As the director and chief curator of the museum at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), Valerie Steele, Ph.D., may have the most intriguing job in the fashion world. She’s a fashion scholar who makes her living studying what we wear and how we wear it. Her insights about fashion serve as the foundation for a series of major exhibitions at FIT annually. When she’s not curating exhibitions, she’s writing about fashion. Her latest book from Assouline is about the house
An Interview With Valerie Steele by Susan Weissman
issu e th r e e 2012 | F O U R s e a so n s m aga z in e
Portrait photography by Aaron Cobbett of Akris, a study of designer Albert Kriemler and the Swiss legacy behind the brand. With nearly a dozen books to her name, she’s also written about style icons Daphne Guinness and Isabel Toledo and explored cultural influences on fashion ranging from Victorian England to China and Japan. • Four Seasons Magazine editor Susan Weissman sat down with Steele to discuss her work and how fashion is being shaped by globalisation. >>>
Professor in stile t tos
Where did your interest in fashion come from?
I had just started graduate school at Yale to get a doctorate in modern European cultural and intellectual history and we were assigned to read two articles from a scholarly journal. My classmate reported on two articles in Signs, which is a journal of feminist studies, and they were both on the Victorian corset— one was saying that it was oppressive to women and the other was saying that it was liberating. A light bulb went on and I realised, “Oh, fashion is part of culture. I could write about fashion history.” And that basically changed my whole life. Can you tell us about your work with FIT?
I started here in 1997 as chief curator and later became director of FIT’s museum. We are a specialised fashion museum on the campus of the Fashion Institute of Technology. We’ve got a permanent collection of more than 50,000 garments and accessories from the 18th century to the present. We provide a kind of context for 200 to 250 years of fashion history so that the public and the students can see 18th- and 19th-century dress, as well as the things we have in the special exhibits. Culturally, is it diverse or primarily Western-focused?
I did a show in the late ’90s called “China Chic: East Meets West,” and two years ago, I did a big show called “Japan Fashion Now.” We’ve done shows in the fashion history gallery on exoticism, where we looked at world fashions and had designers from Africa, Latin America and so on. And, in fashion history, we have an odd one right now on “Fashion Designers A–Z,” which is looking at influential 20th- and 21st-century designers who are represented in our collection. It covers everyone from Azzedine Alaïa to Zoran, Balenciaga, Chanel, Dior. You’re a prolific writer. How have your research interests evolved over the years?
Well, there are a couple of continual themes. Fashion and Eroticism kicked off a theme dealing with body, sexuality and gender. And that continued with books like Fetish and Corset and Gothic, and now we’ll have Queer Style. There has also been a theme of looking at fashion in different parts of the world. My second book was Paris Fashion, then China Chic and Japan Fashion Now. And the third theme has been looking at individuals, with this new book about Akris, about Albert Kriemler and his work, also books about Isabel Toledo, about Ralph Rucci. Last year, I did a show and a book about Daphne Guinness. Regarding your most recent book from Assouline about Akris— how did you come to research this family?
I was approached by Assouline to write the book. I had met designer Albert Kriemler and seen his work, and I admired Akris. I went to Switzerland and interviewed Albert and also his brother Peter, who runs the business side of the company, and his mom, who is a very sophisticated, very intelligent woman. I got a picture of a family and of a young man who was really interested in fashion and textiles from a very early age. Another thing that amazed me issu e th r e e 2012 | F O U R s e a so n s m aga z in e
was how much effort Akris puts into research and development of textiles. Albert works very closely with some of the best luxury textiles in the world right there in Switzerland, trying to figure out how can he make textiles that go beyond what textiles normally do. What does fashion tell us about the society we’re a part of?
It is crucial to realise that fashion is part of society and culture. As society changes, fashion changes also—not as a mirror reflection, but as a really integral part of society. Sometimes changes in fashion occur first, not out of some kind of magical crystal ball that designers have, but rather as a way of experimenting with the way things are changing in the world. For example, as women started to become socially, economically and politically more liberated, designers started to create trouser suits and trousers that could be worn not only for sports or lounging around, but for daytime and for work occasions. And that was something that went in tandem with changes in women’s lives. How do, say, art, design and money impact what we wear?
Art, more than fashion, does offer a critical lens to look at society, often specifically commenting on things like identity, body image, etc. Designers are omnivorous. They look at all kinds of things. Albert Kriemler looks constantly at art. He was telling me about how he went to the Morandi Museum in Bologna and was inspired by the paintings. There are still-lifes of vases that are very austere, but they’re incredibly beautiful. And he was inspired by the pale colours in them—the multiple shades of off-white. Or he looks at architecture by Herzog and de Meuron, and the way the architects use the surface of the building as a kind of skin, and he thinks, “Wow, I would love to get the same effect in the textiles that I’m using.” Other designers, of course, are inspired by the club scene, or the scene on the street, or by particular kinds of music. In what ways do you think fashion is inspired or created differently than it was a hundred years ago?
