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Culture Watch
"The Impossible Collection of Dresses" by Valerie Steele for Assouline.

Valerie Steele, Director and Chief Curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, has curated more than 20 exhibitions in the past 10 years, and this fall sees the release of two very different curating projects for the sought-after Ms. Steele. A new book from Assouline, “The Impossible Collection of Fashion,” narrows down the 100 most iconic dresses of the 20th Century will be available in October, and on September 16th, “Daphne Guinness” opens at Steele’s own FIT Museum, which is a survey of the style icon’s incredible wardrobe.

In the weeks leading up to her new show, we snagged a few minutes with Ms. Steele to talk fashion from Madame Gres to Madame Guinness.

By Tali Jaffe

Having completed a book about the most iconic looks of the 20th Century, who would top your list if we asked you to add a few pieces from the 21st Century?
Oh, the 21st century… I think Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen has been outstanding. I’m not exactly sure which specific dress I’d choose… but she’s been doing some really spectacular things.

Do you think Middleton’s dress would make the cut?
Well, I think if it made the cut it would be less for a high fashion point of view and more for a historic point of view.  But then I think that’s true w some of the others we included, like Audrey Hepburn’s Givenchy little black shift—which is sort of a historic icon.

What was one of the challenges you had in putting together this collection of 100 dresses?
Finding images! For instance, I said the Balenciaga dress inspired by the Velasquez painting is very important to the history of fashion, but Martine [Assouline] argued against it because there wasn’t a very good picture of the dress alone. This became an issue because we wanted to have images of dresses in situ as they are now.

It made me realize how important it is for collectors—private and museum collectors—to get their archives out. Publish in a book or put it online because it was terrifically hard to find some of these dresses to even know where they are. Many are in private collections.

Which collections did you include pieces from?
Hamish Bowles, for example, has the most diving private collection. We did get one of his pieces in, a Madame Gres dress that is so beautiful.

You mentioned that you wanted to include images of dresses in situ only. Why was that important?
When I took a look at the last “Impossible Collection” book about art, it really showed the object. I thought it was important to show a real living example of the dress, because when it’s a picture of the dress by a famous photographer, it’s as much their own interpretation of the dress as our own. So I thought it was important for the reader to get as close to the original as possible.

What were some of the other criteria?
We asked ourselves a lot of questions: Was it outstanding? Was it important to the history of fashion? Was it a magnificent example of its kind? Was it in perfect condition? We imposed some of the same criteria we use when acquiring things for our own collection, or that Harold [Koda] does for the Met or Pamela [Golbin] for the Musee de la Mode. We consider so many issues of aesthetic and historical significance.

Was there a specific piece that came to mind when you first began thinking of the book?
I thought it had to be dresses from the start, and I immediately thought we have to have something from The New Look and a Chanel little black dress.

And are you working on the Impossible Collection of Shoes as we speak?
[Laughs] I have a few projects going on first… I have the Daphne Guinness show opening in a few weeks.  And I’m working like mad on that.

Tell us about that exhibition. Has that been a work in progress?
Oh yes, I’ve wanted to do this for some time. We’ve actually been working on it for the past two years. The first time I met her, I immediately wanted to do a show with her. But Daphne is such a lovely and humble person that she demurred.

Some time later I was showing her around a show at FIT and she asked what it would take to make a show happen, and I said well, there are 80 dresses in this show, you have 80 dresses, don’t you, I teased. She kind of giggled and said yes, and we agreed that we had a good beginning for a show.

For Daphne it’s all about the art of fashion. She has so much respect for the craftsman and the artisans. She loves to talk about the patternmakers, embroiderers and seamstresses. She wanted to do this to give all of the people who love fashion as an art form—and particularly the students at FIT—the chance to see these pieces up close.

How is the show organized?
It’s going to be the most beautiful show we’ve ever done. There are about 100 looks, as well as an introductory gallery that includes some of her insane shoes. The big gallery is inspired by the look of her apartment, which is sort of a hall of mirrors. It’s going to be divided into six sections, and each is dedicated to an aspect of Daphne’s personal style. For example, she adores tailored clothes and menswear inspired things. In fact she once said that in her next life she’s going to come back as a tailor. So in that section, there are beautiful things from Alaia, Lagerfeld, McQueen and Balenciaga. Another section is inspired by her love of armor, which includes pieces by Gareth Pugh, McQueen and others that focus on silvery and armor. Another section features feathers and beads, because you know Valentino used to joke that you could find Daphne in London by following the trail of feathers.

Daphne lent quite a few pieces to “Savage Beauty,” are any of those pieces including in your show?
There will be 25 McQueens in our show, but none that were seen at the Met.

Was there anything Daphne did not want to part with?
Oh yes, we stripped her of the best of her closet! But being as generous as she is, she made sure we got what we wanted—even if it meant she had to go out to buy something new to replace it. [Laughs.]

Is there a particular standout piece in the show?
Well, one of the pieces we’re featuring is her very first McQueen. When she wore it in London, McQueen came up and greeted her, so that’s very personal.

The entire collection is so beautiful. She’s really a true fashion icon.

“Daphne Guinness” runs from September 16 through January 7 at the Museum at the
Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

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