it; rips, moth holes and cigarette burns all intact. In contrast to the somewhat contrived “degree of reconstruction” concealed in the perfectly conserved garments we’re presented in the majority of shows, O’Neill and assistant curator, Shonagh Marshall, felt that, “those traces were fundamental to understanding her approach towards dressing, her approach towards acquiring clothes… It’s a really great, reverent thing to spend impossible amounts of money on clothes, then to wear them that hard, to literally wear them into the ground with no care for their upkeep, but to use them as conveying a kind of spirit… and we wanted to be honourable to that.”


From ‘Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!’ at Somerset House

One area of fashion almost entirely neglected by museums is that by emerging designers. Established forms of exhibiting emerging talent, namely Fashion East’s and the British Fashion Council’s NEWGEN static presentations, doubtless hold commercial potential as an underlying concern. Nevertheless, participating designers are increasingly proving that commerciality places no limits on creative expression and curation in their off-runway showcases (think Molly Goddard’s AW15 art class installation). Yet taking the graduate fashion presentation to a new level, the CSM Lethaby Gallery’s Nude exhibition in April of this year further blurred the lines between industry showcase and culturally communicative exhibition.

Curated by O’Neill, Nude was the college’s first public exhibition of recent MA Fashion graduates’ work, and offered a complementary extension to the course’s esteemed annual LFW offering. “I felt very strongly that it was really important to show people the technical virtuosity and craftsmanship, the quality of finish behind the clothes … [And to display them as] singular, rather than rationalised and appreciated as being part of a collection,” O’Neill tells me. As with all of his exhibitions, the consolidation of garments under fluid themes and varying modes of display facilitated complex layers of interpretation. Along with Fabio Piras [director of MA Fashion] and Fleet Bigwood [head of print], he identified the colour nude – markedly evident within the collections themselves but also loaded in its connotations – as a starting point, folding in notions of fashion design’s relationship to the body and an attempt to move away from mannequin-led display practice.

Each designer’s work was displayed uniquely to other exhibits, with props almost entirely sourced from eBay; serving simultaneously as a commentary on the manmade nature of fashion, and a sort of in-joke referencing a long-disappeared CSM tailoring stand that turned up on the auction site during the planning stages of the exhibition. And where better to get fresh display ideas than from O’Neills 2nd year Fashion History & Theory students, who were given the chance to have their suggestions implemented in the final installation. Designer Charles Jeffrey’s striking red overcoat was suspended against a blank white wall from a simple clothes hanger, just hinting at the presence of a body underneath, while his painted argyle knits were folded haphazardly on a bench, a subtle reminder of the crafting process. Jeffrey and his fellow graduates come from an artistic background, so the chance for people to engage with their designs on an artistic, rather than industry-centric, level which reflected the course’s teaching and the garments’ production was more than welcome.


From ‘Nude’ at the CSM Lethaby Gallery, curated by Alistair O’Neil

Jeffrey is also one of the four CSM MA Fashion graduates to have been featured in Artist:Artisan, the inaugural exhibition staged by London’s first fashion gallery, Maison Mais Non. Each graduate collaborated with a Saville Row tailor, resulting in four hybrid pieces that mixed the two contrasting but quintessentially British institutions, and were shown alongside an example of their own work and that of the tailor. Asked how he felt about having committed to something without a commercial imperative, Jeffrey notes that in a sense, it’s precisely his position as an emerging designer yet to be affirmed within the industry that allows him to “go against the grain.”

In addition to allowing people to see the quality of work much more so than on the runway, Jeffrey adds that exhibitions like Nude and Artist:Artisan present new designers with a unique opportunity for social media exposure: “There were a lot of people taking pictures of the jumpers folded on the bench and posting them on Instagram, and that was interesting because they were seeing a different side to them, where the jumpers maybe became like objects rather than how they’re seen on the model. Susie Bubble posted a picture of that and it got quite a lot of attention. So there was a just as much interaction online [as with the runway].”

Has exhibiting his designs in this way had an impact on how he might choose to present his work in the future, I ask him? “Absolutely” he says, adding that he’d love to have something like a retrospective of his work someday, an opportunity to communicate the individuality associated with his clothing: “It might not be the best cut, or the best fabric but it’s got something else attached to it that only really myself and the people I work with can do. So in that aspect I’m really interested in continuing that kind of work.”

From Artist:Artisan at Maison Mais Non

2015 has emerged as the beginning of an exciting revolution in understanding contemporary fashion’s significance both to art and wider culture, and has at last drawn much deserved curatorial attention to those realms of the industry all too often excluded by the museum. What’s more, museum blockbusters are being proved in the public eye to represent only a tiny portion of the infinite potential approaches to the display of fashion. At this point it’s anyone’s guess as to how and where fashion exhibitions will evolve over the coming months and years, but I’ll bet that we’ll be seeing a whole lot more overlooked fashion coming under the spotlight, and new galleries along with it.

‘Fashioning Spaces’  is a re-working of Dyer’s bachelor’s dissertation from the Central Saint Martins Fashion History and Theory course.