MoMA’s Paola Antonelli Talks About Upcoming Exhibition, Items: Is Fashion Modern?
“I’m not hoping to tell people that this is well designed and this is not well designed, but that this is design to change your life,” says Paola Antonelli, MoMA’s Senior Curator of design. And I don’t doubt her. After all, this is a woman who was recently named one of the 100 most powerful people in the art world in both Art Review and Surface, summing up a career that has made her one of the leading forces in the world of design and architecture, her influence stretching beyond curation to the field as a whole. Or, put in other terms: when it comes to design, Paola Antonelli knows her stuff.
I join Paola on a rainy afternoon in London, where she has journeyed across the pond to speak at London Fashion Week Festival, about MoMA’s upcoming October exhibition, ‘Items: Is Fashion Modern?’.The exhibition will be the first time that MoMA have exhibited a show of fashion since Bernard Rudofsky’s seminal exhibition in 1944, this time addressing our understanding of clothing in a contemporary context through an examination of over hundred objects deemed by her to have had a profound impact, not only on fashion, but on culture as a whole. From Havaianas to Levi’s 501 jeans and Prada’s nylon backpack, the collection presents a cross-section of the familiar and the exclusive, the sacred and profane.
FINN BLYTHE: Rudofsky’s 1944 exhibition questioned the strictly functional nature of clothing. Is this still valid today? Or have we escaped that?
PAOLA ANTONELLI: I think that the latter is true. I think that we’ve reached a point where pretty much everything goes according to one’s own choice. I was reading a quote from Andre Leon Talley, he was saying that at some point in the future high heels will go the way of cigarettes. And it was so interesting because I don’t think that there is any woman that will tell you after deep self-analysis that if she could wear semi-high or low heels and feel as sexy… she wouldn’t do it. You know what I’m saying? High heels are just not comfortable. So I feel like today one can choose to wear high heels and feel uncomfortable and take pleasure in that discomfort, but at least there’s the awareness that there’s also the possibility of wearing flats and feeling equal [sexy]. So I think that this is really a very special moment, it’s been like that for a few years but, it’s a new reality of our world that you can pretty much express yourself without having to conform too much to ideas.
FB: Rudofsky urged ‘directions toward intelligent change’ in fashion in his 1944 exhibition. Aren’t we constantly striving toward intelligent change in fashion? Or was this directly related with the ending of WWII?
PA: You’re probably right. The World War, every war of the past, was always the introduction to a new period that usually had improvements in technology. Even just because all the materials and the technologies that were kept close to the heart of the government during the war were released into the public. So I feel that you are completely right when you say that those were [influential] moments, I think that it can be cyclical but something is here to stay. I might be completely idealistic and deluding myself, but I feel that we have conquered something that will not go away, and I don’t think that anybody will be able to tell us that, for people to be fashionable and acceptable, they will have to dress the way Rudovsky was criticising. If anything, we have moved onto another set of issues that have more to do with ethical stances and identity. The same ‘drunkenness’ that Rudovsky was criticising in the fashion of that time sometimes I see in the excessive formal freedoms of today. It’s very similar to the moment where you have the first desktop publishing computers in the 1980s, or web design, where you really want to try it all now that you have that freedom you want to try it…sometimes you see some real horrors, so maybe we’ll get from the drunkenness of the possibilities to a little more sobriety. But I think it’s going to be more about taste than real necessities, I don’t know what you think but it’s something I’m thinking about for the first time with you.
FB: Do you feel the communication between people and objects, a development you cite as only beginning during the latter half of the 20th century, is evident on the runways and high fashion collections of today?
PA: Very good question. I definitely see it in the young runways. You know I could think of the work of somebody like Richard Malone, I went to visit him today, and his work always spoke to me because you can tell that there’s a depth to it that comes from his own experience, or Kerby Jean-Raymond at Pyer Moss not to mention Shayne Oliver, Hood By Air, and I could go on. There are many designers that awe themselves for good and for bad in what they do, so I see it in younger designers. I think that at some point, I don’t know how scalable it is, but I think that when you get to a big house and you’re expected to sell a very large number, I think you need to standardise at least a little bit. For instance, there are people who are able to standardise but not lose it, and I’m thinking of designers like Margiela, like Lang, like the Japanese. Maybe what it is, is these garments have such personalities that the only thing you can do is to establish a dialogue, they live on their own, you know what I’m saying, they are entities that bring something to your life and that you need to contend with.
FB: Do you feel that identity is consciously manufactured by a designer, or is it something that’s culturally mediated and arises spontaneously from consumers?