There was a period that lasted for about a hundred years, from the 1850s and 1860s to 1970, that you might think of as the hundred years of the couturier—to include Worth, Poiret and Chanel up through Saint Laurent. But then it really started to break down. It’s as if the empire of fashion split up into a variety of style tribes. And the individual started to dress much less according to her position in society and much more according to her personal interests, so the influence of the designer changed. A designer like Dior or Saint Laurent could propose major changes and be confident that fashionable women all around the world would follow those changes. That doesn’t happen anymore. Designers have their particular following of women who are in tune with their particular aesthetic.
How has the homogenisation of cultures affected the way we dress?
The homogenisation of fashion is a real phenomenon. And it exists both on the highest and the cheapest levels. In cheap terms, you have fast fashion—Zara, H&M in every country of the world, mall fashion. Even at high levels, the fashion shows are still based in
“I was approached by Assouline to write about Akris. I got a picture of a family and of a young man who was interested in fashion and textiles from a very early age. Another thing that amazed me was how much effort Akris puts into research and development of textiles.”
Paris, as sort of the first among equals, but global elites have access to the same kinds of styles everywhere they travel. I was just recently in Eastern Europe. There were Brioni stores, and wealthy Russian and Ukrainian men were wearing the same elite suits that men would wear in Italy or New York. On the other hand, there’s no denying that there are different cultures. People in different cultures favour, for example, different colours, and have a different attitude toward the degree of decoration that they want. Will there be a time when an emerging city like Moscow or Mumbai may start to lead?
There already exist dozens of secondary fashion centres. You have Moscow Fashion Week, Mumbai Fashion Week, St. Petersburg, New Delhi. That’s great as a breeding ground for young designers, and it’s fabulous for the economics of those particular areas. But I doubt that you’ll see a mass exodus of buyers and journalists to India or Russia. What I think we will see is a growing number of designers from China, from India, from Russia, who will first show in their own countries. Some of them, the most successful, will pick up and show in Paris—or Milan, or New York—and will get an international base from there. How does Asia influence the fashion industry?
Asia is at least as complicated and culturally different as all of, say, Western and Eastern Europe put together. Japan has an extremely refined aesthetic and history of more than 1,000 years of rampant neophilia. Japan’s had a huge impact not just as a consumer, but as a source of radically new fashions, particularly from the 1980s on, with designers such as Comme des Garçons. China has a very different culture. It is a culture older than Japan’s, but one that was seriously disrupted by the Cultural Revolution, to the point where there’s a severing of ties with all of the old aspects of Chinese culture. There’s a longing for a connection there. So I think we’re seeing, with the rise of many incredibly wealthy Chinese, that
there is an interest in exploring and learning about and re-appropriating the history of Chinese art and culture. You see it in the ways that Chinese millionaires and billionaires are buying back historical art, as well as investing in contemporary Chinese art.
Getting back to Western icons like Coco Chanel and Christian Dior, they established themselves at a time when affluent people lived very differently. Do you think the lives we lead now, where we’re working and travelling all the time, have impacted fashion?
We’re leading very busy, work-oriented lives. We’re not going to go back to a period when women are going to be changing necessarily at 5 in the afternoon—let alone 11 in the morning, or 2 in the afternoon. We need clothes that will go from work to a cocktail party. And if you’re travelling all the time, how much do you really want to carry? You want clothes that can adapt to different climates, times of day and occasions. A lot of designers are obsessively focused on things like evening wear, or clothes that are fabulous but you can’t put them into a suitcase unless you’re travelling with three Vuitton trunks. With this change in the way we live, what happens to couture?
People want things that are special. Often you can get the most spectacular and, in a crazy way, very practical and modern effects from couture—things that weigh nothing or have amazing detail. It’s like the old story of the finest silk from India. You could pull it through a wedding ring. How perfect is that? I think you saw in a way, at least with the recent Dior collection with Raf Simons, someone looking at all the workmanship that can be done in a Parisian couture atelier, but trying to figure out how it could be adapted for a woman who wants to look and feel modern. Instead of a ball gown, maybe a chic little top over black cigarette pants. Who are your fashion icons?
I think that Daphne Guinness is probably the most interesting and original fashion icon around today. She’s such a fascinating and lovely and cultivated person. It was really a pleasure working on a show and book about her.
Of the younger designers on the scene today, who are you watching?
In the museum, we’ve been collecting clothes by the Rodarte girls. Gareth Pugh I find very intriguing. Out of the Netherlands, Iris van Herpen is somebody I’m watching now. Let’s end with shoes: What is it about them that makes women crazy?
I think shoes are the best way to play with fashion. You don’t have to make a huge commitment of money or transform your identity. With a pair of black jeans and a black T-shirt, you’re completely different if you’re wearing a little pair of Lanvin ballerinas or if you’re wearing incredible, insane Iris van Herpen shoes. The shoes completely change the look. I was just at the Givenchy couture presentation and, as magnificent and as extraordinary as the clothes were, my eyes kept slipping down to the shoes and boots. 4S Susan Weissman is
editor of Four Seasons Magazine.