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The Fashion Flock

Culture Watch
Judith Clark installs “Appearances Can Be Deceiving: The Dresses of Frida Kahlo,” which was the first exhibition of the artist’s garments since their discovery in 2004. PHOTO © MIGUEL TOVAR

Judith Clark, a groundbreaking London-based independent fashion curator, lecturer and writer, brings her incredible eye to Bal Harbour Shops for the launch of an exciting new program, Fashion Project, debuting this week! Read more about Fashion Project here: and read on for an exclusive interview by Valerie Steele, the director and chief curator at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Judith Clark.

Judith Clark: When we first met in London in 1998, I had just opened a small gallery in Notting Hill. You were in from New York, and I was very excited when you contacted me, as I had cited you and your founding of Fashion Theory as proof that very interesting bridges were being built between academia and curatorial practice in relation to dress. I think our very first conversation was about my desire to create a quasi-museum environment within a small space that could more easily accommodate a faster experimental attitude toward exhibitions of dress. Fast-forward to today, reflecting my recent commission to curate and design exhibitions for Bal Harbour Shops—in a space very similar in size to that one—made me think how different our discipline is today.

Valerie Steele: The situation has changed tremendously in the past few years. Today, everyone, every museum, wants to mount fashion exhibitions—even the Imperial War Museum! Yet the majority of fashion exhibitions remains very traditional in their approach: high fashion on fiberglass mannequins behind glass, with very loose themes such as “50 Fabulous Frocks!” What I always loved about your work was the combination of intellectual and visual excitement—new ideas and new design paradigms. Your “Malign Muses” show was a revelation to me, the way you made the mise-en-scène central to the way you conveyed your narrative. That show really influenced my exhibition, “Gothic: Dark Glamour.” We created settings like a ruined castle and a laboratory, a cemetery and a Goth club, to bring out the literary, artistic and subcultural themes behind the term “Gothic.”

JC: I think we have been liberated, as you say, through this change. We went from having to justify our interests to being able to curate shows like “Gothic” and to wonder about common ground among designers over time. We no longer have to create the definitive study of one designer. We instead enjoy looking at history again and again. You are lucky to have such a glorious collection to draw from.

VS: Yes, I find the traditional retrospective of a single designer to be one of the least interesting ways to organize a fashion exhibition. Comparative studies, however, can be very interesting. We just opened the exhibition, “Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the ’70s.” We call it our “Registrar’s Delight” because all of the clothes on display come from our permanent collection.

For the highly experimental “Spectre: When Fashion Turns Back,” at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Clark created a series of installations that included a labyrinth of “looking games.” PHOTO © V&A IMAGES

JC: It can get away from the cult of genius (and the kind of demands that were made a few years ago in the recategorizing of fashion as art) and get on with actually looking at the clothing in a broader context. At the moment, I am very interested in a parallel history of dress and the history of its exhibition—the rise of the thematic show, the dress as sculpture show, the mise-en-scène. The exhibition that I am working on for Bal Harbour Shops is exactly that, it is like a mini-history of curating in six cabinets.

VS: The history of fashion exhibitions is certainly a fascinating topic, which relates, of course, to the idea of fashion as art—since, merely by virtue of being displayed in an art museum, fashion begins to acquire the aura associated with art. I think that fashion is in the process of being reconceptualized as art (in the same way that photography, jazz and film were gradually seen as being art forms and not just aspects of popular culture). Not all fashion will (or should) be regarded as art, but certain looks do seem to have the characteristics—ever-changing and difficult to define—that we associate with art. For example, the work of Alexander McQueen, Madeleine Vionnet and Cristóbal Balenciaga.

JC: Yes, and just as there have been so many recent publications about methodologies surrounding how art is displayed (the curator as an artist, the artist as a curator), I feel we need to find a way to better articulate what we have been doing, that we have traditions that we have been working with and against and that we have debates about a designer’s intention. I want to raise some of these issues through the project at Bal Harbour Shops.

Find out more on Fashion Project here: Fashion Project


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