Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Show Time

BY JESSICA HEMMINGS

March 6 – July 30, 2006
Musee Galliera, Paris

Fashion is undeniably, even unashamedly, commercial. But how fashion gets itself sold is rarely something we scrutinize too deeply. Rather than set out to catalogue a genre or era of fashion, this exhibition takes as its focus the spectacle of the catwalk and its role in the sale of fashion. Here the catwalk is presented as the crucial stage upon which new fashions first meet the public eye, a theatrical space that thrives on and feeds impossibilities. Rejected is any suggestion that fashion is the innocent result of good taste (as if anyone ever dared to think that) or even the good luck of natural beauty. In its place, this exhibition presents the image of fashion as a complicated industry made up of countless ‘invisible’ individuals who all contribute to the spectacle through which we first consume fashion.

Fashion may be a constantly changing arbiter of taste but its seductive powers are far from new. Early in Show Time a hand written plan for a Dior show dated the 28 June, 1948 is displayed beside a far more abstract, but no less considered document charting viewers and models placement for Viktor and Rolf 24/09/1999. While we have come to accept – even expect – the catwalk’s style as extreme and experimental we now learn the remarkable extent to which the whole industry is choreographed in advance. From prized invitations old and new for the biggest events of each season to the videos of various collections strutting their stuff on the catwalk, each document on display reveals itself to be a carefully policed projection of a desired image.

The sheer quantity of individuals behind the spectacle of the catwalk is also on display: photographers (of course), but also security guards, video technicians, makeup artists, electricians, casting directors, journalists, artistic directors, security guards, chiefs . . . Equally alarming is the volume other ‘stuff’ needed. In what feels a little like a bizarre homage to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s 2001 Dale Chihuly exhibition, a glass ceiling filled with the detritus of fashion reminds us that it isn’t just the extra people, it is also the extra equipment – make up, electric extension cables, camera lenses – that makes fashion a reality. Inevitably, the gossip of the industry (to a certain extent what makes fashion real to the public) has also slipped into this exhibition. A poster organizing the models for Dior Spring 2006 includes one hurriedly ripped away image in a bank of beautiful faces that we can safely assume to be the result of a supermodel’s quickly terminated contract. Those deemed responsible for breaking the spell of the spectacle are obviously not something the fashion industry takes lightly.

Shuttling between examples that are drawn from the present and the past, curator Anne Zazzo suggests that the careful planning and development of atmosphere we have come to accept of today’s shows is certainly not new, or in some ways any less of an undertaking than it has been in the past. A clever display of revolving panels of photographs allows viewers to create their own connections and contrasts from images of fashion shows spanning the past century. The now remarkably sedate viewings of couture collections held in private rooms to small select audiences sit shoulder to shoulder with images such as the Japanese label Cosmic Wonder’s ethereal 2004 show of models sitting in invisible prisms at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. Wine cellars, tabletops and metro stations also go down in the fashion history books as edgy, if uncomfortable, venues for the more experimental shows, but the thread that connects them all is the careful cultivation of spectacle.

Rather than hold the viewer at arm’s distance from a world they are not beautiful or rich enough to enter, this exhibition suggests that the viewer is very much also the participant in this theatre. When you enter the gallery’s grounds you are first greeted with rows of empty chairs that hang slightly suspended from the walls of the museum’s courtyard. Floating above the ground they seem to suggest not simply the arrival of an audience for the event (these are not chairs that you can sit down in), but your arrival (walking past the virtual audience) as participant. This theme remerges in the floor of the first exhibition room which is covered with a copy of a seating plan and runway that offers the exhibition goer a rudimentary map of the event they are about to take part in.

Elsewhere hand scribbled directions to models remind us to project the specified mood of the show and are displayed alongside make-up artists’ sketches. This is followed by videos of various recent exhibitions that play in the penultimate room, cleverly projected in such a way as to force the exhibition goer to enter the video image, even if only fleetingly, in order to cross the room. A giant scaffold has been erected to allow a bird’s eye view of this final exhibition room, requiring the viewer to experience the precarious sensation of standing high above the rest of the audience. Finally, red painted cloven footsteps on the floor direct attention up the centre of this final room and, if followed with some degree of dedication and considerable concentration, create that hip swinging sashay synonymous with the catwalk. The footsteps eventually lead to a giant wall of photographers captured in their own medium, all male, staring like hungry Cyclops at their subject: you.

This exhibition joins an increasing number of recent exhibitions that challenge not only the content but also the parameters and expectations of exhibition design within fashion. Uncovering the performance of fashion makes for fascinating viewing and in many ways challenges the assumption that fashion is superficial. Fashion is far from superficial. It is just very clever at concealing the countless individuals that orchestrate its image.

Selvedge Magazine (2006: 89)