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January 25, 2016

#TheHybridLife: Fashionfication of Museums

Text by Geeta Rao

Galleries and museums are increasingly becoming commentators and presenters of luxury and fashion. As haute offerings turn into ‘works of art’, are the new collaborations signalling a democratisation of couture?

At the Hermès Horse exhibition which ran for a month in Mumbai a few weeks ago, artifacts from the brand’s art and creative collection showcased its heritage and equestrian credentials. Hermès is one of the last few privately owned luxury houses and epitomises luxury in every sense as defined by the French. The travelling exhibition had all the gravitas of a museum show or gallery vernissage. It had a showing in Shanghai prior to Mumbai much like an art exhibition. To see the entire collection one could also go to the in-house museum above the Hermès flagship store at Rue Fabourg Saint-Honoré in Paris.

True luxury, as defined by the French, who decided to own the term and make French luxury a global brand in the 1950s, is a mix of heritage, craftsmanship, region, legacy, backstory and exclusivity. This mix justifies the high price luxury commands, but true luxury is never about price alone. It must command a certain reverence.

To retain this aura, on the one hand, legacy brands are archiving and buying back their own designs to create memorable museums that will be open to the public. On the other hand, museums themselves are becoming commentators and presenters of fashion and luxury.

I remember passing a Balenciaga exhibition at the Louvre precinct in Paris about eight years ago. Like most people I had never thought of fashion in a museum space until then, but as belonging on the ramp. Art and history were meant for museums. Well, this exhibition was at the Museum of Decorative Arts and it wasn’t just a historical tribute to Cristóbal Balenciaga — it also had the just released contemporary collection of Nicolas Ghesquière, then its new creative director.

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, which opened at New York’s Metropolitan Museum in 2011, was a stunning tribute to the work of the late British designer Alexander McQueen. It travelled to London and closed recently at the V&A, as their most viewed exhibition of all time with over four lakh footfalls. The cost of such exhibitions is not cheap, but as we know luxury is all about presentation. The V&A has just opened its much awaited The Fabric of India exhibition due to run until January 2016. It celebrates Indian textiles and our rich legacy from the third century BC until the 21st century. I can only hope it comes to India as part of its travels.

Trend analyst Sandrine McClure in an article titled The Museumification of French luxury? points out that knowledgeable French buyers are actually being sidelined from participating in the post 2008 luxury boom as rich tourists take over Paris in summer while the digital world is flattening notions of luxury. To see fashion and heritage, suggests McClure, you may now have to head to brand museums like the Frank Gehry-designed Louis Vuitton museum in Neuilly instead of the store at Avenue Montaigne. Or, as I mentioned, Rue Fabourg for the Hermès collection. I am not sure how much this applies to all luxury categories but the ‘museumification of fashion’ is certainly working. Or should I say more accurately, the ‘fashionfication of museums’?

I was in New York when Punk: Chaos to Couture at the Metropolitan Museum opened in 2013. It was a chance to see Vivienne Westwood, Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols share space with creators of couture — Marc Jacobs, Versace, Martin Margiela, Rodarte and Christopher Kane. It seems ironic to speak of punk and couture in the same breath, but it is a comment on how couture co-opted the codes of what was once counterculture. Riding the punk wave, luxury watchmaker Audemars Piguet released its Diamond Punk watch which flaunts 7,848 snow-set diamonds. It won an Haute Horlogerie award recently and has been a success story for the brand. I am not sure what the Sex Pistols would have to say about that!

I was back for China: Through the Looking Glass at New York’s Metropolitan Museum this year. It became the museum’s fifth-most visited exhibition with over eight lakh footfalls. These figures are the delight of sponsors and we are not even talking of the associated PR hype. Spread across 16 galleries you could spot Chanel, Dior, Bulgari, YSL, Valentino and Vivienne Tam, along with fifth-century bodhisattvas and Tang and Ming porcelain, fine silks and contemporary art and calligraphy. The queues were long, longer than the queues to see Van Gogh’s Irises on display together for the first time at the same museum.

Does this signal a democratisation of couture and luxury? Or does it mean that they are so out of our reach that we have to view them as works of art to be studied in museums? Is elevating fashion to the museum or gallery setting bringing an element of intellectual snobbishness to brand offerings? In all fairness, these collaborations help museums become more vibrant spaces too, attracting youngsters who would otherwise have dismissed a trip to the museum as ‘boring’.

I hope we see more of this in India. Designer and revivalist Ritu Kumar, haute jewellery designer Nirav Modi and fashion’s favourite Sabyasachi occupy an entire block in Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda art precinct. Both Modi’s and Sabyasachi’s showrooms are beautiful destinations in themselves, featured for their design and interiors as much for their work. Nirav Modi is one of the few contemporary jewellery designers to have his Golconda necklace auctioned at Christie’s. Come wedding season, and cars will be parked five lanes deep outside their stores, causing traffic jams and chaos. Most of them will belong to expatriates and visiting NRIs. Locals like me will curse the lack of parking space and shrug. And hope they will collaborate with museums so we can see their work.

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