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Celebrating the Little Black Dress

André Leon Talley, photo by Susan B. Landau.

There are certain pieces that unite even the most disparate of wardrobes, and the Little Black Dress is inarguably one of them. Though from its description it would seem obvious what this particular garment should look like, a new exhibition opening on September 28 at the Savannah College of Art and Design begs to differ. Curated by Vogue contributing editor André Leon Talley, Little Black Dress explores the many iterations of this key piece and the role it’s played in modern fashion design.

We caught up with the dynamic Mr. Talley not long before the exhibition opened to discuss building a costume collection, the allure of neoprene and editing our lives.

When did you first begin your relationship with the Savannah College of Art and Design?
In 2000 I visited the campus on the invitation of [president and co founder of SCAD] Mrs. Wallace. I think SCAD is a wonderful institution; it provides a wonderful experience for student and its faculty. From that first visit the relationship has continued to develop, and in 2009 I was given an honorary degree.

Little Black Dress is your second exhibition at the school. How did you decide on the subject?
I wanted to pull something from the costume collection for my next exhibit. It’s really expanded over the last few years, and when I went to the museum to review the collection, I noticed how many LBD’s there were. I thought it would make for a great exhibit.

And you were integral to the growth of the museum’s costume collection, weren’t you?
Yes. I can take a little bit of credit. Many of my friends have donated clothes to SCAD. When I talk about the couture collection they’re developing there, people want to be a part of it.

And who are some of these donors?
One of the most prominent donors is from Patricia Altschul from Charleston, South Carolina. And a major donation was made by the estate of C.Z. Guest, which donated her entire existing wardrobe to the museum.

In addition to pieces from designers like Michael Kors, Balenciaga, Oscar de la Renta and Ralph Lauren, you also included a couple of recent graduates of the school. Why did you include them in particular? 
I saw the work of Alexis Asplundh at the annual fashion show this year and I loved what she was doing. Her entire graduate thesis was created out of neoprene. I thought it was unusual and very well made. The other student, Victoria Wilmoth, her work came to me a bit later when I was shown a photo from the fashion show. Her evening gown embellished with exquisite gilded plumes stood out to me and just really got my attention.

If you were to design a LBD, what would it look like?
I would never design a Little Black Dress. I would never deign to dream that I could do something like that. I would never be so presumptuous!

Fair enough. Tell us then, what is the message behind this show?
The exhibit illustrates that you can interpret the Little Black Dress into whatever you feel. It’s individuality that’s important; it’s not just a shape or silhouette... It can even be navy blue! It’s about personal expression—of the designer or the woman who wears it. There’s no one single definition of the Little Black Dress anymore.

You’ve been involved with museum shows on numerous occasions, what similarities do you find between your editorial work and curating an exhibition?
There are indeed similarities between making a museum show and writing my column at Vogue. Everything in life should be edited: your friends, your food, your day, your activities. It’s all about assessments in life. Every experience should be about editing. It’s an operative word about life. You have to make choices that express who you are.

All fashion photos by Adam Kuehl, courtesy of SCAD.

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