PA: It really depends on the designer. I think for some designers it’s absolutely conscious and for others it’s not. I was thinking of the grandmother sari for instance, it’s completely the grandmother and the daughter, the designer just thought of doing a beautiful sari, but then it’s invested with everything by the humanity of the wearer and the act of passing it on. I think that in most cases it’s the person that buys the garments. But once again I would make a big differentiation between mass fashion and instead those smaller boutiques that I crave, I really crave. One of the biggest problems is that in New York you cannot window shop anymore, not even in Milan. Because of real estate issues, you know fashion is a complex system, so in cities like New York where the real estate is done in such a way that only big brands can afford main drags, and then there’s pockets of desert, you don’t have that anymore. Interestingly, some of the few places that you can still do the window shopping walk is in some parts of London, but then interestingly it’s Sydney and Melbourne, and that’s because some of the big brands don’t seek too much of an opportunity there and so younger designers are able to afford the rent of spaces that are all in the same area. That’s what I’m saying, it’s really a complex system and sometimes in order to be able to make the rent you need to be able to sell to an idealised or standardised type of person.
FB: The exhibition will showcase a diverse array of apparel, from clothing to footwear and accessories. What is it that connects these objects and gives them the impact on history and society that they’ve had?
PA: On the one hand, it could be universality but not necessarily so. It’s a universality of stimulation, which means that some objects are universal because they ARE the white t-shirt, you almost don’t see them, they’re so good and so important that you almost don’t see them. Some others are so arresting, they changed maybe not consumers directly, but at least they changed the designers that then changed us. In the exhibition you have the white t-shirt, the Havaianas, but then you have “Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body” by Rei Kawakubo, that’s why you have the Tabi Boots by Margiela. Those are moments that might be rarefied up there in the Olympus of high fashion, but in reality, we all suffer and I say it in a nice way, we all feel the consequences. So influence is sometimes very wide with a very low frequency and wave length, other times it’s the opposite and maybe touches one person but that person touches everyone else. So influence is what groups them all together, and influence is what I would like people to be able recognise when they leave the exhibition. I’m not hoping to tell people this is well designed this is not well designed, but this is design to change your life.
FB: You reference the Industrial Revolution as responsible for changing what was a strictly functional relationship between clothing and consumers. Which technological innovations of today do you think have the potential to radically change that relationship again, and how do you anticipate they will?
PA: Well, of course, the digital one. Digital is big because it percolates down to many other technologies, but just the idea that you can make a smaller series of objects for the same price. The industrial process meant that you had to create a mould to make a plastic chair and the mould would cost $50,000, and then you had to make enough chairs, exactly the same chair, maybe different colours, but no more than that, to recoup investment. With digital and material innovations, all of a sudden you can make 150 for each series, for each batch, without having to stop the machine. So that’s a big deal because it means you can have more variation. I think that 3-D printing is something that applies more to object design, but for fashion there are similar methodologies that are based on digital, whether it’s digital distribution or digital manufacture… So it’s really changing a lot because it makes ad hoc solutions more applicable. Hopefully it will bring a lot of savings, ethical and economical savings, so that could be the great revolution technologically. And then there are revolutions of psychologies and morals that I think are also extremely important. I think that the fact that so many people cannot accept waste, and there will be more and more, I think is going to have tremendous implications. So sometimes it will push us backward, like the idea of having objects that last for a longer time.
FB: Lastly, how has the experience of curating a show about fashion differed from your usual design focused exhibitions?
PA: Oh, my God yes. It’s a completely different animal. The research is similar in the sense that every time I do research, like the one for ‘Design and the Elastic Mind’ it’s with all scientists, so it’s a new world but the practical things are amazing. I have a wonderful team and a team in which my most direct collaborator is also an architecture and design historian, but then we hired a number of fashion experts, and in particular, the last addition to the team is really a hardcore fashion curator. The beautiful thing is that we went on a learning tour, we have wonderful colleagues, so between the MET, The Jewish Museum, who have a lot of fashion shows, the V&A, FIT, we just went and asked ‘how do you do a fashion show?’ So we had to learn what it all means, there’s somebody who’s the dresser, somebody who makes the mannequins, and then you need to fumigate everything, you also need to have the dresser do her thing and then proprietors take it but it has to sit there…it’s a completely different situation. That’s why I also hired an architect because I usually don’t work with anybody that is not in-house and we have architects in-house, but we decided to hire this person, Randall Peacock, that works with fashion designers and works also with artists, because also the way you display a garment is different right? The lighting and everything is different…It’s fantastic, I’m learning so much.
Items: Is Fashion Modern? will be on at MoMA from October 1st 2017 – January 28th 2018
Photograph by Eeva Rinne at the London Fashion Week Festival